It was what her mother would have wished: a private funeral held graveside.
Madelyn Roth Stern was an influential and greatly admired figure in the literary world of New York City, a writer, editor and heiress to the literary publishing house, Roth & Co., which she headed for thirty years while married to Wall Street financier, Felix Stern, and raising their two children, Isabel and Stephen.
Under normal circumstances, the family would be celebrating Madelyn's seventy-fifth birthday today, for she was born January 4, 1942. Instead, she was the unseen center of attention inside a wood box being returned to the earth from whence the original pine tree flourished only to be felled when grown, to serve for this purpose. Going forward, it would the yahrzeit, or anniversary of her death, that would be observed this time of year in a synagogue with the requisite ten present to recite the mourners kaddish together. Madelyn and her family had arrived at the end of the celebratory gatherings she orchestrated every year to coincide on her birthday. Something memorable - it could be awful, or awfully funny, either way - would take place without fail on each of these occasions and give rise to new anecdotes to add to their mother's repertory of birthday lore that began in her early childhood. For instance, she would often recount at these adult birthday parties the times her father had invited the young children of his famous friends to share her birthday cake and play musical chairs to the accompaniment of their father - Leonard Bernstein or Arthur Rubenstein - on the mid-size Steinway grand piano in the Fifth Avenue livingroom. These celebrity kids, including the ones of famous authors, went on to become notables in the arts and education.
Madelyn died from an undetected brain aneurysm that ruptured on the way to the hospital in the ambulance three days ago. There was no time for any family member to say goodbye; Isabel wasn't alone with that heartbreak. In fact, only by the grace of God was her mother not alone in her final moments, for her trusted business partner, a handsome man fifteen years her junior, was in her office talking with her at the very moment she lost consciousness, and for moments thereafter, too, when she might have heard him calling her name with rising fear while he summoned the ambulance. At her untimely end, it was Henry Stallings who proved closest to her, Felix told Isabel when he called her with the shocking news.
On a lucky note, the Sabbath intervened to give them an extra day for the funeral to take place, which allowed Isabel to arrive in time from Paris. How awful it would have been to miss the funeral as well! But that was unthinkable; Felix would have insisted on holding up the burial and no one would have quarreled with him.
It was a bright but bitter-cold windy day today, as stark and uncompromising as death itself, Isabel thought. Mourners wrapped themselves in heavy coats while the men among them, with red ears, held down their yarmulkes with gloved hands. Isabel counted the number of attendees: twenty. The Stern and Roth families were not a large group, and every year the family circle got smaller as the old folks died and the new generation put off marriage and family. This time of year the selection was always at its lowest number, too, because the grandchildren were off enjoying the winter holidays. This year it was a trip to Hawaii, a gift from their grandmother purchased for them in early December when she was quite unaware of a fatal aneurysm lurking in her brain.
The officiating rabbi from the Park Avenue Synagogue read off of a piece of paper. "Madelyn was certain," he said, "that the continued health and wealth of her family would continue from the words she wanted to leave you with, her most important legacy, "Love one another as I have loved you." And then he recited something the same or similar in Hebrew, because otherwise it sounded chapter and verse from the New Testament, from the lips of Jesus.
But Isabel nodded her head as he spoke. Yes, that sounded like her mother; she’d told them often enough to love one another, and she had loved the three of them as much as humanly possible. But did anyone know what her real last words were intended to be for her family? Had she written them down somewhere herself? Was it really true she didn't want eulogies? Maybe so, because not even Henry wrote one, and if anyone were to do her mother's life and legacy justice it would be a gifted writer and devoted disciple like Henry. It must have been a formidable temptation for him to surmount, and it seemed unfair. But he wouldn't be boycotting her mother's funeral, would he? Isabel felt alarmed just then. Where is he?
It was 2:00 p.m. and they were all seated underneath a green canvas tarp on chairs that stood a little unevenly on a worn green outdoor carpet that had been laid atop packed snow. The number of metal chairs had been split evenly between the two sides of the coffin, where Isabel sat between her father and brother in a front row. The simple coffin was suspended over the grave on the straps of a lowering mechanism rolled into place.
When the time came to lower the coffin, no one said a word until it reached its resting place and the mechanism was moved away. Then, Felix and Stephen got up. Each man took a shovel to begin the ritual of covering the coffin with the dirt that had been taken from the grave just hours earlier by backhoe.
The cold and wind made the task especially arduous. Stephen took his father back to his seat after a minute, laying their shovels once again on the pile of dirt. The four sons of Felix's two older deceased brothers and two of their wives took turns as well, each one laying the earth on top of the casket gently and reluctantly, as though not wanting to disturb Madelyn, and saddened that it had come to this, but having no choice in the matter because they loved her and there was no other sign or gesture of love and respect they could show her now.
When all were once again seated, a man appearing taller than the rest, warmly dressed all in black in heavy winter boots and parka, a tight-fitting knit wool hat and matching scarf, and leather gloves, got up. All Isabel could make out on his face was a white beard and mustache. She might have mistaken him for an employee of the Jewish funeral home. But it was at that moment that Stephen leaned over and whispered to her, “That’s Henry.” Isabel’s eyes went wide. Henry? With white hair? She knew him last with a thick head of curly brown hair that had once been blond. She hadn't seen him in over ten years, whereas she'd never before seen him with facial hair. The transformation depressed her and she cringed, self-absorbed, imagining how she must look like her mother to him, in his younger days.
Henry had joined Madelyn as a partner in the firm over thirty years ago, not long after she inherited the business from her father, and he became a best-selling author for her. Together, the two of them grew the firm to become a premier independent, publishing house with a literary imprint and impressive roster of award-winning authors, including Henry himself.
Isabel now watched his impressive performance with the shovel, making short work of filling the grave with the cold dirt. God, he's strong! How had he said his good-bye, she wondered, and had her mother been able to hear him? What were her mother's last words to him before she fell unconscious? Isabel ached to know everything. All she could make out now was a man cut from a different cloth than the others present. When he went to sit down, he met Isabel's eyes with a steady look of recognition that caused her to blush. Oy vey!
No sooner was Henry back in his seat, than the rabbi passed out laminated cards with the Hebrew Kaddish prayer and everyone got on their feet. The rabbi reminded them that, although it was the traditional prayer spoken at Jewish funerals and anniversaries of the death of a relative, it was actually a hymn of praise to God. At times of loss, Jews reaffirmed their faith in the greatness of God. "That’s when it's needed the most," Isabel commented to herself. But she'd also read other interpretations of the Kaddish, one that maintained it was a prayer asking God to show his mercy and greatness, which were not in evidence at such times. "Isn't that the truth," she commented to herself further.
Looking very French, but cold nonetheless in her full-length sable coat with matching hat and muff and fur-lined boots, Isabel shivered. It was too soon to cry even if the cold wind would have allowed. Hardly forty-eight hours had passed since she’d received the unexpected call from her father. She’d caught the next flight out of Paris, where she had been living for over three years, to JFK, where the family's driver collected her that morning in the Air France arrivals bay. Felix and Stephen were in the back seat in the black Lincoln Town Car. They went straight to the Scarsdale cemetery from there, arriving a few minutes after the hearse from the funeral home.
Now the hearse, which had been parked during the service on the newly-plowed path of the cemetery, was gone. Most of the funeral attendees sat in their cars, warming up the engines and themselves, waiting for the Town Car to leave first. Isabel looked around and saw Henry exchanging a few words with Stephen, who was nodding his head. Then, to her surprise, these two strong men came together in a tight embrace that lasted several moments. Isabel took her handkerchief out of her muff, certain she might cry at this touching sight, but wiped her nose instead, which had begun to drip in the cold. In her mind, she could hear her mother saying to them, "That's right, love one another."
Meanwhile, Isabel waited for her turn with Henry while standing a short distance away in the direction of an empty gray Audi A6 with its engine running.
As he approached, he had his head down, watching his step on the slippery path, but she knew he’d seen her.
He greeted her in French. “Toute mes condoleances, Isabel." His voice had grown deeper with age, his blue eyes were less dark than she remembered, and his lips - as they kissed her on each cheek - were cold in the wind.
"It's wonderful to see you again Henry," she told him, disregarding her second language and his. Words were hard to find in any language on such a solemn occasion and she was still an American, after all. "I'm sorry I didn't recognize you when I arrived...it's been a long time, ten years, at least," she excused herself. He'd never worn facial hair that she knew, and the hair on his head had once been blond. Perhaps he was balding now; she couldn't tell with that hat on. But these things seemed especially superficial now in light of her mother's death. She told him, "Thank you for honoring my mother with such help to us today at the grave." No doubt Stephen had just finished thanking him as well. "We're all grateful. It's a great mitzvah."
He surprised her then, speaking in French once more. "Tu me coupes le souffle, Isabel. Comme ta mère.”
His workingman garb couldn't forestall his urbane charm, apparently. Yet here they were, Isabel hardly yet recognizing her mother was gone, forever, and the two of them were flirting over her grave! Stranger things had happened to her, but it was unsettling nonetheless, and she made a feeble attempt to stop. "Oh Henry, enough already!" But this seemed to make him sad, and that was the last thing she wanted to do. She felt little sorrow of her own, only a swelling of concern for the loss Henry must be suffering. Turning her face away from him to scan the acres of endless gravestones instead, she said, "We could have found a more pleasant place to meet, at least.” It was something her mother might have said while feigning disapproval and she expected he would laugh.
“If only we could have," he said instead. It came out sounding odd and ambiguous to Isabel, but she let it go. It's fruitless to assign meaning to anything anyone says under the duress of grief.
The guests were leaving the cemetery now, headed back to the City. Isabel touched the sleeve of Henry's heavy jacket. “You’re joining us back at the apartment, aren’t you? My father has arranged a small condolence meal. Nothing you have to dress up for,” she teased.
“Yes, of course," he told her. "I'll follow you."
She waited in place until he walked to his car and she heard the car unlock to see if he would turn around. When he did, she waved, and so did he.
Maurice brought the car around for her with the sound of tires crunching snow. She slid in the front next to him.
Then the driver and his passengers rode in somber silence, all of them now doubt like Isabel - heavy yet empty - staring out the windows. The closer they got to Central Park the brighter everything became, however, as the majestic snow-painted trees reflected the late afternoon sun and formed a sparkling white and crystalline paradise. It was impossible not to notice and smile.