(Continued from here.)
One hot August afternoon, I checked my answering machine.
“Hello?” said an unfamiliar, twangy voice. “This is the Family Research Bureau in Utah, regarding your cousin, Jerome. Please call back at your earliest convenience.” He left a phone number. Then a dial tone.
I stared at the phone. Shaking, I dialed. Jerry, it seemed, had died a year ago in San Francisco and the small amount of his veteran’s benefits, which had ended up at a company that specialized in tracking down relatives of lonely people who were outlived by their bank balances, had found their way to me.
I looked out the window at the crowds going to lunch and was sad, which startled me. Jerry had long ago faded to a wisp of a thought in my awareness, the tallit bag hidden and buried beneath winter sweaters. Most of my family, these days, existed only as images with bent corners in photo albums and there, or among the anonymous people walking down the street, I had always imagined Jerry would remain.
It was a month later, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. For most of my adult life I had been Jewish in name only, not caring much for a God that left me with hundreds of dollars a year in burial plot maintenance bills. But at the urging of a friend who thought it would be a good way to meet guys, I’d recently joined a synagogue, one rich in music, joy and community. At first I was wary; I had forgotten how to be part of something larger. Gradually I came to love it, and trust in its permanence, and watched my life grow less tentative and more intertwined with others as a result. As I walked to holiday services that morning, I thought of my first connections, my family and the stories from so long ago, and remembered the questions I still had about Jerry. What day did he die? I wondered. I had never asked.
But a few days later, before I could call Utah for the answer, I received an envelope of legal documents. Jerry had been homeless, I read. According to a court report, “He has not likely bathed in years. The social worker stated: ‘He is bright (although very irrational) and has social graces….’ We have not included details about the condition in which his body was found, as it is very graphic.” My tears stained the photocopies as I recognized the kind, lost boy from the back of my mind. He died in his room the previous September, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the same day, exactly one year later, that I would wonder when to say Yizkor for Jerry and remember his life in prayer along with the rest of our family.
It took me one more year, until the second day of the next Rosh Hashanah, to take Jerry’s tallit from the small velvet bag and wrap it around myself for the first time, and so join with my community in yet another way. It was an unfamiliar sensation, a nice one, and reminded me how he would gingerly hug me goodbye, the embrace of a feather blown about however the world decreed. The Jewish tradition is to be buried in one’s tallit but now, instead, I would rest his memory on my shoulders every time I wore it. And the others, my aunts and uncles, my mother and father, like the fringes bundled together and tied tightly at its corners, would never be far away.