On Saturday, 11/01, it will be 6 years since my father died. 6 years since I’ve heard that voice, a cross between Jackie Mason and Bela Lugosi, call and tell me what I was/am doing wrong with my life.
The last time I had some serious time alone with my father was 3 months before he passed. That July, he came into town with Mother for my middle brother Scot’s hastily arranged wedding. The Old Man didn’t look good; his pallor was gray and he couldn’t make it up or down stairs without help. When I mentioned it to Mother, she was non-committal. “Your father isn’t well, Alex,” she told me, with obvious concern on her face. It was an understatement a politician could envy.
I was quite shaken seeing Aron Zola barely able to function. This wasn’t the fierce, unapologetic Holocaust survivor who moved to Detroit and lived the American Dream five times over, leaving no prisoners, anti-Semites or suburban Puritans in his wake.
When I finally cornered him, after a dinner at Zocalo, an Upper East Side fixture on 84th Street, I intended to ask him about his health. Dad, however, launched into a story about he confronted 17 Boy Scouts and their Scoutmasters on the train from Scottsdale, AZ, where he had moved with Mother in 1994.
The Old Man had watched the Scouts come up to their chaperones to get money for sodas, chips and the other necessities of train travel. After seeing these transactions occur three or four times, Aron decided he was observing cocaine sales to minors. So naturally, he elected to confront the men selling the drugs and caused a bit of a scene on the train. “See,” he said, grabbing my forearm, his blue eyes looking as tough and icy as I remembered from my youth. “I’m from Detroit. They knew not to f*** with me.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him the scoutmasters made the rational decision that confronting a deranged older man in front of dozens of witnesses was a bad business decision. But then, I wasn’t about to argue either. This was the version of my father I was used to seeing; the one who after a week on the job in a Chrysler factory during the early ‘50’s hit a guy who called him a Jew boy with a 2x4 smack in the face and put him over the auto line. It appeared to be the same man who counted judges, bankers, two members of the Purple Gang and a guy who went by the street name of Jerry the Goniff (thief) as his friends. But I knew better. I had to help him walk up the slight incline to Lexington Ave. and my brother’s parked car. The Old Man just couldn’t make it without a hand to help him.
It wasn’t all that much of a shock when my Mother called me the third Saturday in October to tell me if I didn’t get out to Scottsdale immediately, in all probability, I wouldn’t see my father alive again. I had the feeling of a creeping resigned, dark anxiety since I answered my cell phone on that overcast Thursday afternoon. Death was in the air. Late that Wednesday, the Old Man had gone into congestive heart failure and was taken by ambulance to the Mayo Clinic Hospital three miles from the house in North Scottsdale, AZ. Although the reports were at first encouraging, he seemed weaker and weaker the three times he was able to speak with me.
By the time Scot and I were able to walk into the Critical Care Unit, Dad’s heart rate was over 200 beats a minute. He was barely lucid but smiled when Joel, our youngest brother, brought us in to see him. A few hours later, we (Mom, Scot, Joel and I) made the decision to have him intibated in a vain attempt to get his heart rate down. Eventually, intubations turned to life support. His Type II Diabetes, which he had taken such care to keep in check, had done too much damage to his body for immense will to overcome.
Aron Zola died quietly at 11:18am on 11/01/02. There were no claps of thunder, no clouds blotting out the sun, just five people crying as an unheralded giant made his way from this world to the next in a room in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital a long way from his beloved Detroit and an even longer way from Beltz, Romania where Aron Zola was born 70 something years pervious.
According to Jewish tradition, the deceased is buried in a prayer shawl called a Talis with a single fringe cut off and any books, secular, holy or otherwise, that are falling apart. I, however, also wanted him buried with a deck of cards. Dad was a gambler and I wanted him ready for the action when he got to where he was going. While I searched the Old Man’s night stand for the last deck of cards he was playing with, I kept mulling over two questions I asked Dad years ago.
When he called me an announced the impending move to Scottsdale, from Detroit in 1993, I was a bit confused. “Dad, why do you want to move to Arizona,” I asked.
“I want to be near my sisters,” he answered.
“You haven’t spoken to either in over 8 years. Why this desire to be near them now?”
The Old Man and his three older sisters survived the Holocaust. Two settled in Phoenix, one in Israel and Dad, of course, in Michigan. The four rarely if ever spoke. Plus Dad and his oldest sister Nausia couldn’t stand each other. She basically raised him after my grandparents were murdered and helped him get into the country. Although I understood she could be a bit of a Yenta, she was my aunt who loved me and never treated me badly. I never understood what problems the Old Man had with her.
All of that changed on Sunday, 11/03/02 as my brothers, Mother, my sister-in-law and Joel’s girlfriend arrived at the funeral home. Inside the sanctuary, draped on top of the closed oak casket with a precariously positioned Star of David, was my aunt Nausia, in a drab peasant dress and worn, light blue babushka, wailing away. “Oy Aronchick, Aronchick, my baby brother,” she cried in English and Yiddish.
I handed the deck of cards to Jonathon, the Undertaker, who looked not like the funeral director in Phantasm but a running back who blew out his knee at Arizona State and never made it to the pros. He lifted my aunt off the coffin and placed her over the lectern where she wailed face first to the assembled mourners. Then he gently placed the deck of cards I gave him in my father’s right hand and closed the lid once more. After which, he put Nausia back on the casket so she could properly continue making her scene.
As the room filled up, the louder Nausia cried. She reminded me of an old woman in a Vincent Price horror movie I saw once who was paid to cry over the coffin of the antagonist. Although grief stricken, Mother was stoic and composed. The only glimpse of her displeasure at the tableau in front of her was the left corner of her mouth twitching. “Alex,” she hissed. “I want this stopped now.”
That’s the problem with being the oldest son. Once the Old Man has gone; it’s up to you to put out the fires at family gatherings. So I walked up to my father’s casket, gathered up my aunt and helped her to a seat in one of the pews. The mourner’s looked on with sympathy for Nausia and her obvious grief over losing the brother she helped rear. I squatted in front of her as if to make sure she was fine. “Listen, we’re Jews, not Italians. Stop this shit,” I said.
She behaved herself for the eulogies and the small service in the home. Mark and David, two of her sons, took her to the cemetery for the graveside service. I was sure they would impress the need to have the proper respect. If they did, it didn’t take.
As the rabbi solemnly intoned the ancient prayers in Hebrew and Aramaic for a person who is buried in the Jewish tradition, Nausia started up again. “It should have been me,” she screamed over and over again.
Mark and David were standing directly behind Mother, Scot and me. “It should have been,” they whispered, occasionally in unison.
As the coffin was lowered into the ground, David stepped in front of his elderly mother. This simple maneuver, fortunately, stopped Nausia from launching herself into the hole after my father’s casket. First Mother, then I took the ceremonial shovel and tossed a bit of dirt on top of the oak box. I was still shaking from the hollow ringing sound of the dirt hitting the lid when I looked over and saw Nausia and her oldest son Hershal, embracing and screaming “Oy Hershal. Oy, Mamala” over and over again.
Mother walked ahead of me and when she stopped I hugged her from behind. This was to comfort her as well as to keep me from walking back and pushing my cousin and aunt in to the grave after the Old Man. The only thing that stopped me was the fear he would get out of the coffin and harangue me in Uzbek for desecrating his final resting place with those two bozos.
As we walked back to the limo for the ride back to the house, I found myself looking at the sky. ‘I get it Dad, I get it.’ I thought. So this is why the Old Man hadn’t spoken to Aunt Nausia for those many years: she’s the Jewish version of Livia Soprano.