There's a friendly young Mexican fellow who takes immaculate care of the Jewish cemetery in Dallas where my parents and grandparents are buried. "Ah, senor E.," Alejandro shouts when I go to visit and he spots me across the lawn. "Here to see your folks again." He leaves the mower, comes and shakes my hand as if he were not the caretaker, but the official host.
I can't remember the number of visits I've made to that cemetery in the decades since I left home. But I claim it as part of my family history. Solomon, my paternal grandfather, an immigrant from Romania, was one of its founders, and his name is chiseled on a stone post placed into the ground. It was for him who my parents named me. He and his peers established the cemetery about a century ago to be a Romanian burial ground. Later, it merged with a conservative Jewish congregation in Dallas.
The founders chose a location populated where immigrant families were settling. That's a neighborhood which those families deserted years later for newer spots. (An exception was Bubbe, my grandmother, who insisted on staying where she first settled in Dallas and where she knew everyone -- at least until they decamped.) A visit means a half-hour drive from upscale parts of town where many Jews live today.
Decades ago, my parents purchased the plot where they expected to lie. My father paid for its perpetual care and insisted on obtaining a document to testify to that, so there might be no dispute later. (Not that Jews dispute, of course.) The plot contains room for four persons, and my parents are buried in two of them as planned. My older brother and sister are at rest in states far from Texas, which leaves two spaces for me to do something with.
One part of my plan is to be carted back from New York and buried in one. (There are newer Dallas burial grounds which Jewish people choose these days, but they have no meaning for me.)
In the remaining space I decided a few years ago to erect a small stone bench inscribed with our family name. It was to be a place for any visitor to rest. There are a few such benches around, so I did not foresee any resistance. I was wrong. The synagogue representative vetoed the idea, saying that a bench would disrupt maintenance of the lawn. I was angry and mentioned it one day to Alejandro, who intervened and told the synagogue that it wouldn't disturb his work. His voice carried, and the bench soon got built as I had envisioned. I don't think the synagogue representative cared for my way of getting my way, but I did. The bench should also now be there for perpetuity.
All this about cemeteries probably seems morbid to some people, but I'm one who likes such places, and my visits to the one in Dallas cover me with a sense of peace and continuity. It is kept so beautifully that its age is detectable only because inscriptions are now fading on the oldest stones with all Hebrew letters. While I'm there I may allow tears to flow, and I carry on one-sided conversations with my parents, to bring them up to date on family and, slightly late, to try settling some unfinished business.
Not only are they and my grandparents there, but two favorite aunts, sisters of my mother, and seemingly dozens of others who were parents of kids I grew up with, whose houses we used to go to for parties (and maybe a shot of liquor). Ambling around narrow walkways, I say hello to Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz, Tootsie's parents, some Rothschilds and all the senior Levins -- plus, sadly, by now, a few of my own contemporaries. It's a place where I feel oddly at home.
Lately, with worsened mobility, I go to Dallas less than in the past. I miss Alejandro's welcoming and the chance to pet the dog at his heels. I've enjoyed seeing birds always hanging out on the branches of some inviting oak trees. I like to think those flying creatures have been coming there for decades, witnesses to a parade of funerals and folks like me whose first visits may have been when they were brought there innocent and young, and who return today at the age of most of the permanent residents' arrival.
Maybe the birds will still be around when I move in.
Stanley Ely writes about family present and past in his new book, "Life Up Close, a Memoir" in paperback and ebook.