Monthly Archives: June 2014

Short fiction – Burying the past

The sun was hot and I was sweating. The velvet chair cover against my bare thighs felt strange, like wet dog. The Rabbi finished herding the guests into a semi-circle behind the chairs, which were reserved for family, and began to speak. The gist of it was that we were all invited to help bury the deceased. I’d been to Jewish funerals before so I knew the drill; we’d file by and toss some dirt onto the coffin. According to this Rabbi, though, it was “…customary to put in three shovelfuls and to turn the shovel upside down for the first one.”

How did you shovel upside down? Did you hold the shovel end and balance a bit of dirt on the handle? I tried to picture that and instead flashed on the first and only time I’d seen Deborah doing drugs. She’d forgotten to lock her bedroom door and I opened it just as she used her very long pinkie nail to scoop up some powder, bring it to her nose, and inhale. I was too young at the time to fully understand what I was seeing, but there was no mistaking what she did next. She put her index finger up to her lips to indicate that I wasn’t to say anything. Then she narrowed her eyes, pointed at me, and slowly drew that same finger across her throat. That I understood. I was only six, but I knew what she was capable of.

That was a lifetime ago. I’m forty now. Deborah had just turned fifty. My parents were quite young when they had her; it was a shot-gun wedding. You would think, with a ten year separation between us, that I had been a mistake, and you would be right. That was never one of the family’s secrets, nor was the fact that Deborah was their favorite. I glanced to my right. My mother had her head on my father’s shoulder; his arm wrapped around her. I couldn’t hear her crying, but I could see my father’s arm moving up and down as her shoulders shook. He sat stoically, staring at the Rabbi, with tears streaming down his face. I flicked a fly off my skirt, unmoved.

Deborah’s drug problems consumed the family. They chipped away at us until there was no family left. Even after she moved out, ostensibly to go to college, she absorbed everyone’s attention. Her absence was as large as her physical presence. In and out of rehab she bounced, ruining lives along the way. During one rehab intermission she lived with my grandmother in Rockaway. When she left, all of Grandma’s jewelry went with her. She stole from everyone and sometimes when she wasn’t in rehab she was in jail.

The Rabbi touched my father on the shoulder and gestured toward the grave. My father stood up and pulled my mother with him, propping her up as they walked the few feet to the mound of dirt next to the hole in the ground. My father let go of my mother long enough to take the shovel, turn the rounded side up, and stick it into the pile of dirt. Now that I saw how it was done I felt foolish. I may even have blushed a bit in my secret shame. My father handed the shovel to my mother and she flinched as if she’d been burned.

“I can’t,” she moaned. “I can’t.” And then, just loud enough for the family in front to hear, she whispered, “I can’t bury my favorite child.”

My throat tightened, as if there were an obstruction that made it impossible for me to take a breath. I stood up, peeled my skirt from my legs, and did what I should have done many years earlier. I walked away.

A writer’s responsibility

Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, once said, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Quoting a Nobel laureate makes me sound terribly erudite, doesn’t it? The truth is, I’d never heard of Czeslaw Milosz until I read Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure. Shteyngart used that quote in his book and it’s been rolling around in my head ever since.

It’s certainly true that we writers often use our families for material, if only because we draw on our experiences, many of which, particularly from our formative years, are inextricably entwined with theirs. If we borrow physical aspects or behavioral characteristics from a family member, the average reader will never know, but the borrow-ee will. Nervous family members may even find resemblances where none were intended.

In my blog, I often write explicitly about my family, making no attempt to hide a subject’s identity. I try not to “out” anyone’s secrets, or get too close to a subject that I think will upset someone, although it happened once. I wrote a post that hurt someone’s feelings and I was chastened, even though it wasn’t intentional and certainly not done with malice. I think if you’re going to claim as Milosz did, that the family is finished, the writer’s intent should be considered before guilt is assessed.

As a writer, I am intrigued by the feeling of power the quote gives me. As a reader, it is the phrase, the family is finished, that tugs at my heart. It sparked this thought: When a family member leaves, the family as you know it is finished. Since my first blog post in January, 2010, I’ve been remarkably restrained when it comes to writing about my estranged sister. A search of my posts confirms that not only have I never mentioned her by name, but this is the first time I’ve used the word estranged. When I read Milosz’ quote, the writer in me got tangled up with the child in me. I always thought that if I wrote about my absent sister I would be blamed for upsetting the family. And the fear of that has always been stronger than my urge to use her as material. But I’m over that.

In the earlier years, my sister was estranged from everyone in the family—except me. In deference to my other sister’s feelings, the absent sister was not spoken of at family gatherings; she was effectively “disappeared.” I was desperately unhappy with that decision, but no one seemed to care. That period was very painful for me, even when I, too, eventually became persona non grata.

My sister’s withdrawal from the family changed all of us. Her absence even had an impact on those who had not yet been born when she left. In her absence, the family reinvented itself. We are smaller, but no longer diminished. It’s been almost eighteen years since I last spoke to her, and I no longer want to. My heart was broken, but it has healed. I’m not interested in a rapprochement.

As a writer, I’m grateful for the material she left me with. Perhaps it’s true that, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” but my original family, the family I knew as a child, was not finished off by this writer.