As I turned 65 this summer, and the Hebrew month of Elul approached, I found myself grappling with the custom of visiting the graves of loved ones before the High Holy Days.
Certainly, going to the cemetery is an act of respect and sets the contemplative mood inherent in the season of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. But this year, even as I sense my life flying by, I didn’t feel compelled to visit my parents’ final resting place. Rather than making the pilgrimage to New Montefiore Cemetery in Long Island, I decided to visit my mother and father where they lived, loved, and raised a family. In that spirit, on the fifth day of Elul, my husband, Andy, and I embarked on a journey to “deep” Brooklyn to visit my parents. Deep Brooklyn? It is the part of the borough where Citi Bikes have yet to arrive, where tattooed hipsters do not prevail, and where Manhattan and Park Slope do not impress residents.
We were tourists in my native land, experiencing a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. We watched the Cyclones play minor league baseball at MCU Park, situated on the famous Coney Island boardwalk, a few blocks from the original Nathan’s. The team was created years after my father died, but he knew the original death-defying Cyclone ride, which still provides thrills today. Unfortunately, the Parachute Jump no longer operates, but stands next to the stadium, illuminating Coney Island like a Brooklyn version of the Eiffel Tower. Sandwiched between these two icons of my father’s youth, I found Dad.
Like the character of Emily, who in “Our Town” returned home to Grover’s Corners, I returned home to the Marine Park garden apartments. According to my uncle, when he drove my parents home from the hospital with their newborn daughter — me — it was raining so hard that he drove his new Packard onto the sidewalk and right up to the stoop of our one-bedroom apartment. Heaven forbid the new baby should get wet! Hadn’t they invented umbrellas by 1953?
On this day in August 2018, there was not a soul on the sizzling sidewalk. Nevertheless, I could picture the neighbors sitting on lawn chairs near the curb, schmoozing the time away. No one ever seemed in a hurry. I could see the Good Humor Man, in his starched white uniform and jaunty cap. When he opened the freezer of his truck, the cloud of condensation that emerged made him momentarily disappear.
In 1963, we moved to a two-bedroom apartment, so my parents were relieved of the task of opening the sofa bed each night. Since our new building was on the corner, we had more “garden” with this garden apartment — not that we ever planted anything. My mother loved the breeze. She thought the apartment was a palace. Awash in memories, I stood on the palace stoop and found Mom.
Our final destination was Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach — the Hawaii of my childhood. Here, we had spent our summer weekends digging to China. Gazing across the water to the horizon, could that be Europe, so close? I swam with my cousins, creating water ballets that we thought looked like a kaleidoscope. On my “Our Town” day, I recognized the beach, but the sign we had used as a marker for our blanket was gone. The “hot knishes, cold drinks” hawker was also gone, but the ocean water was as salty as I remembered.
While many people thought I was crazy to return to Brooklyn in search of my parents, my friend Michelle disagreed. She said I was lucky. Her roots are in Iran, and there is no going back. All I had to do was cross two rivers and hope “alternate-side-of-the-street parking” would be in my favor. But I was lucky in another way, too. This trip brought me closer to my parents’ love and the values they imparted to my sister and me.
When my husband and I are gone, where will our children find us? I hope they’ll put stones on our graves. But really, if they want to embrace us, they’ll go to the tennis courts on the campus of SUNY at Stony Brook, where we met. They’ll go to our first apartment in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the snow covered the parking meters on South Division Street. They’ll take the IRT and walk to our next apartment, half a block from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. They’ll hear my piano playing in our Montclair home and smell my husband’s home-baked challah.
Confession is a recurrent High Holy Day theme. Despite my ambivalence, I confess we will visit my parents’ graves. After all, they are expecting us! But after my time-capsule day in Deep Brooklyn, I know that the Hebrew and English dates etched on their tombstones will fade. The lives they lived between the dates will fill me with gratitude. With beach sand between my fingers and toes and a gentle breeze caressing my neck, I’ll remember Evelyn and Mike, and I’ll be ready to welcome the New Year.
Merrill Silver of Montclair is an ESL teacher at JVS of MetroWest in East Orange and b’nai mitzvah tutor at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair.