Friday, June 26, 2009

Killing widows (by Suzie)

This is a lily from the garden of my Aunt Bess, who died last week at age 96, the last of her generation. She had outlived the avocado and fig trees in her bountiful yard in a working-class neighborhood of West Los Angeles.

Like my mother, Aunt Bess was a knitting goddess, who held knitting needles as if they grew from her hands. In the winter, I pad around in red slippers that she knitted. On my bed is a fantastic afghan she knitted out of odds and ends, like a coat of many colors.

Although we kept in touch with cards and calls, the last time I saw her was in 1996. She had come to terms with the fact that my father had little interest in family or heritage, and he had married a woman who wasn't Jewish and didn't convert. She gave me books; we looked through a family photo album. She wanted me to understand where I came from.

When she died, I wanted others to understand where she had come from. These days, many newspapers charge for obits, and I ended up spending $684 for a small b&w head shot of her and about 35 lines in the LA Times. Because nothing runs smoothly, I ended up having to make a few calls. The money, plus the time and skill to navigate the system, weed out some people who might want to place similar obits. One reason this matters is that archived obituaries become part of the historical record. It is part of the question of who is part of history and who isn't.

I can just imagine what Aunt Bess would have thought about paying for obituaries. I hesitate to bring up this subject because of all the nasty talk about Jews being cheap. When I hear non-Jews make these remarks, I think of the terrible poverty of my ancestors, and how they had to get by, how my grandparents moved to a ghetto in Cleveland when that word was still associated with Jews. Poverty influenced their children in different ways. As a bookkeeper, Aunt Bess was good with money, and she carried herself with class. Although she had started in the jewelry trade, she usually wore only a small diamond necklace, a lavalier, that had belonged to her mother.

There was no room in the obit for such details. There was no room to write how she sent us homemade rugelach at Hanukkah and See's chocolates, which we couldn't get in Texas at that time.

Because I was paying by the line, I tried to reword any paragraphs that had only a word or two left over on the last line. In journalism jargon, this is "killing widows" (see this example). The term reflects society's view of a manless woman: She's just taking up space.

Before her third husband made her a widow, Aunt Bess had divorced two others. She had worked all of her life, starting as a child. The oldest girl of seven children, she helped care for the younger ones. My father, who would have been 91 today, thought of her as a mother. People said I looked like her, and at the end of his life, Daddy mistook me for her once and a while.

What interesting roles we put on and take off, daughter to sister to mother.