The shroud was a plain, straw-colored cotton fabric taped to the mausoleum’s wall. It concealed the name, newly carved into the granite façade, that my sister and I were to unveil. The material had been carefully placed there earlier that Sunday by attendants at the South Florida cemetery, where most of the deceased are “buried” above the earth to prevent the groundwater’s raising the dead to the surface. The obligatory period had passed since my mother died. We were at the site of her small tomb to perform the Jewish unveiling ceremony.

My family had traveled down from the northeast to gather in the humid air and brilliant sun for the purpose of honoring my mother. Jewish tradition calls for unveiling the grave marker after the prescribed mourning period, which is eleven months for parents, though some perform the unveiling much earlier, after as little as one month. Psalms are read and memories shared. Then the cloth covering the headstone is removed and the mourner’s prayer, the Kaddish, is recited. The ritual is a spiritual reunion that helps close the wounds of loss.

Each of us present had memories of my mother. Mine centered on some of the words she liked to use, words that channeled her Yiddish and Russian roots. One I dearly recall was chozzerai, meaning what today would be called junk food: food not fit to eat that you really wanted to have. A special variant of chozzerai were vorchecks (phonetically spelled since I can’t find it anywhere): these were those special sweets, like Entenmann’s or Dugan’s cupcakes, or homemade fudge, that were truly irresistible. Contrasting with these delectables was dreck, euphemistically defined as excrement and meant to convey a foulness you had better avoid.

Then there is my favorite word of all, shpilkes, which a Yiddish dictionary will tell you means nervous energy, the inability to sit still, or even an unstoppable mental restlessness. But looking back on my family’s history I think the word conveys something more than this. To me, shpilkes defines the immigrant cast of mind: the vigorous attitude of those who had the daring to leave their homeland, the energy to rebuild a life and the hope to sustain them through the hardships and challenges they would inevitably endure.

My mother’s way through her own life was lit by two beacons that guided every decision she ever made: family and work. Coming of age in the Great Depression, she and the other members of her small family were beneficiaries of America’s remarkable meritocracy; my grandparents owned and ran family businesses, which they later passed down to their children. It was a time and place and a way of life that welded family and work seamlessly together. There was no real tension between home and work, as so many people feel these days, because there was no difference between home and work, except for the location. Even today, my sister has a family business, though I was allowed to depart to become—every Jewish mother’s dream for her son!—a doctor.

The Jews invented a good thing with the ritual of unveiling. Four seasons have passed, underscoring nature’s cycle of endings and rebirth. Grief is now gone, though sorrow persists. Life has made its adaptations. Memory remains remarkably fresh. It is time for the Kaddish. It is time for a family to offer thanks for the gifts bestowed and to unite for an uncertain future.

Present at the unveiling is my nephew’s babbling, bright-eyed, and notably fidgety eight-month-old son. Life has come full circle, shpilkes and all. My mother, looking down on three generations of offspring, would likely beam with pride, eager to tell the nearest celestial passerby about her family. She would be kvelling, the Yiddish word for when someone is bursting with pride.

Lloyd I. Sederer is a psychiatrist and medical journalist.

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Published in the 2012-05-04 issue: View Contents
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