It was a private funeral held graveside, per her mother’s wishes.
Madelyn Roth Stern was a prominent figure in the literary world of New York City. She’d enjoyed well-deserved recognition and financial success as a publisher during her lifetime. But rather than eulogies, she requested only that the officiating rabbi from the Park Avenue Synagogue relay her wish to her family that they love one another, as she had loved them. "She was certain", the rabbi summarized her words from his notes, "that the continued health and wealth of her family would endure from this, the most important legacy she could leave you."
Isabel nodded her head as the rabbi spoke. Yes, that sounded like her mother; she’d told them often enough to love one another. But it was curious that she wanted to leave the world repeating this same counsel, when it sounded more like an admonition, like maybe her mother knew something they didn’t. After all, childhood fights were a thing of the past, they were all sensible adults now, and a close-knit family by all accounts. True, they weren’t on the same page all the time with their thoughts and opinions, maybe even their world views, but they had never questioned their love for one another.
Isabel looked over at her brother and father sitting beside her, and assured herself that the three of them, Stephen, Felix and herself, were of the same mind: this last wish of her mother’s was an easy enough promise to make and keep.
If anything could have saved her mother from pancreatic cancer, it was too late by the time it was detected. A simple stomach pain had sent her to the doctor only a month ago, when the family was still deciding how and where to spend their winter vacation. No one expected to be spending it in mourning. Isabel expected to be spending it preparing for the year end audit, in her role as CFO for a small Parisian fashion design house.
Her mother had died on New Year’s Day and was being buried three days later, on her seventy-fifth birthday. It was a bright but bitter-cold windy day that saw mourners wrapped in heavy coats, the men among them with red ears, holding down their small skullcaps with gloved hands. Isabel half-wished she was in Hawaii with her children and nieces, enjoying Madelyn's generous Hanukkah gift, but Stephen and her father needed her here, just as they'd been there for her when her husband unexpectedly passed away five years ago. It was a pain renewed in the wake of her mother's death.
The remaining family, close friends, and business associates numbered eighteen, and Stephen made sure there would be at least ten males to make up a minyan. At 2:00 pm, they all sat 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 discouraged the two from taking more than a few minutes. Their heads were only partially covered by yarmulkes, and they were without gloves. Two other male family members took part, as well as two wives, and once they sat down, a tall man who looked to be in his sixties, in a trimmed gray beard and mustache, came forward and took command of the proceedings. Keeping up a slow, steady rhythm, while breathing visibly in the cold air, he shoveled and poured dirt until the coffin was completely covered. Warmly dressed, all in black, in heavy winter boots and parka, a tight-fitting knit wool hat and matching scarf, and leather gloves, Isabel might have mistaken him for an employee of the Jewish funeral home. But Stephen leaned over and whispered to her, “That’s Henry.” Isabel’s eyes went wide in recognition; it had been ten years since she'd last seen Henry Stallings. She knew him last with a thick head of salt-and-peppery hair, and had never seen him at all with facial hair.
Henry had been hired as a young man by her mother over thirty-five years ago when Madelyn inherited the small publishing firm, Roth & Company. Together with Henry, Madelyn had grown the firm to become a premier literary publishing house, with an impressive roster of award-winning authors, including Henry himself.
Isabel tried to catch a good look at Henry’s face above the grave. How was he dealing with her mother’s death? She couldn’t see his eyes for solid clues, but by the set of his jaw, she knew he was a man determined. She watched his impressive performance, wondering how he’d said his final goodbye to her mother because, no doubt, he had..
Henry hadn’t time to sit down before 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.
Despite 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 from Paris, where she had been living for over three years, to JFK, where Stephen collected her that morning at the Air France arrivals bay, with her father and two uncles in the back seat of the Yukon SUV. 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 Yukon 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 the sight, but wiped her nose instead, which had begun to drip in the cold. In her mind, she heard the rabbi’s words again: Love each other, as she loved each of you. Perhaps her mother wasn’t addressing her husband and children alone.
Meanwhile, Isabel waited her turn while standing a short distance away in the direction of an empty gray Audi A6 she suspected was Henry’s.
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 as she remembered, and his lips - as they kissed her on each cheek - were cold in the wind.
"Comme c'est bonne de te voir, Henry." It was good to see him again. She wished she could think of something else to say at that moment, but words were hard to find on a solemn occasion. She wanted to apologize for not recognizing him sooner, but couldn't think of how to do it without reminding him of how he'd aged. In truth, he looked to be in terrific shape; she just hadn't expected the white facial hair. With his head covered in the wool cap, it was impossible to tell if he was bald as well.
He was still charming. Sticking with his second language, he told her,"Tu me coupes le souffle, comme ta mère.”
Isabel blushed. “Oh, Henry…enough already.” Hearing him tell her she took his breath away, like her mother had, was a little amusing, coming from a man bundled up in cold weather attire more commonly seen on a workingman, than the usually urbane and handsome man Henry Stallings was. It was the first little laugh Isabel had had since leaving Paris.
She tried for another one. Looking around at the field of endless gravestones, she quipped, "We could have found a better place to meet.” It was something her mother might have said while feigning disapproval.
Henry smiled, but his demeanor suddenly took on a wistfulness. “Yes, if only we could have..."
Then what? His response left Isabel confused. In fact, the whole business of mourning was confusing. Isabel felt totally untethered, with her thoughts and feelings going unchecked at a time when she wanted to harness them for the grieving process. If Henry was somehow confusing her with her mother, that was excusable, even understandable.
She changed the subject. “You’re joining us back at the house, aren’t you? My father has arranged a small condolence meal. Nothing you have to dress up for.” She kept a straight face, and he didn’t flinch.
“Yes, of course.”
She exhaled. "Wonderful. Follow us in the Yukon over there. The house isn’t far, but stay close…it’s not easy to find.”
He laid his hand on her shoulder. “I know where to go, Isabel.”
She watched as he got into his car, and waved. He called out to her before he closed the door, “See you at the apartment!”
Of course he would know. There was no more childhood home in Scarsdale…what was she thinking? The meal would be held at 100 Central Park South. He’d been there many times, of course, with her mother. Isabel had promised her father she would stay at the apartment while in town, but she hadn’t even “checked in” yet.