I love cemeteries. It’s all your fault. Yes, I am fascinated by the names, history and stones, but, it’s more than that. When I was about 10 – it was the mid ‘70’s – you pulled me out of religious school early and headed to an unveiling. You were driving that horrendous orange Buick that you bought used, in beige, and had painted your favorite color. What you were thinking?! I don’t know. But that’s beside the point.
We stopped at Burger King en route and arrived at the cemetery somewhere in New Jersey, no clue which one. I remember you getting out of the car to meet the family. Me? I was in heaven, in the back of the car with my hamburger – a Whopper, I’m sure! – and a Nancy Drew mystery. That’s all that mattered in the moment – quiet, food and a good book. Looking back, I realize something else. I was with you, and just you. It was sacred time.
Today, when I enter a cemetery, I am calm and curious. No, you’re not there, and I am neither eating a hamburger nor reading a good book, but I am curious about the connections to be made. I look at stones and the names and dates. I look for familiarity. I look to the people I am meeting – often they come to life after mention in my office, on a phone call or, these days, on a video call. Whose name will I see?! What interesting people will I meet?
You used to come home from funerals and talk about the family you met – what interesting things they did, or who you had in common. Your face lit up as you talked about the conversations. And sometimes you came home with a networking idea for Jackie or me – is that how you found Jackie her first nanny?
I do that, too – well, I don’t network. But I am ever so curious about the deceased and the people who loved them. I learn so much from their life stories. And when there’s a connection, I expect my face lights up too – I’ve never looked. The most powerful of late was that the deceased was my friend Robyn’s 1st grade teacher at a Jewish day school in Denver! I tell my children these stories, just as you told us yours.
This, of course, is what you did always, not just at funerals and cemeteries. You were, as we say, a connector. You brought people together. I still hear stories from folks you connected! When I connect people in shul and in the world, I understand that wry, satisfied smile on your face when you’d done the same – be it for meaningful synagogue engagement, for friendship, for a job, or for insight. Each time I succeed, I see that smile of yours as I flash my own. And each time I tell a story of you doing this – like my friendship with Robin – when you decided that Penn and The Daily Pennsylvanian were the perfect basis for a friendship – it’s as if you’ve done it again and again.
Last Sunday The Times had a great essay called “The Welcome Return of the Run-In.” The writer’s hypothesis is that folks used to be bothered by running into acquaintances when out and about, but now, because we’ve not seen many people for so long, it’s a gift that provides a surge of energy. The essay made me think of Morris and you. Grandpa loved to run into folks on Fifth Avenue – always Fifth Avenue near the bank, it seemed – folks who knew you and who’d stop him and ask him if he were your father. I feel like I heard that story a million times – you two looked so much alike, and you both knew so many people and it was Manhattan – not an unusual occurrence. Maybe I did hear it countless times.
But maybe also it stands out because of who you and Grandpa were – you loved people and found them interesting. And you loved telling their stories to the rest of us. With your friends, too! You nurtured strong friendships from your teenage years on and lived the power of long standing connections, even as you loved the short encounters.
Guess what? I do that too, I’m still talking to your old friends, or those who, like me, they’ve left behind. And when I do, I tell your grandchildren. More often than not they groan, “Mom!” But I don’t care. I still get a charge of energy when I meet someone new and hear their story – like at a cemetery.
Yes, it’s your fault indeed. But you’re not here for me to tell you.
Written 26 December 2021, his 13th yahrzeit.