Friday, May 7, 2010

Doris and Harold

During my sister's recent visit to Boston, we took a walk, the four of us, through Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Dory noticed a gravestone bearing a symbol that was new to her: a sculpted stump of a tree. I explained that it meant the person buried there had died young—had been cut off in his or her prime. "Doris's grave has one," I added. "I could show you."

So the next day we drove out to a Jewish cemetery on Washington Street in Woburn, Mass. to see the graves of Doris and Harold, our dad’s younger sister and brother, who died at 21 and 25 respectively—Doris of pneumonia, suddenly, in 1937, and Harold of Hodgkin's disease in 1943, after a long battle.

Not only because they were so young when they died, nor because they are our namesakes, we think of them as brilliant and extraordinary. By all accounts, they were.

Doris was a gifted artist, a painter and sculptor. In our den, when I was a kid, we had a bust that she had made of a bearded Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It was perfect.

Harold was deft, too, a gentle wit, kind of Gatsby-handsome. I’ve seen one photo of him, with fair hair, and two of Doris’s watercolors of him in my uncle Norman’s home. I don’t have many Harold stories (or Doris ones either), but there’s this from one of my dad’s letters to my mom, shortly before they were married, in June of 1940:

Everybody here is well — including Harold, who looks like a million bucks. He’s quite a kid. I asked him to recite the alphabet so he promptly began, “A, B, C, D.” Then he stopped and I said, “Well, go ahead.” And a perplexed look crawled into his face and he said, “There’s more?"
* *

After the intersection with Montvale Ave., Washington Street loses its commercial apparatus, and after a few blocks, its trees. The cemeteries appear on the right, three of them. We pull in at the second one: Beth Joseph III.

I’m used to cemeteries, like Mt. Auburn and Medford’s Oak Grove, as places of nature: birding opportunities, mainly. There, the graves are peripheral, running third behind birds and trees. But this cemetery’s purpose is unambiguous. It is a roster of the dead. The graves are arrayed, sometimes crookedly, in long crowded rows, often with barely an inch of space between them. It is businesslike, nothing pastoral about it.

However, these dead are not entirely strangers. I don’t just mean Doris and Harold. While we’re hunting for their gravesites, it’s impossible not to feel a kind of kinship with these Bostonian Jews, those who had come over from Europe, or their children or grandchildren, some of them babies. Their names sound almost familiar: Morris and Ida Weiner, Libby Katz, Hyman Horch, Ida Polatnick, David Kadish. Some of them might have known one of the Obers, or known someone who knew an Ober or an Ober cousin, like Harris Sobell. Some of the graves even have photos in porcelain cameos. Libby Katz is broad and Russian-looking. Morris Weiner has a trim moustache and a banker’s bowler hat, but soulful eyes. His wife, Ida, looks formidable in her steel glasses.

Dory calls from a few rows away. She has found Doris’s grave. It’s tall, white, with a sugary texture, and the cut-off tree forms it like a pillar There is a cameo photo, too, almost painting-like. Dreamy eyes, sweet smile, wavy brown hair. I can imagine her mixing paints, shaping Tchaikovsky’s beard. Those eyes focused, making an artist’s calculations.

It occurs to me that they must have all been standing here on a cold day in February, all the brothers, Emil, Harold, Norman, and Ralph. Also their parents, Mike and Gussie, whose stone is now next to hers, the low gray one marked OBER.

Harold’s grave is one row away, near the street. It’s wider than Doris’s. No sculpted tree trunk, but a small inscribed tree showing the top hewn from the bottom. “In Our Hearts You Live Forever,” it says, and much more in Hebrew. As usual, I am struck by his birthdate—October 28, 1917—one day after mine.

He was never Hal, as far as I know. He inhabited the name Harold in a lithe, athletic way that I can’t. Maybe it was a more comfortable age for Harolds. (When some flack calls me Harold, I feel a tad geeky, as if I’ve suddenly sprouted an argyle sweater-vest.)

Nor do I think of Harold as an uncle (though we would have made a fine pair of uncle and nephew, I suspect, Harolding and heralding each other). More like an older brother I never knew.

Dory puts pebbles on the graves, a custom that makes me feel, as I follow suit, like I’m copying the adults I used to watch doing it. It’s akin to that feeling when my uncle Norman, the last of the Ober siblings, died in 2008, and when my mom died a few months later: “We’re the grownups now.”

In our hearts they live forever. Well, sort of. I'd like to think a reanimation does happen. The revival of a lively imagination or a warm memory. Kind of like the way “The Sixth Sense” ended, with “I see dead people” becoming a good thing, a useful thing, not a scary thing, both for the dead and the living.

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