Until I was 12 I had never been to the Bernheim Funeral Home on Newark’s Chancellor Avenue. In fact, I had never been to a funeral anywhere, before. That good fortune would soon change.
In 1951, my father’s slightly older sister, Irene, died. She was 48, and her death was torturous for our family and yet a wondrous show of love and beauty. Aunt Irene’s death was my first funeral.
My Aunt Irene had lived in Brooklyn with her husband, Sidney, and they had one adult child, Morrell, who was soon to be married. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer it was clear that Uncle Sidney did not have the ability to go to work every day as well as care for his very needy wife. The solution was the loving Aunt Edna, the sister between my father and Irene. Edna was always there for everyone, though as a child I hardly knew how remarkable her sacrifice was. Now I am touched, grateful, and moved to tears at what she did for her sister.
Irene was moved into Edna’s apartment on Aldine Street — our family occupied three of the four units in the house that Zayda built. A little juggling and a small bedroom was vacated for Irene, and there she was tended to with gentleness and kindness by her sister. I don’t know whether hospice existed in those days but I do know that Edna would have wanted Irene’s final months to be with her in any case.
Sometimes I would visit with Irene. She was fully aware that she was dying, but she told me she had one last prayer: to wear her new red dress to the “kid’s wedding.” She desperately wanted to escort the “kid,” meaning Morrell, to the chuppah. It was not to be.
Zayda endured the death of his eldest daughter with his usual dignity. He was a deeply religious man and regarded it as God’s will. He went on to live for another five years, dying at age 87.
Shortly after Irene’s passing, our family welcomed a new member, a baby girl named Jody Irene. Irene’s name was to be carried on and we all celebrated the much wanted, long-awaited, beautiful new baby. It was no secret that Zayda had hoped for a boy, since there were no male Litwaks to carry on the family name, but he soon fell in love with the adorable Jody. His usual equanimity prevailed.
When Zayda died I attended my second funeral, also at Bernheim’s. Zayda, being an old man, was accepting of the natural order of things and so were we all. I lost my favorite gin rummy opponent and never did master Yiddish, his only language, but we were able to move on with memories of a life well lived.
Not so that same week when my good friend Marilyn died. While Zayda’s death was a part of that natural order, Marilyn’s was a tragedy. She, and all of her friends, myself included, were 17. She also had a red dress.
Marilyn had been diagnosed with cancer about two years earlier. She went in and out of remission, and her desperate, despairing parents moved mountains to make her remaining time happy. Her Sweet 16 party was a supremely elegant affair at the popular Newarker Restaurant at Newark Airport, and on her 17th birthday she awoke to a brand-new convertible in the family’s Clinton Place driveway.
She also went on shopping sprees with her mother and bought two beautiful new dresses. Toward the end of the year she asked me which of the dresses I thought she should wear to a New Year’s Eve party. I suggested the red dress, but she said she was saving that one for something special. It turned out to be the dress she was buried in. Another visit to Bernheim’s.
A few months later, one of our former classmates, then a student at Trenton State College, told me how excited she was for a trip organized by her school to see a Broadway show. Her bus was rear-ended and she was killed instantly. By that point Bernheim’s had become familiar to me.
As this space is called Exit Ramp, death is surely the ultimate exit ramp, one in which there are no U-turns. It can be dramatic, often peaceful, and sometimes tragic. But it’s always a part of life.