Driving Aunt Dellie
The road twists through Lancaster countryside, past farms and mid-century brick homes as Aunt Dellie rambles on about Yiddish class in Baltimore and how many containers of vegetable soup she has squeezed into her small freezer. We’re on our annual trip to Degel Israel Cemetery, where her husband rests beneath a double headstone with the right half empty, waiting for my aunt.
I park on the narrow road between modest bungalows and the cemetery, and Aunt Dellie pulls a large plastic bag of stones from the back seat and scoops some into my waiting hands. “Lots of people to visit,” she says, then dips beneath the loose metal chain protecting the dead from the living.
Though blind in one eye, Aunt Dellie nimbly navigates her way past strangers’ graves to the people she’s come to visit. From the shade, size and tilt of the headstone, she knows who is buried where without even checking the names and dates carved onto the front. Here is Zelda Dunie, whose long red fingernails punctuate her conversation. We place stones on top as calling cards. Here are Aunt Dellie’s aunts—the one who snort-laughs while playing canasta at the kitchen table, and the one who deals the cards and keeps her eye on possible cheaters.
There are Mommom and Poppop—her parents—who are loading relatives onto the back of my grandfather’s truck to shuttle them to a picnic at Long’s Park. Over there’s her sister Bernice, whose headstone omits the year of her birth out of posthumous vanity. Down the center row, tucked among gray, thinning headstones, Aunt Dellie locates the grave of her grandmother, whose Hebrew name I bear. Faint letters record the length of her years, but not her strength in raising five children after her wanderlust husband disappears.
On her way to my uncle, Aunt Dellie stops abruptly before an alabaster headstone that stands straight and proud, not yet buffeted by decades of winter winds or chipped by stones churned by the mowers. “It’s cousin Linda. So young. See all the stones. They all came for Linda.” The ripping away of the newly dead causes her eyes to tear.
“Who will come for me?” she whispers as she strokes her husband’s headstone that has lingered half-filled for over 25 years, the ground beneath it uneven, the marker beginning to tip. Planes and schools and jobs have scattered us all to Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Texas, Canada, New Jersey, New York, California. In Baltimore, no headstones of neighbors and cousins face my parents’ headstones, no neighborhood or family gathering recreated in granite.
The reunion over, Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands with water, then dips beneath the metal chain separating us from our loved ones. Still, she invites them into my car, and they travel with us for the rest of the day.