The Passing of Ruth Klein
By Jay Jacoby
On Tuesday morning the rabbi called to tell me that Ruth Klein had died. I’m wondering, Who’s Ruth Klein? Did we read her in Book Club? Was she some grand old blue-hair from Hadassah? I only hoped that maybe the rabbi would mistake my dumbstruck silence for something more profound than memory loss.
Before I could embarrass myself by asking anything, the rabbi continued, in that voice like when he makes the Yahrzeit announcements on Saturday morning,“In solemn testimony to that unbroken faith which links…”
“Nancy, I’m so sorry. Her niece called. The body’s being flown south from Detroit. Before she died, Ruth specifically requested that you be asked to say something at the funeral. It’s a graveside service at Menorah Gardens at eleven on Thursday morning. I’m so deeply saddened and so very sorry, Nancy, for your loss. But God is a righteous judge. Please let me know if there’s anything at all I can do to help.”
Before I could say, “Yeah, Rabbi, maybe you could remind me who Ruth Klein was,” he hung up.
My loss? From Detroit? I was asked to speak? About what? About whom? Then I thought, wait a minute, Ruth Klein, that little woman from up north, she was here two or three years ago, stayed about six months, and then just sort of vanished. I saw her maybe a dozen times. We didn’t leave one another on the best of terms. She stood me up for lunch. And the next thing I know she had moved out, without a word to anyone.
Now I’m wondering how I could have forgotten her so easily. We were both widows. She was maybe ten years older than me. Her husband—he was some kind of business professor—had a major stroke right in the middle of some lecture on tax shelters. I think she told me he lasted about a month after the stroke. And she wasn’t from Detroit. From somewhere in Ohio—Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, someplace like that. Actually, I think she told me they lived in all those places, that her husband moved from school to school. Ruth and her husband had a son who died while he was away at college. Al and I couldn’t have any kids. Ruth and I both liked canasta and we both liked to bake. We worked together making hundreds of rugelach for a Sisterhood luncheon.
After her husband died, Ruth moved here to get away from the cold and to live near a nephew—her sister’s kid, I think. He was some kind of macher at Bank of America. A month after she moved here, he got transferred to somewhere in Europe. I guess that’s when I met her.
But speak at her funeral? I hardly knew her. Why me? Certainly, she must have had other friends here. This is bad. I’m going to look like an idiot! I need someone to help. One of the girls is going to have to come with me, speak with me. Oy! This isn’t going to be easy. Especially considering what happened when Ruth “hosted” the card game.
Eight women from B’nai Aaron had been getting together to play cards every other Thursday afternoon for almost three years. After Faith Cooper died, we needed to add someone to the Canasta Club. I suggested this woman I had just met at shul,I couldn’t even remember her name then, and everyone thought it was fine.
I brought Ruth along to Mimi Mikkelson’s one Thursday and she seemed to fit in. She was a bit shy, but she really knew how to play cards. She was also pretty savvy whenever the talk turned to finances. I think she’d worked as a bookkeeper once upon a time. For about three months, Ruth was a regular in our Thursday afternoon group. At first, she was really into the game, won a lot of times. Everyone wanted to be her partner. After a while, though, she seemed to stop caring much about cards. We had to keep focusing her on the game, and she had less and less to say. When she did speak, her comments seemed out of place. She’d start joking about the rebbetzin’spoor cooking: “Her specialty is mandelbroit…doorstops.” Or she’d ask indiscreet questions about the single men in the congregation.
The game finally rotated to her house. I called her one Thursday morning to ask if I could bring anything to the game. She seemed insulted by my offer, curtly replying, “I’m quite capable of hosting a card game! See you tonight.” I reminded her that we played at one in the afternoon. “Of course, I know that. See you then.”
When we arrived that day, it was clear that Ruth had done nothing to prepare. She had only three decks of cards and we needed four for our two games of canasta, so Ruth had to knock on neighbors’ doors until she could find another deck to borrow. She returned, unapologetic, muttering something about how she thought we would have brought extra cards.
Ruth had a small garden apartment in a place called Firethorne.I had been there twice before, but not very recently. Now it looked like a warren for dust-bunnies. There was this persistent odor of sour milk that no amount of Airwick could cover. And two of the six bulbs from the fixture over her dining room table had burned out—who knows how long ago.
Whoever hosted the game was expected to put out some kind of spread. The host would bake, or at least get something from one of Charlotte’s better bakeries. We’d have a fruit or cheese tray, or both. We’d have fresh brewed coffee and an assortment of teas. Ruth put out a plate of a dozen Nutter Buttersand some Fig Newtons. There were a few overripe bananas with accompanying fruit-flies. There was a box of Town Housecrackers and a paper plate containing cubes of cream cheese, each topped with a green olive and speared with a wooden toothpick. For drinks we had a choice of Lipton’s tea or Food Lion instant. No lemon. No sweetener. Only Cremora.
I think we set a record for the fastest game in history. Bertie Miller developed stomach problems within fifteen minutes of arriving. Shirley Silverman had to leave early to pick up her granddaughter from the orthodontist. Mimi couldn’t stay long because Neil was bringing a colleague home for dinner. Others made excuses. At half-past two, we were done. Usually, we talked and played until at least five. I offered to help Ruth clean up, but she dismissed me, saying she’d rather do it herself.
After that day, Ruth dropped out of the Canasta Club. Nobody seemed to care. When I hosted, about a month later, I called to ask Ruth back. She dismissed my invitation, saying she had more important things to do. I think I saw her only once more at shulone Friday night. She was alone, there for yahrzeit, for either her husband or son. She looked so different. She had put on at least twenty pounds, which on her barely five-foot frame was an awful lot. She looked pretty disheveled and didn’t seem to care at all about her appearance. When I approached her, she acted like she hardly recognized me, or that she couldn’t be bothered talking.
For some reason, I felt sorry for her and invited her to have lunch with me the next Wednesday at Catherine’s Bistro. (That’s where I took her shortly after we’d first met—at a Yizkor service the week after Sukkot.) She said that would be nice. I called her Tuesday evening to remind her about our lunch. She managed to say that she’d be there, but she didn’t have anything else to say. She never showed.
I called her several times during the next day or two but got no answer. When I told Mimi and Shirley about it, they said I was wasting my time. That Friday, I drove over to Ruth’s apartment. Her unit was empty. When I checked with the manager, he said Mrs. Klein had moved out on Wednesday afternoon, gone up north to live with her sister. He wasn’t upset with her sudden exit, noting that Firethorne was better off without flashers. I figured he’d somehow confused Ruth with someone else, but it was clear that her unit had been vacated.
I can’t believe I’m remembering all this now. When the rabbi called, was I just repressing a bad experience? So much has happened since back then. Shirley and Dave moved down to Boca. Bertie died of liver cancer. I actually went out with her husband a year later, but then he moved to Philly to be with his kids. The Canasta Club was over. Phyllis Braverman tried to revive it once, but it never worked out.
I had to find someone to go with me to this funeral. I knew Phyllis was out of the question. Sometime shortly before she skipped town, Ruth publicly referred to Phyllis as Charlotte’s own personal Yenta Telebenta, and it didn’t take long for word to get back to Phyllis. Myrna Gold was also a bad choice. She and I were hardly on speaking terms after I declined to take over the Spring Rummage Sale. Evelyn Gaines had defected to the Reform Temple.
I called Mimi. She was probably my closest friend. Her husband, Neil, had been Al’s doctor. Mimi and Neil really helped me get through Al’s leukemia. I knew she’d help me out.
“Oh, Nance, I’m so miserable.”
I was surprised. Maybe the rabbi had also called Mimi. Maybe she was going to speak, too. I never thought she had been that close to Ruth. She told me once that she had really been hurt by some of Ruth’s remarks about Mimi’s weight.
“So, you already heard?”
“Heard what? My gums are killing me and my periodontist is at some conference in Denver and can’t see me until Thursday morning. Oy, I’m dying!”
“I’m sorry about your gums, but the rabbi called me this morning. Ruth Klein died.”
“Who? Ruth Klein? That little nebbish from Ohio, the one who tried to poison us at the card game? The one who kept giving me Lane Bryant catalogues? I know we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but… Oy, my gums!”
“I feel bad about your mouth. But seriously, is there anything I can do?”
“No, they’ve got me gargling some vile stuff. And Neil just dropped off some Darvocet.”
“So I guess you won’t be in any shape to come with me to this funeral.”
“Nancy! I’m dying here! I’ve got a ten o’clock appointment with Dr. Branson on Thursday morning and I don’t plan to do anything but sleep until then. Why do you need me to come with you? Why are you even going? As I recall, you didn’t like this woman all that much.”
“Yeah, but she askedme to speak. And I don’t know what I can say. And I don’t want to look stupid in front of everyone.”
“Oy, I gotta take a pill. What do you mean Ruth asked youto speak? She called you before she died?”
“The rabbi said that Ruth’s niece said that Ruth asked that I say something at her funeral. I’m going to look so dumb.”
I heard Mimi gargling in the background. Then she said, “Feh!This stuff tastes like liquid garbage. Who are you going to look dumb to? It’s not like this nudnik was Hilda Perlmutter.”
Hilda Perlmutter was the grand dame of the shul. Eighty-seven years old, she knew everyone and was consulted about everything. Mimi continued, “Who’s going to this funeral, anyway? And why’s she being buried here? I thought she was from somewhere in Ohio.”
“I don’t know why she’s being buried here. I’m sure her family will be at the funeral. And someone from the Sisterhood. And the rabbi and some people from B’nai Aaron.”
“Well, Nance, count me out. Thursday morning I’m going to be lying back in Branson’s chair getting my gums scraped. Actually, I think I’d rather be there than at Ruth Klein’s funeral.”
I heard Mimi laughing, painfully. I said, “A lot of help you are. Isn’t there anyone else you know who knew this woman while she was here?”
“Try Shirley Wise. I think she brought her in. Listen, kid, I gotta go lie down. I’m sorry I can’t help, but I feel like if these painkillers don’t work soon, I’m gonna be joining Ruth Klein aleha hasholem.”
“Okay. Thanks. I hope you feel better. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Shirley Wise and her husband, Marty, were big machers at B’nai Aaron. Marty was the current synagogue president. Shirley had been Sisterhood president for several years. Before that, she was chair of the Membership Committee, which was probably how she got to know Ruth. I figured I’d call Shirley, even though she wasn’t one of my favorite people. For such a big wheel at the shul, she always made me feel like I didn’t belong.
Before I called Shirley, I wanted to get back in touch with the rabbi. Now that the shock had worn off—not of Ruth’s death, but of my being asked to speak at her funeral—I needed to ask a few questions.
“Rabbi Adler, it’s Nancy Segal. Can we talk for a minute?”
“I’ve got a four o’clock meeting. Can I call you tomorrow?”
“Could you just answer a few quick questions? Do you know when Ruth Klein’s family is getting to town? I’d like to talk with them before the funeral. And do you know why Ruth is being buried here instead of Detroit or Ohio?”
“Nancy, her family isn’t coming to town. She lost her husband years ago and I don’t think she had any children. Her only sister died last year. She’s only got a nephew in Zurich and the niece in Detroit. The niece said that neither she nor her brother could come down for the funeral. I only know that Ruth specifically asked to be buried here, in Menorah Gardens. Apparently she made those arrangements years ago. I thought you’d know more about that. I’ve really got to be off. If you need me, call me at home tonight.”
“Rabbi, just one more thing. Is there any way I can get in touch with Ruth’s niece?”
“Diane should have her number in Detroit. I’m so glad Ruth had you as a friend here. Be well.”
I phoned the synagogue office and, with my uncanny mazel, got a recording reminding me that office hours were from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. The fact that the synagogue office was closed, coupled with the rabbi’s words about my being Ruth’s “friend,” didn’t do anything to ease my desperation. I kept trying to think of what I had done that would cause Ruth to ask me to speak at her funeral. I couldn’t think of a thing. I girded my loins and phoned Shirley.
“Hello, Shirley? This is Nancy Segal from the synagogue.”
“Of course. You don’t have to identify yourself, dear. Are you calling about the Sisterhood fundraiser? Phyllis B. already beat you to it.”
“No, Shirley, it’s not about that. Do you remember Ruth Klein?”
Unlike me, some people seem to have perfect memories. Shirley responded quickly, her voice filled with dread, “Why? She’s not back in Charlotte, is she?”
“No, I’m afraid she’s dead. Her funeral is this Thursday morning.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Where can we send a donation?”
“I don’t know. I’m calling to find out what you can remember about Ruth.”
“Remember? Not much. Marty and I had her to Shabbos dinner when we were given her name as a potential member. I was chairing the committee then. She came with her nephew, a banker, not very Jewish-looking, who had just found out he was being transferred somewhere overseas. I remember she seemed uncomfortable, had very little to say, but seemed to fawn over her nephew. Marty called her ‘the little zombie.’ I think her husband had just died and she came here to be with family.”
Somehow I couldn’t imagine anyone feeling all that comfortable around Shirley, or Marty. “Is there anything else you remember?” I asked.
“Why are you so curious, Nancy? I hardly knew her. I introduced her around the shul one Shabbos morning, and then I didn’t have much to do with her.”
“I’m curious because I’ve been asked to speak at her funeral at Menorah Gardens.”
“She’s being buried here? You’re a dear to speak about her. I’m so sorry I won’t be able to attend the funeral. Marty and I are going out of town on Friday, and I’ve got so much to do to get ready. Oops! I’ve got another call coming in. Goodbye, Nancy.” Typical Shirley.
It had been less than eight hours since I’d been told of Ruth Klein’s passing and her odd request to have me speak at her funeral. By now I still didn’t know any more than when the rabbi called that morning. I was exhausted. I grabbed some leftover tuna and collapsed in front of the evening news.I woke up to Charlie Rose, staggered into my bedroom, and slept fitfully until first light.
At 8:01 a.m. I called the synagogue office and Diane gave me a phone number for Ruth’s niece in Detroit. I called her right away and got her answering machine:
“Hi. This is Chrissy and Pete. If we’re not answering we’re either at work or makin’ love. What else is there to life? Leave a message and we’ll get back to you once we get tired of one or the other.”
I started thinking about what would be the worst that could happen if I just didn’t show up at Menorah Gardens tomorrow. It didn’t appear that anyone I knew was going to be there anyway. I could say my spastic colon started acting up—maybe not too far-fetched an excuse if I didn’t learn anything more about Ruth Klein before 11 a.m. Thursday. But I kept hearing Rabbi Adler lugubriously telling me about what a great mitzvah I would perform in talking about Ruth, “may her memory be for a blessing.”
I had an appointment to get my hair colored that morning. On my way back home, I swung by Firethornewhich wasn’t too far from my salon. I thought maybe Ruth had some neighbors who had something to tell me about her. I reintroduced myself to the building manager. He didn’t really remember her. Based on his Johnnie Walkerbreath, the memory loss probably had nothing to do with the passage of time. I reminded him about a sixtyish-year-old woman whom he once referred to as a “flasher.” Then he remembered.
“Oh, yeah. She was a good tenant for a while. Used to give me all kinds of baked goodies. Then, I swear, she started coming on to me! And when the weather turned warm, right before she left, her neighbors began complaining that she sat on her balcony all day naked except for some flimsy housecoat. I sent her a note about it, but the next thing you know, she was moving out.”
I asked about the neighbors. He said he thought they had all moved away, too. Another dead end.
I spent the rest of the day skimming eulogies on the Internet. I tried calling Mimi, hoping to exchange some sympathy, but she wasn’t picking up. At about seven, I had a Lean Cuisineand prepared for a sleepless night. In sixteen hours I’d be saying things like “We shouldn’t fear death because it is our destiny,” and quoting from authors I’d never read, like S.Y. Agnon: “Blessed are those who remember what is forgotten.” Of course, I had no idea about what any of this really meant.
Trying, without success, not to think any more about what I’d be saying, I got out my charcoal skirt and jacket for tomorrow. I made sure my ivory blouse didn’t need to be ironed. I decided against a scarf (too flashy) and got out the strand of pearls Al gave me for our last anniversary. I’d worn them only a few times. At Al’s funeral. At his unveiling. At Yizkor on Yom Kippur. The thought of wearing them to something festive seemed totally out of place.
I thought maybe a hot bath would help me fall asleep. As I got into the tub, I wondered why Ruth’s niece hadn’t returned my call. Why wasn’t she coming to the funeral? Had Ruth said or done something to alienate her? I had hardly gotten wet before the phone rang. Usually, I’d let the machine answer but I knew I’d never be able to relax until I found out who it was. Dripping, I got to the phone before the fourth ring.
“Hi, this is Chrissy Ryan, Ruth’s niece from Detroit.”
“Hello,” I said, taken aback by the perkiness of the voice at the other end. “I’m so sorry about your aunt.”
“Umm. Thanks. I’m sorry I can’t come to the funeral. I’m going to have a baby in about three weeks and the doctor says I shouldn’t take any trips. I shouldn’t be working either, but Pete and I just started up a Starbucks, and I try to help out as much as I can. I missed a lot yesterday because I had to take care of getting Aunt Ruth’s body shipped to Charlotte.”
“Yes, I understand.” Though I didn’t really. I’d never been pregnant and I thought a death in the family trumped work. “Chrissy, do you know why your aunt wanted to be buried in Charlotte? She was only here for a year. Why not in Detroit or Ohio?”
“Umm, there’s nothing in Ohio. And the only thing here is the cemetery where my mom and dad are. And I don’t think my aunt wanted to be buried in Our Lady of Hope Cemetery. My mom converted to Catholicism when she met my Dad. His family has a mausoleum at Our Lady of Hope.”
“I see,” I said.
“Anyways,” Chrissy continued, still chirping along, “Aunt Ruth really liked North Carolina. As soon as she came here she told my mom how she wanted to be buried in the Jewish cemetery there. And she told us all about you, about how nice you were to her, about how your husband had died and you went to visit his grave and all.”
I sat wrapped in a damp towel, not knowing what to say. Finally I managed, “Do you know why your aunt left Charlotte?”
“Yeah, sure. Once she got diagnosed with Pick’s, the doctor told her that she’d need to live with someone or somewhere where people could understand her.”
“Pick’s? I don’t follow. Was your aunt ill?”
“You didn’t know?” Whatever perkiness that was in Chrissy’s voice had vanished. Maybe she wasn’t quite the ditz that I’d thought her to be. Now it was her turn to be silent. After a pause she continued.
“Aunt Ruth had Pick’s Disease. Her brain was slowly breaking down and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. It’s pretty much like Alzheimer’s, except it’s much rarer. We think my grandmother had it, too. Ruth’s symptoms started to kick in around the time she moved south. I thought you knew all about it.”
“I had no idea. I don’t think anyone here did,” I stammered, trying to wrap my head around what Chrissy was telling me.
“Pick’s changes a person,” Chrissy continued. “They lose interest in things. They stop getting along with other people. They get rude and stop caring about themselves and everyone around them. They lose their inhibitions. I’ll never forget when Pete and I came to my mom’s for dinner one night and Aunt Ruth came out only in her birthday suit, all 175 pounds of her.”
I must have muttered something like “Oh dear!” That was about as articulate as I could get.
Chrissy went on. I learned that, at her doctor’s suggestion, Ruth had moved back to Detroit to live with her sister, Frieda. At first, things weren’t too bad. Ruth had good and bad days. Then Ruth started to wander off from Frieda’s apartment (she could no longer drive) and her speech started to go. Less than a year after Ruth moved to Detroit, Frieda had a coronary. She went into intensive care and Ruth had to be put in a care facility for people with Alzheimer’s and related mental diseases. Frieda died without ever returning home. Ruth deteriorated. She became incontinent, barely able to move, and unable to speak for the last year of her life.
I listened, still wrapped in my towel, speechless. I’m sure Chrissy had to ask more than once if I was still on the line. As everything started to sink in, I again expressed my condolences, except this time I really meant it. But I still had questions.
“Chrissy, I was told that your aunt asked that I speak at her funeral service. How was this possible if she could no longer talk?”
“Aunt Ruth left a letter. She must have written it when she was still in Charlotte. It was enclosed with a receipt for a burial plot that she bought at Menorah Gardens. It simply said she wanted a Jewish funeral at a Jewish cemetery. It gave instructions about a headstone along with a $750 check to pay for it. And it said that she wanted Nancy Segal to say a few words about her. You must have done something to impress her. Um, listen, I have to go to the bathroom. You know, being pregnant and all.”
I then realized we had been talking for almost a half hour. “Sure, Chrissy, but can I call you back in a little bit, just for a few minutes? If I’m going to talk at the funeral, I’d like a few more details about Ruth’s life.”
“Okay. I’m really sorry Pete and I can’t come down for the funeral. And I’m pissed that Jacky, that’s my brother, won’t come back to the States. Aunt Ruth really loved him, and he just sort of ditched her right after she came south. I’m just glad Aunt Ruth had a friend like you. I gotta go.” She hung up.
Yeah, I thought, as I got into my nightgown. Some friend! It never even occurred to me that Ruth may have been ill. What had I done to “impress” her? I took her to lunch a few times. Sat with her at a Yizkorservice. Brought her in to our card came. Baked rugelach with her. Slowly, I recalled what we talked about in B’nai Aaron’s kitchen. I told her about Al, about visiting his grave, and about how I didn’t feel comfortable going there alone because Menorah Gardens wasn’t in the greatest of neighborhoods. I think I might have talked about the congregation’s annual pre-High Holiday memorial service at Menorah Gardens, about how people lingered there and put pebbles on headstones—not only of their family members, but of people they had known from the shul,bothfriends and mere acquaintances.
After a while, I called Detroit again. Chrissy filled me in on her family history. What she had to tell was pretty grim.
Greta and Frieda Einstein, Ruth’s mother and sister, came to America from Vienna in September 1938. Ruth made the same trip in utero. The rest of Ruth’s family, her mother’s parents and their other two children, her father, Jozef, and his younger twin brothers, perished at Dachau and in the granite quarries near Mauthausen.
In the States, Ruth’s mother kept house for the family of a Viennese dentist who had agreed to sponsor them. Ruth and Frieda attended public schools in Passaic, New Jersey. By 1955, however, Greta’s mental health began to deteriorate and, while Ruth was still in high school, her mother was committed to Greystone Park Hospital (formerly known as the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum at Morristown). A year later, Ruth’s mother was among seven female patients who died in a “fire of mysterious origin” at Greystone. Her body was never recovered.
Ruth then went to live with her sister, graduated high school in 1957, and took a secretarial job at the same textile finishing plant where Frieda worked. A few years later, Frieda married an engineer, Jack Halloran, and moved back with him to his home town of Detroit. Ruth continued working for the same firm for nearly ten years. When she was twenty-eight, she met and married Barry Klein, an accountant finishing his MBA at Rutgers. For the next few years, Barry took temporary appointments at colleges in Cleveland and Akron, before landing a permanent position at the business school at University of Toledo.
In 1975, at the age of thirty-six, Ruth gave birth to a son, Joey. Ruth and Barry doted over their only child. Joey was a math whiz who, by the age of sixteen, had earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan. Then in the middle of his junior year Joey hanged himself in his dorm room. He left a note with a single word: “Fuhgeddaboudit!” According to Chrissy, whose brother was also at the University of Michigan, Joey was always a loner, and unhappy.
Ruth and her husband were devastated. When they discovered that the Toledo Jewish Cemetery Association was actually debating whether it would be halachically appropriate to bury a suicide in the main section of the cemetery, they decided to have Joey cremated. His ashes are scattered in Lake Erie near the Cedar Point National Wildlife refuge.
For the next five years, Ruth and Barry led lives of quiet desolation. They withdrew from their small circle of Jewish and faculty acquaintances. In 1997 Barry had a massive stroke and died shortly thereafter. Ruth scattered Barry’s ashes, too, at Cedar Point. For a year or so Ruth lived in Detroit near her sister, but in 2000, shortly after her nephew moved to Charlotte, she decided to head south to make the best of the rest of her life.
Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep Wednesday night. Of course, I was saddened by what I had learned of Ruth’s dismal life. But I was even more upset by the fact that I never let Ruth feel comfortable enough to share any of this with me. No, that’s not right. I never asked. And I never asked because I really didn’t care. And that’s probably why I never bothered to really consider Ruth’s health, mental or otherwise. What is it? Is there some finite limit to our hearts or brains? Do we reach some point where we run out of space for caring, for trying to understand others?
I have no recollection of getting up, getting dressed, or getting to Menorah Gardens on Thursday morning. My mind and body were on complete auto-pilot until I pulled through the cemetery’s gateway. The first thing I remember thinking was, I must have the wrong day. Or time. Or cemetery. I had been to some small graveside services at Menorah Gardens, but I had never seen it so empty. It was 10:45. There were absolutely no cars in the lanes near the burial plots. At the very end of the long drive was a hearse and two dark-suited attendants from the Davis Chapel Funeral Home. Nearby was a freshly dug grave and three Hispanic cemetery workers. The only car, other than the hearse and my Camry, was a white Lincoln Town Car. Next to it stood Ben Poliakoff, long-time president of Charlotte’s Jewish Burial Society. Though he ran a successful Lincoln-Mercury dealership, Ben always found time to attend a burial. Ben was a fourth-generation Charlottean. He had inherited the Burial Society leadership mantle from his father, who’d inherited it from his father, etc. It was Ben’s job to be here.
I approached Ben and re-introduced myself. When he told me that he did not know the deceased, I told him that I had been a friend of hers when she’d lived here. Then I thought that I should be condemned to hell for such a lie. Ben looked at his watch and said that the out-of-town guests must have gotten lost on the way to the cemetery. I explained that there would be no guests. Just then another car rolled slowly down the drive. Rabbi Adler stepped out from the backseat. He opened the front passenger door and helped eighty-seven-year-old Hilda Perlmutter get out. From the driver’s side emerged Reuben Green, who was the shul’s Ritual Chair and Mrs. Perlmutter’s grandson. We waited until 11:20 before acknowledging that no one else would be coming to Ruth Klein’s funeral.
Ruth’s pallbearers included the two men from Davis Chapel, Reuben, and the grave-digging crew. Bad backs precluded Ben and the rabbi from being pallbearers. Prayers were recited. The rabbi delivered a kind-spirited, but utterly generic, eulogy. To be fair, he hardly knew Ruth. He’d gone on sabbatical to Israel not long after she arrived. By the time he returned, Ruth’s brain had initiated its own form of sabbatical from B’nai Aaron, and society in general.
Then I was asked to speak. I’d like to say that I gave a heart-wrenching story of Ruth’s life, of the disease that robbed her of her dignity, and of the lesson she’d taught me—albeit posthumously—about caring for strangers. Unfortunately, I did none of this. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was in shock that no one was there. Maybe I felt that the few who were there out of duty weren’t entitled to know more. I simply said a few words about Ruth’s time in Charlotte and made some comments about her efforts to participate in our community. When I was finished, Rabbi Adler asked if anyone had anything else to say, and Hilda chimed in, “She made wonderful rugelach!” When I consider it now, Hilda’s eulogy was far more eloquent than mine. Once Hilda had spoken and Kaddishwas recited, we left the gravesite and the grounds crew went about its business.
Before I left, I walked over to Al’s grave and put on his gravestone a small pebble I had taken from home. Then I knelt and wept more than I ever had in the past.
Nearly a year later, I got a letter from Chrissy Ryan. She explained that she would be coming to Charlotte in two weeks with her husband and son Freddie. That’s when her Aunt Ruth’s unveiling was scheduled. She asked if I could attend.
On the Friday morning of Ruth’s unveiling, when I pulled into Menorah Gardens, I was not surprised by the number of cars near the gravesite. All the surviving members of the Canasta Club were there. Even Shirley Silverman had come up from Boca. Over the year I had told each of them Ruth’s story. Mimi had let them know about the unveiling. Chrissy, Pete, and Freddie were there, along with Chrissy’s brother, Jacky. Several other B’nai Aaron congregants had also come, out of respect to Ruth, her family, her passing.
A modest, polished granite stone lay over the grave that I had stood in front of a year before. When her niece removed the netting, all those who stood around the stone could read the inscription:
Ruth Einstein Klein
Aunt and Friend
I Lived Here Once