I bought a "pre-need" funeral package for my mother, Julia, when she fell and broke her neck in 2000. She had Parkinson's disease. The pre-need package was $11,100. The funeral director sent my mother a thank you note. She called me: "I just got a bill for my funeral, son." "Mom, I did the pre-planning because I didn't want to go through what I did with Dad — last-minute shopping," I said.
When I called the funeral-home director to complain, he said, "I feel horrible, absolutely horrible." His secretary had messed up, he said. "I'm so sorry about Mother," he said.
Don't mother me. She's my mother, not yours. I was easy to rile.
My mom, on the other hand, was hard to rile, always flexible. She joked about the funeral-home call for a couple of weeks. No big deal. Her go-to phrase was "don't make a scene."
Her father, an immigrant from Lithuania, had run the "Jew's store," a dry-goods store, in Yazoo City, Miss. The family came north during the Depression. All the children slept in one bed. My mother was accepted to college but couldn't afford to attend. Her father wound up being a door-to-door solicitor (a.k.a. schnorrer) for an old folks' home.
Always frugal, my mother gave me a harmonica for my 13th birthday instead of a bar mitzvah party. That move paid off. I became a musician, among other things, and she became my biggest fan. Her grandson became a moderately big-shot musician with the Los Angeles-based funk band Vulfpeck. But when Julia died in 2004 — four years after the "pre-need" — we didn't play music at her funeral. Music is generally a no-no at Jewish funerals.
I liked hanging out with my mother in her later years. Because my sister lived three hours away and my dad was long gone, I was the point person. I liked driving Julia to doctors. We listened to WKHR-FM, which had the jingle "keeping your memories alive, keep your dial on 91.5." Julia knew pre-rock 'n' roll lyrics cold, like "Kiss of Fire" and "That Old Black Magic." She especially liked "Once Upon a Time" . . .
"Once upon a time, we sat beneath a willow tree, counting all the stars and waiting for the dawn. But that was once upon a time. Now the tree is gone."
That song was so sappy — and so true. Julia liked all music. Nothing was too sentimental. "The Impossible Dream" was legendary in our house. Julia had been a singer in the PTA chorus at my elementary school. She could really belt out tunes. Off-stage she was more demure. She would never hang up on phone solicitors. She would say to me, "I should have given that so-and-so..." But she never did.
At Julia's funeral the director told me, "Funeral prices went up quicker than inflation," meaning the "pre-need" had paid off financially. I wanted to look inside my mom's coffin to make sure she was in there. I had my doubts, and the casket is closed at Jewish funerals. But I forgot to look because I got distracted by the eulogies. Julia worked in a battery factory during the war, became a secretary, married, raised a family, worked on school levies, and wound up playing tennis in Boca. She made it to 83. A good run, bottom line.
At the shiva funeral meal, I told the rabbi how I had forgotten to look in the coffin. He told me to get a grip. He said, "Why would the funeral home want your mother's body? Think about it." I did think about it. I still think about it. Where is my mother?
Bert Stratton lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and writes the blog "Klezmer Guy: Real Music & Real Estate."
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