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The Indian Love Call
By Josh Karp
The day before I punched the Rabbi was not a good one. It was Saturday night and I was dating an awful girl. An overweight, angry Irish daughter of alcoholics who seemed intent on taking me down with her. My brother, in town for the week, called just as this girl and I were sitting down to watch a basketball game.
"Hey Sam, how ya doing." I said.
"Not so good Max. Dad wants you to meet us at Northwestern. Grandma's in the emergency room."
My 94 year old grandmother had been having little strokes and congestive heart failure for nearly two years. Whenever we were ready to give up and accept that she was dying, she would do something like come out of a coma, walk down the hall with the back of her gown open, and scream at the nurse, "where the hell is Dr. Rooney. I want my dinner. "
I arrived at the hospital to find my whole family sitting in the emergency
room. Everyone that is, except for my father.
"Sam, where's dad?" I said.
"With the doctors."
"Have you seen her?" I asked.
"No, nobody has, except for maybe dad. Henryka brought her here."
In her final days my grandmother was cared for by a succession of Polish nurses. Henryka was the only one who had lasted for more than a few weeks. You see, my grandmother firmly believed that everyone was stealing from her.
Her first Polish nurse was named Jolanta. After meeting her my father called me.
"Pal, I've just hired a nurse for your grandmother."
"Really." I said, underwhelmed.
"She's a Polish immigrant and she is incredible. One of the most
magnificently beautiful women you will ever see. I mean really
extraordinary. She could be a model of some kind, except that her teeth are very crooked. It's horrible how conditions are for people back in Poland."
"Yes, terrible. All of those crooked teeth."
"Max, don't be a wise guy. She's very beautiful, classical, like a Greek
The beautiful nurse made health food for my grandmother and quit after two weeks out of frustration over my grandmother's constant accusations that she had been stealing her underwear.
"Dad, is grandma going to be okay?" Sam asked as my father entered the waiting room.
"Everybody come here." My father said, walking past Sam.
We all circled around to hear the news.
"Well," he said, followed by a long pause, "Grandma's going to die tonight.
Here's what we're going to do."
I've heard more shocking, and even worse news in my life, but never have I heard that kind of news delivered quite that way.
I don't remember many of the details of my father's great master plan for how we were all going to get through my grandmother's death, but after a lead in like that, who could. I do remember that I was supposed to retrieve her personal effects from the nurse on duty, while they moved my grandmother to a private room upstairs.
The nurse was young and sweet and seemed to be from somewhere like Indiana. The two of us stood there in the hallway. She told me how sorry she was and began handing me my grandmother's clothes and purse. The last item she passed to me was a collection of beads.
"I'm sure that your grandmother's faith must have brought her great comfort in her final moments. She was holding them so tightly." Said the nurse.
After some thought I realized that my grandmother had been holding a rosary. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be such a big deal except for the fact that my grandmother was Jewish. That her Judaism was simply cultural and a served primarily as a large wedge with which to divide herself from the rest of society - the dreaded gentiles - seemed beside the point. I knew the rosary would drive my dad crazy, so I tucked it into the pocket of my pants to save for a moment when I really needed it.
Later Henryka, who took my grandmother to church, more than she had been to temple in her whole life, would tell me that my grandmother had died, and then come back to life when she put the rosary into her hand. Somehow this seemed fitting.
As my grandmother was being wheeled upstairs, the planning began in earnest.
My father, grandma's only living child, was in charge. He ran the family
business and he would be running grandma's death.
"Okay," he said as he rubbed his hands together, " we need to have a funeral."
Everybody nodded their heads in agreement. This was perhaps the only thing that I can remember my parents ever agreeing on, save that I ought to go to Harvard, at least for law school.
"What. Are you an idiot. Have you completely lost your mind." My father had another idea, and my mother was disagreeing.
"Edie. God. Edie. Oy, yoi, yoi, Edie, what do you want me to do." If we
were home this would be the point just before my dad stormed up the stairs mumbling "goddamn, fucking, son of a bitch", and then slam the bed room door until he returned about 30 minutes later, seemingly composed and would say something manly like "Honey, you're absolutely right". Needless to say, my desire to date a Jewish woman never quite kicked in.
My mother continued. "Matthew, think. Just think you idiot. Three days of Shiva. You asshole, she was 94 years old."
"Edie. Jesus, Edie. What do you want me to do." Said my father in his own defense.
"She hated everybody, you idiot and even the people she hated are dead."
On this point my mother was right. My grandmother had been narrowing the list of people to whom she would speak since before my birth. Often I would ask "how is Mrs. Gold", only to be fixed with a glare and a sharp, "she and I are no longer associated." Grandma was a sweet woman, however, she took her random dislikes very seriously.
"Edie, will you listen to me. Will you please just listen to me." My father
"You Idiot. You Idiot." Said my mother, as if it were a very loud mantra.
Sam, who was seldom the voice of reason, weighed in with sage words, "will the two of you shut the fuck up."
He was clearly a man in desperate need of a bong hit. I hadn't been around Sam that much during the past few years, but when we were together his conversation generally revolved around smoking pot, growing pot and things that it was cool to do either during or after smoking pot. He was perhaps the single most unambitious person I had ever met, and his only area of expertise seemed to be in the cultivation of marijuana. You could ask him about politics, sports, literature, anything and he would have little to add to the conversation, save his boredom. However, he and his friends would have interminably long horticultural conversations analyzing the various hybrid strains of marijuana they were developing at that moment in time. Looking back, it was like sitting with a bunch of highly educated, illicit, botanical Martha Stewart's. It was their particular area of genius - though a sadly limited one.
At this point I excused myself from the waiting room to go some place more cheerful and upbeat. I went to the room where my grandmother lay unconscious.
My old grandma was in a coma, her heart beating slower and slower and her breath getting more and more shallow every few minutes. Ironically, she looked great, elegant, beautiful in a way I had never seen her. Her hair wasn't up, as it had been my whole life, but long and spread out all over the pillow. She was thin in her hospital gown. She had always been big. Her sickness had caused her to lose weight, yet her frailty was not disturbing. Rather, it made her look wise, and sweet and all of the things she had usually been too funny and crazy to be.
I sat there by her bed trying to think. What the hell was I supposed to be
thinking about. She was old, very old. And she had never been happy. She had been funny as hell and I think had a good time sometimes, but she always felt like she was missing the boat somehow. She used to tell me how she would watch "Wall Street Week", in hopes of learning the markets or of how she wished my father would give her a job so that she could "learn the business." But, she never did anything actively, just passively, hoping to learn, to learn how to do something, anything. That's what I thought about.
Sam came into the hospital room.
"Dude. How is she."
"Gee Sam, I don't know. Think she'll make it?" I was not in the mood to be disturbed.
"Sorry man. You know, she really looks great though. Like best ever."
He was right.
"And totally peaceful. All of the craziness must have really gotten to her
when she was alive, cause it's like it drained out of her face now."
About ten minutes later, as Sam and I sat there, my grandmother stopped
breathing and died. Sam got upset and left. I sat there and just looked at
her for a while, not wanting her to be alone. After about ten minutes I
kissed her forehead. It was already cold.
Everyone went in and paid their respects to grandma. It didn't take long.
Afterwards we went for some Chinese food and then home to bed.
At about 10:00 the next morning, the family convened at my parent's house to meet with the Rabbi.
Rabbi Gendelman had never impressed me. My primary experiences with his forward thinking brand of Judaism had come at High Holiday services to which my mother and I were dragged by my father. About five minutes into the service, both of my parents would somehow find a way to get comfortable enough in the synagogue's orange-backed, plastic folding chairs to settle into a deep and unremitting sleep. This left me, a religious insomniac, to listen to the sing-songy, amoral ramblings of our great religious leader.
"People ask me about the age of enlightenment. They ask me, Rabbi Gendelman, what was it all about? I say unto them" He actually would refer to himself as "saying unto" others. "The age of enlightenment was about education. About the Jewish people enjoying education and realizing its importance, both for its own sake and for practical purposes. And today you can look around this room and see the fruits of this age of enlightenment hundreds of years later. As I look at this congregation, I see not only people. I see not only Jews. I see doctors, lawyers, accountants. Small businessmen?"
He went on and on, pointing out how this great age of enlightenment had made a good living for most Jews. It seemed kind of shallow for the holiest day of the year and I'm not even religious.
The Rabbi sat drinking lemon tea on my mother's white sofa in her white
living room. He was a spindly man in an appropriately mid-priced blue suit. His tanned bald spot was surrounded by a graying halo of lightly curled hair and a long straight nose sat atop thin lifeless lips. From those lips came a lilting voice that made everything he said sound like a question.
"So, Mills family. You have lost a loved one. One so dear to you. Your
I looked at Sam, who was quite stoned, and the two of us giggled a little bit at how preposterous all of this would be.
The Rabbi continued, frowning, as if we had interrupted and made him lose his place.
"Your mother. Or grandmother, as the case may be. This Elizabeth Berman Mills, she was 94 years old. A long life, to be certain. But no doubt, one marked with both happiness and pain. The bitter and the sweet. The sweet as well as the bitter. I touched on this very matter in my sermon last Friday. It was entitled "The Bitter and The Sweet". I was contemplating the works of Maimonides and how they touch the end of the life cycle and the beginning of...."
I sat there, trapped, wondering if my parents would fall asleep. I couldn't
take another sermon.
"Please, tell me about that happiness. And tell me of the pain as well."
And with that we began. My father spoke first.
"Well Rabbi, you didn't know my mother. But, she was a real character."
Rabbi Gendelman arched one dark graying eyebrow and leaned forward with the kind of intense inquisitiveness that they must build a whole semester around at the Yeshiva.
"Continue." He said.
"Well, my dad used to say that when my mother went to the butcher, it was an adventure for her and it was an adventure for the butcher." My father said with a smile.
The other eyebrow rose halfway making the Rabbi look as if he were about to tangle with some very cryptic theological riddle.
"I see." He said nodding his head to encourage my father.
"My mom. Well she was eccentric. Like a lot of older women are. But she had always been that way. I'm sorry Rabbi. I don't know where to start."
The Rabbi smiled, "At the beginning Matthew. At the beginning."
"Dad," Sam broke in, "do you remember when she kissed Dean Martin. That was too great."
"Dean Martin?" The Rabbi inquired. "The popular entertainer?"
"Yes. My mother belonged to a country club where one of the members was extremely well connected. And every Tuesday night in the summer, he would bring a different celebrity to the club for dinner and bingo."
"Except the club was named Bryn Mawr, and they called it Bryno instead of bingo." Sam said in hysterics.
Rabbi Gendelman looked quite confused.
"That's right," said my Father, "anyway, one night Dean Martin was this
gentleman's guest. Yul Brynner had come one evening, Mayor Daley, Dick Butkus. Everyone. But my mom never really said anything to any of them. She would usually wait until they were walking by and then say things like - 'is that fat man really Mayor Daley.'"
"She'd always say this really funny, crazy stuff. It was like she was
senile, but she wasn't." Sam said.
I, was eating. Lox and bagels, cream cheese, capers, coffee cake, fresh
squeezed orange juice, coffee. My mom knew how to throw a rabbinical eulogy consultation brunch with the best of them.
"Well," my dad continued, "the night Dean Martin was there, he walked by our table, and out of the blue my mother yelled "Yoo Hoo. Deano." We all froze, nobody knew what she would say next."
"I see." Said the Rabbi. However, his encouraging nod was temporarily in retirement.
"Well he stopped. Very cool and suave. He said, 'yes darling'. And she
asked him if he would like to dance." My father explained. "He responded, 'My dear it would be a pleasure.' And with that my mom danced the night away with Dean Martin. She must have been 70 at the time. And when they finished she kissed him. The whole way home she sang "The Indian Love Call."
"The wha ..." Said the Rabbi. His voice was not lilting.
Sam said, "You know - When I'm calling you, ooo, ooo, ooo, ooo, ooo, ooo. Will you answer true, ooo, ooo, ooo."
"Ah, the Indian Love Call." Rabbi Gendelman said in agreement.
"It was so cool." Sam was quite high.
"Please. Tell me more about her life." The Rabbi said, wanting to get back down to brass tacks. "Mrs. Mills, perhaps you would like to share some of your recollections with us."
My mother looked as if she had just been called on in 6th grade math while she was staring out the window at other kids having recess. Except my mom's adult version of recess had been staring at me eating on her white couch. Laying in wait for one crumb. She had built quite a little life around this kind of stuff.
"Oh. Oh. Rabbi, she was special. So special. So very special."
"Special how?" Asked the Rabbi, actually thinking that there was some
content down there.
This question had never been asked of my mother. Her internal record had skipped. I enjoyed watching the panic on her face.
"Just special. And sweet." She said hopefully. "And very loving. And
Such depth. Such insight. I could tell that she couldn't go on much longer. This was getting far too deep. It was like some philosophy course she didn't want to take in college.
The Rabbi was pleased. He actually thought he was getting somewhere. "Any specific memories you'd care to recall."
My mother was beyond panic, about to completely lose her shit. She stared at him.
He was unrelenting in his pursuit of a good anecdote for the funeral, "You know instances of her ... specialness."
"Rabbi." My mother said sheepishly. "I'm not a good public speaker."
"And I'm very emotional right now. I'd rather wait until I'm a little bit
more composed." Something like tears were welling up in her eyes and the Rabbi mistaking them for tears of grief, rather than terror, gave her a
compassionate glance and said, "Of course. Of course." As if how could he have been so silly to pry so intently.
I looked up from my food and told a story about my grandmother's car. She had a 1968 Cadillac Biarritz Convertible. It was green, but she liked to say it was Creme de Pistachio. I used to take her shopping in it on Sundays. The shopping didn't involve just going to Dominicks or Jewel, but to every outlet store in the city, Fannie May, Holsum Bread, Vienna Beef. There she would find a "nice colored girl" and complain about the prices. We would have these crazy conversations in the car where she would say, "Do you know who I saw the other day when I was looking at the television." I would say that I didn't know. "Well, it was whatshisname, or whoosis, or whosamacallit." She couldn't remember anyone's name." I would say, "President Bush, or Mick Jagger, or Errol Flynn, or whoever," and she would always say yes and spin into a long incomprehensible and wildly entertaining story about whoever the hell it was. Then, I would tell her the most mundane story on the planet and she would laugh wildly saying "you're just pulling my leg."
Sam and my father laughed at the story. Even my mom feigned a sense of humor for the moment and actually cracked a smile. The Rabbi looked downcast.
He tried and tried and tried as he might to get a good eulogy story out of
us. My dad talked about my grandmother's upbringing, about her crazy father, about the chaotic household she ran. My brother told a few stories that might lead one to believe that he was already as nuts as my grandmother. And my mom leered at all of us when we would lean back on the sofa - fearing that our hair might leave a stain on the pillows, or perhaps just fearing anyone being relaxed enough to lean back anywhere.
The Rabbi stood up abruptly, a flush coming to his cheeks. He spoke
hesitantly, but with immense seriousness and power.
"I must tell all of you. You have given me very little to go on for this
eulogy. You have only shared humorous anecdotes. I can't use that type of material"
I found the use of the word material to be a tad eerie.
"I am more than a little bit disappointed in what you have told me. But," he said brightly, "I will think about what you have said and cobble something together that will do her honor tomorrow."
I looked around the room. Sam's mouth hung wide open. My father was
embarrassed and my mother looked as if someone was sitting on the sofa with an open bottle of ketchup in one hand and an indelible marker in the other.
I spoke up. "What the fuck is your problem?"
This seemed to wake everyone up.
"Hey, pal. What's going on." My dad was always great in these situations.
The Rabbi looked down at me as if I was the stupidest, most unsophisticated Philistine in all of Christendom or Jewendom, or whatever it was. "Son, please, let's not get ..."
"Not get what? You pompous shit. You come in here", I was standing now, "and tell us that our recollections are inappropriate. Not usable material."
"Listen son, you're", I was moving towards him. Suddenly I felt a rush of
power. I was far bigger than him and it was all that I had at the time.
"What? What?" I screamed, getting closer. "I'm what?".
"Mrs. Mills, can't you ..." He pleaded in my mortified mother's direction.
With that I hit him. I knew he thought that I was going to do something, but I still caught him by surprise. Perhaps he suspected a shaking by the
lapels, or my getting right up in his face like a manager and umpire arguing over balls and strikes. But, I hit him, right in the center of his chest, making a hollow sound, as if there were nothing inside of him at all.
The rabbi landed on an empty love seat. My mother and father rushed over to him. He was gasping for air. I wanted to scream at him. To really let him have it for his ignorance, his false morality, the way he treated my family, for being part of any religion that would foist Hebrew school on unsuspecting children not just on Sundays, but on Tuesdays and Thursday's after school.
But, I said nothing. I simply sat down on the sofa and stared at the scene, while Sam giggled next to me. For him this was wonderful, stoned voyeurism at it's best.
When the Rabbi was gone the screaming began.
"Max. You little bastard. Are you nuts. Are you nuts. This is so typical
of you. So destructive. So destructive. Always a failure."
"Max. Pal. What's going through your head pal. Why would you do something like that."
I felt like hitting both of them, but I punched the Rabbi because he was rude to all of us. Them included. I was very confused, but also pleased. About punching the rabbi that is.
"This is your fault. You stupid son of a bitch." My mother screamed at my father. "I let you raise him."
"Edie, Jesus Christ Edie, what do you want from me."
And with that, there we were. Together once more.
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Document last modified on: 01/12/2002