“People are dying who didn’t used to,” my mother could have said, but didn’t. It was somebody else’s mother.
Now I’m thinking along the same lines.
There are deaths in the family, of course. Shocking, awful, and no matter how expected — unexpected. My father’s was the first and the worst. Besides being beloved, he was a rabbi and the one we went to when someone else died. How could we ask him questions about his own funeral? About grief? I am still asking him.
Siblings. Julia, the sister next to me in age, the one I hated, was naturally the one I was closest to when everybody else — two sisters and a brother, Julia’s husband, my husband — were all gone. We talked to each other every night. About what I don’t know. Every conversation would end “Talk to you tomorrow,” which was strangely comforting. She also kept saying that we had to stick together since we were the only ones left. As if we had a choice. We were each other’s memories. Though we didn’t remember things in the same way. To put it bluntly, Julia’s mind was other. She cut to the chase. She was frank about enjoying life’s simple pleasures, including a good bowel movement. On the other hand she was equally open about causes of displeasure. “I don’t go for nature, I never did,” Julia said, causing poets to tremble. How could I not keep wanting to call her every night?
And then there are people I knew very well early on. My college boyfriend, my first love, my sweetheart! The obit was a shock. How could he be dead and have an obit in the newspaper when he’s only 18? Okay, 21, which he was when we broke up. He was on the stupid side and always wanting me to write assigned papers for him. But very handsome. Tall, dark and handsome, in fact. Very tall, six feet four to be exact. He was always wondering what it would be like to dance cheek to cheek — of which there was no chance with me. Julia, though safely married, was gaga about him. My mother, six inches shorter than I, was also one to appreciate a handsome man even though in this case it meant conversing with the bottom of his tie.
And then there are later friends. In my case, because of a quirk of fate and because many were older, a lot of the people I knew well who died were famous, and had terrific sendoffs in the Times obituary pages, sometimes even the front page. But they weren’t famous when I first met them. And so I have an early and happy memory of playing ping pong with a young Saul Bellow in a game parlor on Upper Broadway, and asking Ralph Ellison to carve the turkey on Thanksgiving because he was once a short-order cook, of laughing at Richard Hofstadter’s Lou Holtz imitations, of having my husband lend black silk socks to Bernard Malamud for a formal occasion — Bern claimed he had a pair but had forgotten to bring them. And eating blintzes in the Famous Dairy Restaurant with Isaac Bashevis Singer while he tried to seduce me into translating his stories. Saul, Dick, Bern were all in their 30s when we first met, I in my 20s. I didn’t know how old Isaac was. Only that he was too young and lascivious to be the smiling old zayde he masqueraded as, saying, “If Saul Bellow can translate for me, you can’t?”
To make the matter even stranger, full-length biographies are now being written about those people I knew on a small scale. I had always thought of biography as a genre celebrating historical figures — elder statesmen, artistic geniuses, heroes of antiquity. FDR, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, Keats, that kind of thing. I’ll even throw in Nelson Mandela, who’s still alive. But now when I go into Barnes & Noble there are those books, piled up on tables, with names and faces on the covers that are eerily familiar, names and faces and photographs from the albums of my own life. When I read these books, however, that sense of easy familiarity vanishes. These people simply aren’t the people I knew. They’re not dead, but they’re not alive either. They’ve become subjects, made too much of, or made too little, unrecognizable. As if their biographers have the words but not the music. Actually, much of the time, they don’t have the words, either. Charmers like Saul become dark and brooding, a meticulous man like Bern, who had the mien of an accountant, has his racy sex life exposed by his own daughter and so on.
There are even stage plays. I didn’t see the one about Truman Capote, who had sent me a postcard from Kansas, and had invited me to his ball. I didn’t see the play about Marc Rothko, either. Losing them to biographies is unhinging enough; to see physical impersonations on stage would be intolerable. I gather, from reviews about “Red” that the Marc Rothko portrayed here is something of a termagant, an impatient teacher, so obsessed an artist as to be practically out of his mind. I am not an artist, and I was never his student. But again, this is nothing like the Rothko I knew. (We all called him just by his last name, including his wife.) He was literate, literary, charming, a wonderful conversationalist. It was his habit to introduce me to people, jokingly, as, “The love of my life.” So one day at a party at his house, I said, “Rothko, if you love me so much, why don’t you paint my portrait?” “My darling,” he said, waving his hand at one of his huge canvases hanging on his wall, “I already have.”
We lost touch. He apparently went through terrible times, ending in his suicide, which seemed impossible. One day I stood in a posh gallery, surrounded by his late canvases. They were heartbreaking. Dark black and gray, worse, with borders, unthinkable in his old exuberant work. Dead, dead, dead. How could this be? Then a gallery minion walked by, holding a big canvas enveloped in wrapping paper. I asked what it was and who had painted it, and he haughtily named an artist I had never heard of, adding even more haughtily that it was worth two million dollars.
I thought a moment. “Why don’t you peel down a corner and show me $25 worth?” I said. Maybe Rothko would have laughed. Or maybe not.
So back to the obits again. They are of friends my own age now, exact contemporaries. I shouldn’t be surprised considering the age I’m talking about, but I am. The obits in themselves are problematic. Why did that friend get a picture, but another not? Why was another not even written up? All eerily familiar ground. As to the funerals, they sometimes come as often as once a month. I am beginning to see myself as a “funeral whisperer.” Which brings me to my own funeral, of course, a subject that superstition compels me to avoid. I can only say, thinking back to my father’s grand funeral, where his synagogue was packed from bima to balcony with people weeping, that in my case the surprise will probably be who’s left to show up.
Ann Birstein is the author of 10 books and innumerable stories, essays and reviews — and means to keep at it.