Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Well....As Hamlet Would Say...
"What Is This Quintessence Of Dust?"

I’ve been writing about an older woman I knew who died last September at age 96. I’ve been dealing with her estate, and all of her personal effects, for the past year. Let me tell you another story about this woman.

Her parents were from Russia, and they came to this area at a time of great turmoil in their country. Her teenaged mother had fled their burning village during the Russian Revolution with only a copper pot and pillow. She was smuggled out and never to see her family again. I knew her mother, as well. When "Granny" was in her last week of life (and she lived to be a grand old age,) she reverted back to speaking only Russian, and she kept talking to her mother (whom she hadn’t seen since she was seventeen) up high in the corner of the hospital room. She had once told me when I was a young girl that she loved her mother so much, she would put two chairs together to sleep next to her. I found the copper pot in the basement about a month or two ago.

I had heard about this pot for quite some time. You can't imagine how I felt when I found it. Realizing that this teenage girl ran from her village during a revolution. Never saw her family again. And she entered this country with only a pillow and this pot. To paraprhase Nabokov, "Speak, History."

They ran a little Mom and Pop store named after their daughter over on A Street on Capitol Hill. When they died, they were buried in this really old cemetery over off Benning Road which is a part of D.C. you don’t want to linger in, not even the residents, not even during the day. Things were so bad, they had to keep the cemetery gates locked, so to visit you would have to call the caretaker and meet him there so he could let you in…and wait to let you out. And yes, I've heard of muggings and murders in graveyards. We aren't even safe with the dead.

Several times I was asked to go with the lady so I could re-landscape the gravesite. It was a very dark, dank, dismal place to be. High iron gates, a lot of overgrown vegetation. Leaning markers. Very little sunlight (so shade plants) and always the danger some “youth” would come through the back way and attack you. I was never comfortable there. The place reeked of neglect and being forgotten and lost in this changed world where it was plopped down under lock and key. Everything said “stay away.”

All of this upset the lady greatly. She wanted to be able to visit her parents in peace. She decided she would unplant them and move them to a cemetery not far from where she lived. Her family was there, all in a row: her sister, her brother-in-law and her niece. She approached her spiritual leader about how to go about this, and he forbade it; saying it was against religious law…which was hogwash on toast.

What was odd, (to me,) was that she had worked for Congress in the 1930’s…up through the 1970’s. She never married, was a career woman and very opinionated and strong minded; i.e. not a woman to hold her tongue, but just lay it right out there. She had subscribed to The Village Voice since it’s inception. The same for Rolling Stone. Very attuned to her culture. I have to admit it's interesting to know that you can yell at Bush on the television when you're ninety. She was highly political, and even in the last weeks of her life, loathing Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes to the end. She desperately wanted to be well enough to vote in the last Presidential election and she missed the opportunity by weeks. I thought about her a lot on that day.

Her parents had been Orthodox, but she never really pursued religion until after her mother died. This adherence and obedience to a controlling bully, I could never understand. There are so many stories I could tell against this man, but won’t. While I never called him a self absorbed, lazy creep to her face, I did tell her to go ahead and move her parents, because it was so important to her. She never did, and she carried that upset with her to the end.

In the last year of her life, she lost her teeth, and we went through hell with that. It took a good nine months to replace them (a lot of trips to the dentist on day’s off,) as she was so frail and it was hard to get accurate measurements. It was also an out of pocket expense, so a lot of sacrifice on the part of everyone to get this done. And when the teeth were done? She wouldn’t wear them.

A few weeks ago, I was in her basement: bad lighting, overheated and tossing, tossing, storing, and I found a pair of teeth. I had to wonder. “Are these hers?” I showed them to her nephew, and he held them up to the light, much as Hamlet hoisted that skull, and he said, “No. This is my grandmother.”

Later that night, the nephew said, “I think we should go to the cemetery where she is buried, and bury Granny’s teeth there.” You have to understand. I’ve been doing quirky things like this my entire life, so I was game. Soooo…this past weekend I said to the nephew, “Let’s go bury the teeth” because it was the week of her birthday.

As bizarre as this seems, I hope I am doing things like this when I’m eighty, because it sure keeps life interesting. I’ve dug graves in my past, I’ve landscaped them, and now I’m doing burials. So yeah…..we didn’t get Granny replanted next to her daughters….but on the other hand….we did.

Postscript: I went to see my dentist this morning. He's originally from India and into high tech interactive server everything. Huge enthusiasm about you name it. I got a tour of his new offices, very modern, very elegant, and we talked about all that he had done. He just kills me. He has got "a guy" for everything: "You like that tile? I got that from a guy in Philadelphia who knows a guy in Italy. You need a plumber? Call my guy. Computer tech? Carpenter? Jewels? I've got a guy in Jaipur." His wife is a pip, too.

I was telling him the story above, and he listened and nodded--he got it, then he told me his story. In moving his offices, he was getting rid of some things, including plaster molds of teeth. One set belonged to a young man of eighteen that had died not long ago. He was driving on River Road in Potomac at 3 a.m. and hit a tree. The car burst into flames and he died trapped inside. My doctor had kept the mold because it was an interesting dental correction, and in the end, the parents sent the police to him to identify the young man's remains through his dental records. He had just completed this sad task, so it was still fresh in his mind. He hated to toss the molds, but it was obviously a very sensitive thing to ask the parents about; i.e. "Do you want your son's dental molds?" He approached them with delicacy, and in the end they did want them.

He understood my story completely. I told him, "I have my own plaster molds, and my mother's molds, on a shelf on one of my bookcases." They make an interesting conversation piece." Then we stood and both of us took pictures with my camera of the beautiful vista out his office windows. "Look at that sky," he said. "I need that sky."

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Anonymous ma said...

I think that the world often forgets about women like the one you have written about, Cube. "Career gals"--is what they are called on a show like Mad Men. I think they are called that on old movies as well. They're special people who knew so much more about the world then we gave them credit for.

You have paid her a wonderful tribute.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

This is a completely beautiful, luminous, gorgeous post. I am so happy you went out and buried her teeth. Bravo!

7:59 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

MA: What broke my heart about this woman was that her overall family was dead. The nephew was very loving to her, and the indifferent niece. She was so intelligent, and her mind so clear. She wrote in notebooks every day, and they would break your heart. "Justin Timberlake," "Ginzu Knives," "recession." Things she wanted to know more about in terms of their cultural or political importance. New products that could make her life better. Issues that were hot button topics. She had been a real pistol in her day, and I could almost see my future in her age: that abandonment our society inflicts on our elders. It gave me a lot to think about, and something tells me I'll be remembering what she suffered in her isolation in my own old age, if I make it that far. I pray I handle those issues with grace and wisdom.

Reya: I knew you would get the teeth thing, if anyone did. There are many who would hear this tale and go "eewwww....gross." What I loved was how my dentist kept nodding in understanding...but then was about something holy to him. Teeth.

9:07 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Lee: I definitely want to contact Josh Simpson. I realized last night I want to bury one in Edgar Allan Poe's grave in Baltimore. And I agree on the karma thing..that's a huge part of it for me: it's being engaged with my world, and making it a more enriching, happier place. God knows we all need a laugh....I do.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Ronda Laveen said...

Loved this story. Nice way to bypass the naysayer of the move. Gives a whole new meaning to "speaking from the grave."

1:26 AM  
Blogger Cyndy said...

What a fascinating story! I love hearing about the history of other people, especially when their background is so different from mine. I'm glad she has her teeth with her now.

Speaking of molds, my husband has at least 4 molds of his teeth, dating back to 1975. As a trombone player he's a little obsessed with being able to duplicate his teeth if they ever become injured.

2:23 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Ronda: I hadn't thought about that! Speaking from the grave.

Cyndy: You know, until you mentioned husband and trombone, I didn't think of it, but Chet Baker (jazz trumpeter) had his teeth knocked out. He always implied he fell down some stairs in one of his heroin stupors, but everyone else believed he lost his teeth in a drug purchase/debt gone bad. He couldn't play for some time after that and he had to learn a whole new embouchure. "Albert's House" is usually considered his worst album because his embouchure was in such terrible shape. This is also why I love people commenting on my writing since we can go from Mother Russia and graves to junkie trumpet players and bad embouchure.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Loralee said...

It's been a week for teeth! I brought my friend Evan to the dentist for a nasty extraction (he had a root canal & crown go bad!) and then they did a bone graft. The bone graft is made from ground up cadaver bones. The bones are selected with great care - you can't have had diabetes and be a bone donor for this, cleaned, sterlised, ground up. I think Evan was still under the anesthetic when the Dental assistant was telling me this, which is just as well. I went to the Dentist today.
It had been a while since I'd had a full set of x-rays, and it's a new Dr, so they took 20 photos ("You get more radiation walking around the city than you'll get from these photos." - "That's why I don't walk around the city...").

They no longer use wet film, that flexible material, so they tried to shove a thing the size of my digital camera into my rather tiny mouth. My palate is all cut up. Fortunately, they let me place it for the trickier ones.

Anyway... It's a nice touch to bury something for someone. Kind of like the Egyptians, needing something in the afterlife. I like how you made a point of staying in touch with someone like this woman, who clearly made efforts to remain sharp.


12:31 AM  
Blogger Cyndy said...

Cube - Have you heard the story about how someone who felt sorry for Chet Baker gave him a place to live (in their house) and paid for a new set of teeth and Chet showed his gratitude by stealing their silverware? It's sad what people will resort to to get a fix. I saw "Let's Get Lost" before I knew much about him and was disturbed and disappointed that someone who had so much beauty to share also had such an ugly side.

12:47 AM  
Blogger Cyndy said...

Loralee - I went to the dentist today too and it was exactly the same story. They had a new dentist in place of the regular guy, 20 xrays, etc.

12:54 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Lee and Cyndy: My guy is all high tech new age stuff...I had my entire mouth photographed two ways...this outer space machine that I bit into and leaned at a 45 degree angle standing...then this camera that works off shoving anything hard in the the seconds? Not only the outside of my mouth, but the entire xrays or something that showed every root (they're in great shape by the way...whew.) I should ask him to send me my picture so you can see my roots. LOL.

Anyway..Cyndy...about Chet..I probably have everything he recorded. I always get upset thinking about him...a God given talent and he trashed it...and seemingly without regret. He played with Jack Shelton...and you may remember in "Let's Get Lost" that Jack said how hard he'd study and work and take lessons and blah blah...and even then...he was never as good as Chet. To me...if you are given a talent at that level? You become almost a priest or priestess to it in caring for it and respecting it.

...and back to Lee...Cadavers? Seriously? That is WILD! I need to write you, Lee. I had a long talk with Drew today about "stuff"...I'll definitely email you about it all. God I miss you. We all love and miss you SO much. I can only hug you through the screen.

Can you tell I love my friends, folks?

1:38 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

It's interesting - teeth, when looking at them on their own, seem to have 'personality' somehow. I can understand the identity..."that's her teeth". Very strange.

My grandmother did the same thing. My mom & dad ponied up to get her a brand new set of choppers, because my grandmother being demure and proper hated being seen with missing teeth. Once she got them...never wore them.

I can totally see my dentist keeping my mold. Mine was an "interesting case", too.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

I found this whole story to be so moving. I admire your obvious devotion to this family and your efforts to honor their wishes...even after death. Did you obtain your shofar from them by any chance?

Are you sure you weren't Jewish in a previous life? :)

12:59 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...


It was done out of love and devotion to the woman, but I swore this is the last time for clearing out and estate work. Am I good at it? Yes. Do I handle their things with love, devotion and memory and not just pillage? Yes. Is it heartbreaking? Yes.

I've come to realize I've always been attuned to my elders. Now I have to start focusing on my own life. Others will step in to fill the void of what I am not doing.

Although....last week I called one of my late mother's church lady friends. She recently moved into assisted living, and she told me how isolated she was now from her friends and church. So I called another friend of hers...and SHE had moved into assisted living, and neither had the other's address...lost in shuffle, plus there were two other ladies in that "group", so I told the two I would call the other two...(and they both have shifted living arrangements) now I am going to write them all the same letter...with "news" and a symbolic act I did at the church for my mother, and then a sheet with all of their names and new addresses, etc. I know my mother would want me doing that. So when I tell you I'm done: laughing--sorta kinda.

No, I'm not Jewish (Roman Catholic,) but plenty of exposure to Judaism. I even have a Jewish calendar that arrives every year (thanks to the lady that died. I reminded her of her holidays and Yartzeit days, took her to temple, etc. so I had to be in the know.) In her later years, I always worried about the candles. I will continue to light candles for her and her mother...and...sigh..I have two of her menorahs, so one will be lit this year for her. I sent her large collection of them to a distant relative in Oregon...never heard a peep of thanks...but at least they are still in the family.

As for the do I explain that....One of my best friends at the time was Jewish, and one year I bought the horn, went to her condo in Georgetown, and blew the horn under her balcony. She came out, laughing. Those horns are not easy to blow, by the way, and they make a very raw sound which I'm sure you know. I also had a man in my neighborhood several years ago, who would always go into his yard to sound the shofar. I love the symbolism of it and it feels right to be seeking that spiritual connection at the start of a new year. Now I have a Jewish friend come over and sound it in my yard. I bought mine at a Jewish store in Wheaton, Maryland that sells books and religious objects. Mine is polished horn and made in Israel. I don't think they are all that pricey...seems to me they were not. I took pictures this year of the shofar blowing.

Never ask me a simple question. Laughing. You get more than you bargained for.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Wow! I'm certain you have some recessive Jewish genes. :)

I too seem to be drawn down a path laid out for me by my mother, who reached out to anyone in need. She did things like find free dental care for indigent families, take freshly extracted carrot juice to cancer victims, etc. I remember as a very young child being dragged by her to visit people in nursing homes that had a very vile smell, which I now know was stale urine.

My mother and I differed on many issues, but on helping others we definitely agreed.

I'm happy to say my daughter at 25 is going down that same path. She volunteers to work with cancer survivors. Right now she is paired with a woman in her 50's who had a complete mastectomy. The woman lives in a SF housing project. They do things like take yoga together. And my daughter just listens a lot.

As for the shofar, it is hauntingly beautiful when played by someone who is skilled. At our services this year, we had a "tag team" of 7 shofar blowers, including our senior rabbi and a couple of teenagers. Each one of them brought a different talent. I am pleased to say that on the final Yom Kippur blast, it was a young girl of 17 who had more wind than any of her compatriots.

Your bases are definitely covered when it comes to religion. Don't you feel more than a little "chosen"?

4:21 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...


Exactly like you, I was taken by mother on her rounds: pies and cakes to nursing homes, or doing the ladies hair. She had one friend with cancer, a woman I've written about before, and I remember holding her up in her hopsital bed while my mother washed her hair. I suppose now women use the excuse "too busy," to do these kind acts, and I certainly never hear of anyone doing them anymore. There is a grace in sitting with the elderly and ailing and just holding a hand.
Anyway, this "trait" definitely comes from my mother.

It is amazing your daughter is doing this. I never hear of young people taking the time from their tweets. It gives me hope. I have a young friend who has been ill from birth, really, and the past few years have been so cruel to her (including the death of her mother.) A few times she has landed in a nursing home, if not truly prolonged hospital stays, as she has no one to care for her--although recently one brother has moved back and is doing more, but at one point she landed in the Hebrew Home out in Rockville (and she's not Jewish...I'm not sure why she landed there.) She had a total meltdown, as I am sure any of us would-- being condemned to the possibility of spending the rest our lives in such a place? She cried for days. All I could do was sit and listen to her cry and try to comfort her. That was a very difficult summer for the both of us, because I couldn't stand to see her suffering. And if anyone exhibits grace in pain, it's her.

I saw so many elderly people left in the halls for their "outing" just staring vacantly into space. If someone would just volunteer time to go and sit next to those people and rest their hand on their arm to let them know they aren't forgotten. I have to wonder if we all aren't living too long anymore.

Regarding shofar playing, I've never heard one played by someone who knows what they are doing. It would be impressive to hear several going at once. As for the young girl having more wind, I had to laugh. I really don't know much about shofars, but I do know they take a lot of wind.

I don't feel chosen, by the way. I just try to stay open to what it all means and show compassion when I see it. I've seen enough to worry about my own future. I hope I can be brave. As Bette Davis used to say "Old age ain't for sissies."

8:03 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

and Phil..I didn't forget you, just that we've been writing in email so much. Yes. It's pretty common for the elders not to want to wear their artificial teeth. They hurt.

First of all, I don't know how she lost her teeth unless a temporary caregiver let them land in the garbage--and I've had certain fears they were tossed on purpose to disturb or torment the old lady. NOT a pretty thought, and I pray that wasn't done.

It took a full nine months of a day off per week by someone to get her to the dentist and get the molds made, and then you'd get a call that something didn't go right and "come back" and then another visit and something wasn't working right and come back....and every penny out of pocket. So when she died...after just having come through all of that? Sometimes you have to wonder what life is trying to teach you.

I told an older woman I know some of these stories...especially my friend that I wrote Barbara about who has told me many MANY times she doesn't know what lessons God is trying to teach her about suffering, because she had hit the point...many times now...of praying to die during the worst of it. The older woman said to me, "Maybe it isn't that your friend doesn't already know the lesson, but she is now teaching you...through their suffering." But I feel I understand loss and patience and suffering and I'm not "quite" sure I agree with all that.

I am almost sure I'll be asked to eulogize her, by the way, and we have talked about these things, with humor, in terms of her views about heaven, or how her grave should be marked, next to her parents... with just an arrow on the marker. I've known this girl since we were both in diapers...both families knew each other our entire existence.

Her mother (who was my primary Sunday school superintendent) used to call me when my friend was at death's door...and I've lost count of how many times that was...and she would say (expressing her fear, I think, that she would pre-decease her daughter...while also holding the fear her daughter would predecease her) and command me to be a good friend to her daughter. I've kept my word.

Losing her will shatter my heart, I just know it...and I've already lived through losing my best female friend too fast and too soon.

Ok..enough about this stuff. Time for me to put up something funny.

8:20 PM  
Blogger kob said...

The Village Voice. What an interesting choice.

Thanks for sharing this story. It's exceptional.

8:52 PM  
Blogger bozoette said...

Beautiful. Thank you. My mother (age 98) is now in hospice. As she fades toward death, I must remember to be sure to keep track of her teeth - now in a case in the medicine cabinet in her room at the nursing home. She will not want to be without them.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

KOB: Out of his political writing grave! Boo!

Bozoette: I am sorry to hear you are that stage with your mother. It's a very hard place to be, in the caregiving, and then there's the eternal loss to face down. I've always told my female friends who have healthy mothers...learn to cook your favorite foods of theirs and don't assume you know how. Once they are gone, no more vegetable stew the way Mom made it.
Again, my sympathies to what you are going through. It's a rough road.

3:42 PM  
Anonymous the Provident Woman said...

What wonderful treasures! Even the teeth. You'll always have a memory with that find.

2:22 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Add to Technorati Favorites