They never get it right in the movies. You always see the funeral and its raining heavy or it’s dark and cloudy. The day we buried my mother, 40 years ago this week, it was sunny, hot, and stifling. The funeral was at Mt. Sinai Cemetary in the Hollywood Hills where the smog hangs like a gray curtain, a blanket of car exhaust. The year was 1970 and the Sixties were dead, you could say my mom died with them. My father cried, my brothers cried, but I couldn’t because I was in a state of shock, just staring at the closed coffin, refusing to believe it was over, confused and frightened. The tears wouldn’t come, although they eventually would later.
Her plot had no trees around it so the light was just blistering from all sides. To this day when I think of my mother’s funeral all I think of is the unforgiving sun and its heat. I was only 13 and just quietly watched the speeches, the crying and the terrible sunlight.
When we got home we performed the Jewish ritual of mourning: for seven days we sat on the floor (no chairs), wore torn clothing, and covered all the mirrors in the house. People from the synagogue would come to visit and pay respects. Of course you had the whackos bragging about being her best friend. The truth was my mother was a lone wolf, trusted no one and liked no one. She was the most antisocial woman I ever knew. Some of these “friends” even tried to come by under the pretense of mourning and started riffling through her bedroom. I kicked them out and moved into her bedroom and slept in her bed. (My father had his own bed).
My mother, Elizabeth, was 43 when she died, and was 40 when she was diagnosed with cancer. A smoker who smoked about 2 packs a day (Kent Cigarettes), she loved her smokes so much she even sewed a leather cover for her flip-top packs. I remember walking with her to the Doctor’s office for her routine radiation treatment. She told me her Doctor sat behind his desk chain smoking, saying, "These things are a bitch to quit, aren't they?" (Back in the Sixties it seemed like everybody smoked). I’d sit there dutifully in the waiting room for her to come out after her treatment. Sometimes we’d walk home, or if she felt weak, we’d take a cab home. We’d go by the huge excavation site ten blocks wide – “Do you see that huge crater? That’s going to be Century City. Isn’t that exciting?”
After the mourning stage was over the school year began again and my classmates who used to bully me and beat me up now just walked away whenever they saw me, staring at me like I was a leper. I was now some kind of phantom. My mother’s antisocial attitude made sense to me. She knew.
The sadness felt like it would never end, but of course it did. Two years later I discovered T. Rex, Roxy Music, New York Dolls and glam rock, and the world was still colorful. Platform shoes, elephant flares and rock & roll. Somehow the sun didn’t seem so ominous anymore.
2010: Last week I went to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave on her 40th anniversary, and lurking down the hill above us was a young coyote. It very shyly trotted over to a big, lush tree and lay in the dark shade, away from the blinding sunlight. The message was clear: we are vilified but we will keep wandering alone because it’s who we are. And we like it that way.
Willie Mabon - Chess Masters
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