During my 40 year career as an academic gynecologist, the only writing I did was technical, for journals, teaching, or medical-legal opinions. I expressed my creativity in the operating room, performing innovative and original reconstructive procedures. I have been a closeted humanities lover all along, however, taking courses in Shakespeare and classical music while majoring in Physics in college. Now that I’ve retired and discovered BOLLI, writing memoir and short stories has come to the fore.
FOREVER IN CONTROL
by David Chapin
The organist played Gershwin tunes as the mourners filed in. Almost everyone chatted with his or her neighbors. Self-appointed “ushers” moved up and down the aisles attempting to keep the seating orderly. A mood of almost inappropriate levity prevailed. The synagogue, the largest in town, filled to capacity a full half-hour before the scheduled start and then overflowed into the foyer and the community hall on the other side. Family, former co-workers, mentees, and friends. Brilliant rays of sun sliced through the panes of the floor-to-ceiling window, illuminating the bimah from behind.
A brilliant attorney, a celebrated raconteur, and an inveterate jokester, Eli had dominated virtually every personal encounter he had ever faced. His bright blue eyes sparkled when he smiled, and he captivated every audience, the life of every party. Those eyes could cut right through you like a spear when he was angry. Fun-loving on one hand, a rigid disciplinarian on the other, you either hated him or loved him. Especially if you were one of his children. I was glad I wasn’t. He wanted nothing but the best for them, but he rode them relentlessly to do well in school, to perform their household chores, to take responsibility for their actions. If you lost your gloves, “you could ski barehanded,” he said. At his law firm, he was known for firing incompetent associates on the spot and riding and disciplining the good ones as if they were his children. You either hated him or loved him.
Eulogizers, one after another, told Eli’s favorite jokes or recounted hilarious, intense, or scary incidents. No one except his wife and children had seen Eli for at least five years, as he had descended the downward spiral of Alzheimer’s. The piercing blue eyes had turned blank; the smile had become a droopy frown; the jokes and stories had faded away. The firm managed to carry on without him. Nonetheless, his everlasting humor, his no-nonsense approach to business, and his overpowering personality persisted in everyone’s memory. So they came.
Eli’s friend Billy spoke from the pulpit. “A recent arrival at a Florida retirement community meets a more seasoned resident at breakfast,” he begins. “I am unhappy, the man says to his new friend. There is nothing for me to do here. How come you are always happy and smiling? The other man says, ‘it is easy to be happy here; you just need a hobby.’ You got a hobby? ‘Yeah, I got a hobby. I catch bees.’ How do you do that? asks the unhappy fellow. ‘I go out with a jar and a net. I catch the bees in the net, and then I dump them in the jar and close the top.’ You got holes drilled in the top, right? ‘No. I just screw it on tight.’ But don’t they die? ‘Sure. So what? It’s only a hobby.’”
Everyone knew Eli’s favorite joke, but it was still funny. After the laughter died down, Billy descended from the pulpit and shook hands all the way up the aisle as if he had just read from the Torah on Shabbat. Eli’s former junior law partner Lenny then ascended to the lectern.
“In my first year with the firm, we were handling the bankruptcy of a dairy farm. Eli sent me to the farm to inventory the cows. I arrived to find three men loading the cows into a truck. I went to the payphone on the corner and called Eli. ‘Under no circumstances are you to allow them to take the cows away,’ he bellowed into the phone, ‘keep them there; I am calling the police.’ I went back to the farm. The men had just finished loading the last cow into the truck. Faced with the prospect of having to return to the office and tell Eli that the cows had been carried away, I laid down in the driveway in front of the truck until the police arrived.”
Again uproarious laughter and nodding of heads as most of us recognized this oft-told tale. Eli’s body may have been in the coffin, but he was still controlling the room. He would have loved the laughter.
As I savored my memories of Eli and enjoyed the jokes and stories, my mind wandered to the time of my father’s funeral several years earlier.
My father, a businessman, came home from work at 6:30. Dinner would be on the table. Meat and potatoes. His sense of humor was subtler than Eli’s. You had to know him to know when he was joking. With his children, he relied more on setting high expectations and showing quiet disapproval when they went unmet. At his office, younger executives learned by following his example, not by reprimand. He quietly maintained control with his calm demeanor and deep understanding of the business. When angry, he said a menacing, “Now look!” accompanied by a glare that made you snap to.
My father played golf with Mort Etkin almost every Saturday and Sunday throughout the short Buffalo summers. Neither one of them ever broke 100. Mort, appropriately named, was the undertaker; also appropriately, had no sense of humor. Knowing Mort so well socially, my father had worked with him on all the funeral details of various uncles, aunts, grandparents, and even some friends. He knew which coffin to order, which vault was best, and all the Talmudic rules of the Shiva observance.
Dad died after a four-year battle with cancer. Stoicism, grit, and determination had exuded from him as he went through chemo, radiation, and still more chemo. With great effort, he dragged himself to work every day until two weeks before he died. Immediately upon returning to the house from the hospital where he died, my mother brought out a piece of paper in his oh-so recognizable scrawly handwriting, with a list of answers to Mort’s expected questions. “Call Etkin,” she said.
“I was expecting that,” Mort replied. “Will you come down to pick out the coffin?”
“American Casket Company catalog number 1050B.” I read answer number one from the list.
“And a vault.”
“Vault number 8350.” Number two on the list.
“How about flowers for the casket?”
“No flowers.” Third item on the list
“Folding chairs for the Shiva house?”
“No folding chairs.” Right in order.
“Coat rack for the Shiva house?”
“No coat rack.” Just as I expected, right on cue.
A smile came across my mother’s face. She recognized the order. I looked quizzically at her hoping for an explanation.
“Your father felt that if there were extra chairs and a place to hang their coats, Shiva visitors would not know when to leave and would end up staying too long. However, if all the chairs were full, the people who had been there the longest would get up to leave as newcomers arrived. That is what he wanted,” she said. “As for flowers, he thought they were a waste of money.” His body may have been lying in Mort’s mortuary, but he was still telling Mort what to do. Controlling the event.
As Eli’s funeral service continued, he and my father were watching from above. “How come you let them put flowers on your casket?” my father asked. “It’s so unnecessary.”
“So what?” answered Eli. “It’s only a hobby.”