August 1999

S.L. Wisenberg

S.L. Wisenberg   S.L. Wisenberg is creative nonfiction editor of Another Chicago Magazine. She has published work in several genres in The New Yorker, Nerve, Ploughshares, Tikkun, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Her work also appears in the anthologies The Pushcart Prize XXI, Nice Jewish Girls, and the forthcoming Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex.

Sheets    Click to hear in real audio

A Jew who dies is supposed to be clothed in a simple sheath. Simple sheet. Winding sheet. Everyone is equal in death. Everyone is equal at birth, clothed in blood and other less palatable but no less universal substances. When I was young I followed The Heart of Juliet Jones in the funny papers and when Juliet bought a sheath I asked my mother what it was. A plain dress without a belt, my mother said. It was the 60s, just before the advent of the paper dress.

A shomer, a watcher, is supposed to sit with the dead and recite psalms. You can hire someone to do that, someone from, say, the chevra kadisha, the burial society. The funeral home takes care of it. The funeral home we use is a light brick building behind a crape myrtle tree with small flowers that look torn. The funeral home is familiar by now. The men and women who work there wear suits. They don't smile when I ask about volume discounts. Ellen and I are not the first pair of newly-made orphans, losing two parents in two years, that they have seen. The world is full of orphans, after all, orphans much younger than my sister and me.

We have a choice; we can choose a plain coffin or a less plain one with a Jewish star carved on it, still plain enough to qualify for the approval of the Orthodox. One reason to like the Orthodox after all—they believe in plain pine boxes. Or oak. Or mahogany. They don't believe in satin and velvet lining and ornate carvings. They believe in wood and sheaths. And the Orthodox provide a chorus of volunteers (men for males, women for females) who wash and clean the dead. It is a holy task. I have no idea who makes up the chevra in Houston. Perhaps they're lamed-vovniks, the legendary 36 people whose good deeds keep the world afloat. My mother was a part-time lamed-vovnik. Wasn't she? Aren't we all? My mother was someone who was born and gave birth and died.

When will the last trace of my mother disappear? The mirrors were covered, covered with sheets, it's so hard to find plain white sheets nowadays, I had to run out to Kmart real quick to buy some. My mother hadn't wanted to cover the mirrors when my father died, so we didn't. Superstition, she'd said. After we'd covered all the mirrors in the house I didn't know if I was myself or my mother. For the seven days of shiva we all sat in the living room on boxes and low stools. It felt familiar. It was familiar.

There are closets to go through and drawers and scrapbooks, the refrigerator, too. But now the refrigerator is full of casseroles and bagels and cheeses and tomatoes, coffee cakes with pecans and thick swirls of cinnamon icing. And boiled eggs, a sign of the cyclical nature of life. They are traditionally served after a Jewish funeral but now no one wants to eat eggs because of the cholesterol. The egg is dangerous. But they took big wedges of pound cake, chocolate bundt cake, chocolate truffle to die for. They were the same people who came to my father's funeral, Ellen and I will write the same thank-you notes to them, just the two of us writing and addressing them this time. One of us will figure out where to get the cards engraved. The family of ___ thanks you for your concern/love/understanding/presence at this time. Choose one two three. It is fun to see the cousins. She's out of pain, they all say. A strong lady, they say. Hard these past few years, with Ruben and all.

When I took down the sheets, my grandmother said—Ruthie-Ellen-Ceci—don't forget you have to wash those. Give them to me baby, give them to me.



S.L. Wisenberg: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue EightThe Cortland Review