SOL AND HIS BROTHERS
Before there were 'Senior Citizen Residences,' there were Old Age Homes. When my own beloved grandmother, known to the extended family as 'Tante Masha,' was no longer able to live with my parents, she moved into one of these, which I seem to remember was called 'The Sons and Daughters of Jacob' (perhaps to distinguish the residents from the sons and daughters of Rufus or Reginald, some distinctions being important); but don't hold me to it --it was a very long time ago.
There came a time when I could choose to go see her, or not. One of the few things that I got right during my college years was my decision to drop in and visit with her every week or two on my way home from City College. Just transfer at 161st Street for the Jerome Ave. line and get off at Kingsbridge Road; walk up the hill, one block past the Armory. It never occurred to me at the time to inquire what function this old building had served before anybody named Jacob had shown up, but I can't imagine any 'sons and daughters' being involved in its construction.
Anyway, I would walk in and look for my grandma. She might be sitting in the lobby, or the hallway, on a nice day, in the garden (I remember they had a garden of some sort), or in her small room. It also never occurred to me at the time to inquire if grandma had any special friends there, or if the place had any activities, or how the food was. For some of us, learning how to ask questions is an acquired skill.
My point is, I just walked in and walked around until I found my grandma sitting among several dozen other people's grandmas. There was no one to ask; there was no one to ask me whom I was looking for or why was I there. Kingsbridge Road was a safe place to be at that time, and nobody was wandering around an Old Age Home for fun, idle curiosity, or just to get out of the rain.
Times have changed, as Cole Porter used to say. All the 'old folks' have died out, to be replaced by several generations of 'senior citizens.' It is for men and women of my mother-in-law's generation that newer facilities like The Hebrew Home in Rockville, MD, (actually both a residence and a rehabilitation center) are fashioned out of that ubiquitous institutional reddish-brown brick. It was in this facility where Gwen Cole, the mother of my charming wife, was convalescing during the time we were visiting.
We finally arrived there, temporarily defeating our GPS, which was trying to send us to Savannah, GA. In today's facilities, you just don't walk in and wander around. like in the good old days. You go to the front desk, tell them whom you are visiting, sign in, and affix the "Visitor" sticker to a garment where it can be seen. By the time you get halfway to the elevator, you will have passed at least three dispensers of antiseptic soap and at least one sign advising you of the danger of GERMS to the residents and that you MUST keep washing your hands in a frenzy of compulsion. Almost as HAZARDOUS to their health, nearly as bad as microscopic organisms, was salt and caffeine. Not in their dining rooms! Decaf über alles! One might wonder how wise it is to make a woman who has been drinking four-cups a day of the real stuff for seventy years go cold turkey when she is supposed to be recovering from whatever it is that brought her there. Or one might wonder why any dietitian would want to eliminate all traces of sodium chloride from a person's diet. But once you start wondering, you're heading down a slippery slope. Supposing, for example, you started thinking about why a facility would feed cholent to someone with 'a bag,' causing instantaneous blockage and requiring prompt removal back to the hospital. I think this all fits under the general category of 'Killing with kindness,' one of the worst ways to go. Ask anyone.
I don't want to sound unduly harsh. All in all, the facility is quite good, and Gwen got excellent care there. Someone was invariably wheeling her off to physical therapy, and her insurance company was willing to foot the bill as long as it could be demonstrated that she was benefiting from the rehabilitation she was receiving. Of course, since had been back and forth from The Home to any number of local hospitals, it would have difficult to gauge her progress.
What I could gauge was the toll the four years had taken on Barbara's mother since I had last seen her. It wasn't as if she had gone through the Proustian transformations which I quoted in my last article. Gwen looked pretty much the same; it's just that she had become smaller, a process of shrinking which had started well before we left for The Land. Otherwise, she was still the same person I had met thirty three years before, sound of mind, a wonderful story teller with a treasury of memories about her life and those of her entire family over the century they had lived in Baltimore. It was as if I had known her and an entire generation of people, many of whom I had never met. My mother and father also had stories and memories, and, once in a while, one of those episodes would be taken of the shelf and warmed up. I had to listen closely. If I missed it, there might not be a repeat.
So here was this formerly robust woman pretty much dependent on the staff of The Hebrew Home for her well-being. During the week that we were there, the question was, which would prevail, Gwen's determination to 'go home,' back to her apartment,or the grim inevitability of physical decline, the congestive heart failure, the less-than-fully-functional kidneys. Or would these two forces battle each other to a draw? But while we were there, stuff could get done, some fairly trivial, like making sure bills were paid, dealing with The Washington Post which was arriving unbidden at her door every other day, dealing with the refrigerator, throwing out the coffee grinds. Some issues were more serious, requiring Gwen's attention. Did she have a signed Last Will and Testament? It might be on file with an attorney in Florida -- except the lawyer in question did not seem to be in practice any longer. Did she want to write her own obituary notice? Only folks made of sterner stuff can handle that one. What about funeral arrangements?
There are many family stories I've heard over and over again, and quite a few of them revolve around Barbara's father, who was, as I am told -- I never met him -- terminally obdurate. Cancer was wasting his body, but he was not, NOT, going to die. Therefore, there was no need to get him a cemetery plot. So when the unfortunate moment arrived, Barbara had to zip down to Baltimore ahead of the body to pay for his Final Resting Place.
Fortunately for all concerned, Barbara's mother has a more realistic attitude towards human mortality. One 'stubborn ass' in a family is more than enough, thank you. Some preliminary arrangements had been considered, but nothing was 'set in stone.' So the following day, Barbara and I were off to Sol Levinson & Bros., Inc., the only funeral home in the area which still adheres to traditional Jewish burial practices. Because the company offices are in a separate building from where the formerly real-live bodies would be brought, I could accompany my wife inside to our appointment. with one of the directors.
Choices. That's what's great about America. No matter what you're doing, you got choices. In The Land, your burial options are seriously limited. You get wrapped in a shroud and dumped into the ground. I'm not sure what choice you have about where they 'lay you to rest.' There is some consolation, however. There is, generally speaking, no cost; and you will be lying in Holy Ground.
We spent an hour or more dealing with burial choices and requirements in the State of Maryland. Do you want a graveside service, or one in the chapel? Do you want to designate an officiating rabbi, or should they pick one from their pool of talent? And the biggie: what kind of coffin do you want? Step into the coffin showroom to view their complete selection. This might be my only opportunity for this kind of tour!
One thing they don't have is a pre-owned model. Everything else, yes. Over here is the proverbial plain pine box, no handles; that was about seven or eight hundred dollars. You want handles and a little more elegant box, that will be a few hundred more. A lining inside and a head rest? A little more. By the time we reached the other side of the showroom, we were in Godfather territory, $10-15,000. For that price, you would be getting carved and polished mahogany with beveled edges, probably higher quality furniture than most of us have in our places among the living. If you want to lock in the price for the funeral arrangements, you can pre-pay. Otherwise, they will keep your record on file, and you can take care of the financial matters when the time comes. Of course, the price may have gone up by then....
Choices. Choices. For the record, Barbara's mom will get casket model #321 (poplar unfinished flat top) which runs about $1500. The "outer burial container" will be concrete for $875. For a little more we could have gotten a grave liner that was "guaranteed" not to leak, but we pinched pennies here. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing I want guaranteed when I am laid in the ground -- with or without a coffin -- is that I'm actually deceased. But in matters like these, I guess you can never be too careful. Then for twenty-five dollars, she will be buried with a small amount of "Israel earth." WHO KNEW???!!!! We certainly had room in our suitcases to bring our own. Does Israel earth need to be certified? Would it need an OU or Badatz label to be approved? Better not worry about that. Leave it to the experts. By the time they added up all the transportation and labor costs and all the other little items, the cost for a modest funeral was over $8500.
The good news was that Gwen was not on her way out and would not be in imminent need of Sol and his bros.' services. She might even accrue interest on the money in her "prearranged funeral Trust Account," meaning she might have to pay taxes on that interest. What's the business about "death and taxes.". Perhaps taxes are even more certain than death. Something to think about.