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."