Last week I buried my paternal grandmother, my Bubbie, Lillian Saiger. I grew up with the blessing of having four active grandparents whom I got to know very well. The maternal ones lived just a few minutes’ drive from our house in Los Angeles and the paternal ones, being Torontonians, wisely spent every winter in the desert oasis of Palm Springs, CA, a two hour drive from LA.
Our family would spend every winter weekend in Palm Springs, at the condo complex with my grandparents, playing tennis, swimming, and, of course, eating.
Now Bubbie was somewhat of a stern woman. Not a let-the-grandchildren-do-whatever-they-want type of grandmother. So, for example, when I was 8 or so and on her doubles tennis team, she didn’t appreciate my being out of position or lazy or whatever. At her funeral I told the story of the memorable moment when Bubbie was at the net and I was on the baseline, and my crosscourt forehand struck her in the back. No injuries, but she didn’t exactly apologize for being in the way of my would-be winner. When I was wrong or annoying or messy she would let me know it, which I didn’t like much at the time but seems pretty sensible to me now.
The way that Bubbie showed her love was through feeding people, and by being generally devoted to their well-being. One of my aunts said that when anyone would visit Bubbie, the visitor’s favorite foods would be waiting for them. When I arrived in Palm Springs as a child, chicken fricassee would be waiting for me. My Bubbie’s brother, Uncle Dave, told the story of when he was stationed in Holland during WWII. He would receive care packages from his sister of homemade pickles, the jars wrapped carefully in toilet paper for the journey across the Atlantic.
She would also travel extensively to see her children and grandchildren, who were spread across North America and Israel. I was the first grandchild to be married. My Zaydie had been sick for years, and at the time my Bubbie, heroically, cared for him full time. It took some convincing but Bubbie shlepped to Houston for my wedding, and walked down the aisle on the arm of my bekilted half-Scottish cousin, Noah.
Bubbie wasn’t a big talker, not the type who would call to schmooze with me, but she nevertheless showed her love of grandchildren and extended family through her warm and welcoming home, her food, and her loyalty and devotion to loved ones. When my father asked me to officiate at the funeral and deliver the eulogy, I was of course honored and moved. Public speaking, leading prayers and rituals are things I’m used to and come quite naturally. But in terms of my own personal expression of love and grief, no story I could tell or prayer I could recite compares to the spiritual act of the physical burial of a loved one. Especially of a grandmother who taught me that love is expressed through actions rather than through words.
There’s a Jewish tradition for the bereaved not only to be at the grave for the lowering of the coffin but also to do some amount of the shoveling of dirt. At a minimum, the family tosses in a few shovelfuls. This itself is a powerful act. I still remember the moment when I heard the hollow sound of first clumps of soil landing on my maternal grandmother’s coffin. Back in 2001 I heard it as the sound of finality, closure, and that’s still what it sounds like to me today.
But it’s considered an honor to the deceased to do more than the symbolic shovelfuls. The greatest honor is to fill in the whole grave. My maternal grandfather died in 2009, and for the first time we filled in the hole. This is real labor. To get it done the jacket and tie have to come off, and multiple shovels are used and multiple people take turns sweating profusely. My father, my little brother, and my friend Aaron and I all took turns when we buried my grandfather. It’s backbreaking work.
At Bubbie’s funeral we did our best. I worked hard with my cousin Noah, shoveling the heavy Canadian clay soil until we had blistered hands and aching backs.
At a Jewish celebration words can’t express the joy you’re feeling, so instead you express joy with your entire body, by dancing. Words also fail to express the sorrow of losing a loved one, and the suffering is expressed by the peculiar funereal dance, the shoveling of dirt. This dance is so physically demanding that it can’t last very long, but when you’ve exhausted all your physical resources you know that you’ve honored your loved one.
When I returned from Toronto I told my friend Reverend Jenny about Jews and shoveling dirt at funerals. She hadn’t heard of this custom, but knew of a great parallel in the work of JK Rowling, when Harry Potter loses his friend Dobby, an elf:
“I want to do it properly,” were the first words of which Harry was fully conscious of speaking. “Not by magic. Have you got a spade?” And shortly afterward he had set to work, alone, digging the grave in the place that Bill had shown him at the end of the garden, between bushes. He dug with a kind of fury, relishing the manual work, glorying in the non-magic of it, for every drop of his sweat and every blister felt like a gift to the elf who had saved their lives.
As I’m writing I still have the remnants of blisters on my hands, the gifts to a wonderful grandmother. May her soul be bound up in the bond of life.