My grandmother’s yahrzeit (anniversary of her death) is coming up on Monday. She is often in my thoughts, especially when I’m cooking something she taught me how to make, or reading something I think she would enjoy.
In the Jewish tradition, the anniversary of a loved one’s death is marked by lighting a yarhzeit (memorial) candle. It seems a small gesture, especially when I think of the outsize influence my grandmother had in my life and in shaping our family narrative. Many religious and cultural traditions have a practice of ancestor veneration. My personal exploration of the practice has been limited to visiting the graves of relatives, and placing a small stone atop the headstone (though I’m not sure why this is the tradition.)
In the summer of 2013, I was working at JCC affiliated day camp site on central Long Island in NY. Each day, I would commute on the Southern State Parkway from near my aunt’s home in the Five Towns (where I was staying) to Exit 35- Wellwood Avenue. This exit was also the home of the great necropolis of cemeteries located on central Long Island. Each day I would pass them: The Jewish Cemeteries (Wellwood, Beth Moses), the Catholic Cemetery of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Pinelawn Cemetery, Long Island National Cemetery.
My mother’s family, including my Grandma, are all buried in Wellwood Cemetery. Each day, as I drove home, I would say, “I should go visit Grandma.” But I usually wasn’t done with camp before cemetery’s gate closed at 4:30pm. Until one afternoon, when my programming was cancelled, I found myself with an opportunity to make a visit. I walked around the camp site, looking for the prettiest rocks I could find. Since camp was located on a terminal moiraine of the Wisconsonian glacier, I was able to find a number of beautiful, smooth-polished stones that had been carried across the continent by great rivers of ice.
I carefully placed my rocks on the passenger’s seat of my car and drove down the road to Wellwood Cemetery. The staff at the gatehouse helped me by looking up the location of my grandmother’s grave and directing me on a map to the correct intersection. At the grave site, I easily located my grandmother’s tombstone in the family plot. Grandma Fanny is buried next to her husband (my grandfather, who I died before I was born). Next to them, is Aunt Annie (Grandma’s sister), who used to knit and make the most delicious rugelach cookies, and her husband, Uncle Abe. Also there is Grandma Paulie, Annie and Fanny’s mother, who came to America from Europe in the great wave of immigration of the 1880’s. On each headstone, I placed one of my beautiful smooth rocks. But my conversation was for Grandma.
I told her about camp. (She was a big proponent of Jewish summer camp!) And my divorce. And feeling lost. I listened to the sounds of insects buzzing and wind blowing through the trees and faint sound of traffic from highway. I felt the heat radiating from the pavement and the late afternoon sun beating down on my shoulders. And I felt very nearly at peace.
One one level, I know the Grandma I loved is not really under that carved headstone. Her body might be there, hopefully returning to the soil (She always thought my composting worm bin was hilarious. I think she would have appreciated the earthworm I saw crawling on the day of her funeral that I gently placed on the broken earth of her grave.) However, the essence, that thing that made her herself, wasn’t really there. Or anywhere in particular. But I felt it all the same.
Connection to ancestors through a sense of place (a gravesite, a sacred place) is unfamiliar territory for me.
A few months ago, I was reading about an exhibit of 9,000 year-old stone masks carved by the people who lived in the Judean Hills. Archaeologists believe these were used in ceremonies to represent (channel?) the spirit of dead ancestors. The masks are eerie, but also beautiful. Their stark power translates across thousands of years of human experience. Though the people who created these masks certainly predated Jews (and Israelites, or Hebrews) I wonder if there is still a tiny bit of their culture buried within the Jewish tradition I was brought up with. This National Geographic piece includes additional images of the stone masks, along with modern images of West African ceremonial masks for comparison.
Another ancestor story that I heard on the radio this week which got me thinking about my grandma and holy places and ancestors: “Kennewick Man” is the 8500 year old skeleton of a man found in Washington state in 1996. Scientistists found the skeleton morphologically interesting because it different from the facial features of modern Native Americans. There were a series of lawsuits between local tribes (who wanted the skeleton properly buried as an ancestor) and scientists who wanted to continue to study the bones. DNA studies published this week in the Journal Nature indicate that the man is most closely related the Native Americans of the Confederated Tribes of the Colsville Reservation, which is from the Pacific Northwest. (However, it wasn’t clear how this will affect what will happen to the bones.)
Tangents for this post:
Tips for finding a good rock: Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor.