If the sky contained a bleariness fit for the occasion, then the raindrops were tears, expressing the emotions I couldn’t seem to externalize, no matter the amount of effort I put into doing so. The trip south had become tiring, and although my mother and her sisters were nostalgically sharing stories of their childhoods, my lack of knowledge on the subject made me grow disinterested. The raindrops slid down the car window, providing a pastime for myself as I chose two and followed their paths in a race, though, despite which drop had rightfully won, both pooled at the bottom of the glass in the same fate. My mind was also occupied with other, less light-hearted thoughts I repeated like a mantra, seemingly the only ones that crossed my mind at the moment: her name was Susan, I was related to her, and she was dead.
By the time we reached the Mount Sinai Cemetery, every thought was silenced and replaced with the anxiety of meeting strangers who knew me. Wind tangled with rain, and a sharp, consistent, whistle became the service’s background music. Rolling down the window to pay at the parking booth was a struggle for my aunt, and emerging from the bulky car as relatives of all ages greeted me was likewise a struggle for me. Their eagerness to talk made it seem as though the funeral wasn’t a funeral at all, but merely a way to catch up on lost time. When spoken to, I would smile, nod, and act accordingly as though I knew exactly who they were so as not to offend them. I now wonder if I was tricked, fed false information as I lied through my grin, and all they had to do was see right through my easily manipulated young mind. Any thought of the sort would be quickly dismissed, however, as such a thing would only seem characteristic of my father’s side of the family.
As I stood face-to-face with the white mausoleum walls, my mother told a story - this time of a family friend from her childhood who had abandoned her for other friends in 7th grade - to a cluster of relatives. I stared for a long time at those sheltered walls, underneath a white roof, and pondered my own fate. I quickly dismissed this thought with a popular reassurance of mine at the time: “Why am I worried? I’m never going to die!” Of course, the 11-year-old mind is a mecca of inexperience, and mine would soon change.
The casket was carried with great difficulty up the grassy slope by six relatives in black suits. We followed closely behind, my blistered feet from ill-fitting flats filling with rainwater and mud. I wondered if we were being disrespectful, stepping over the grave markers to reach the only one we cared about. “Did I really care?” I asked myself. As El Malei Rachamim was recited, my only focus was on the way she may have looked behind the casket. The alive and laughing face I couldn’t picture to begin with was, to my imagination, now frightening and cold.
At one point during the service, a man in front stepped outwards and yelled to the sky in a language I could not place, his voice dripping with desperation as he threw his arms up in despair. Relatives in attendance choked on sobs, and I felt a shiver roll up my spine and sit in my chest, where it lingered for a few long minutes before tapering off, like a wave. It was a feeling, though it was only human nature that had brought it forth, as it makes one sad to see another suffer.
After the funeral, we met at another relative’s cramped, colonial style home. Chairs lined up the wall and stopped at the kitchen. My great-grandmother was a center of gravity, sitting on the living room couch, surrounded by orange candles and attentive relatives. The smell of lamb permeated the house, and we ate without a table, standing or sitting at the chairs and socializing, the main dish interrupted with couscous, olives, and dates. Red wine sloshed as people made their way from the kitchen to the living room. It was still raining when we left, and the autumn wind whipped my face as I made the transition from the warm house to the front door.
It wasn’t until later, during the lengthy return home, that I began to ponder myself and my family. I found it, in my apathy, unfair that Susan had evidently cared about me, considering the doll she had given me when I was a baby. I found it unfair how, although I had a window of two hours to feel something during the service, the only thing that moved me had not made me think of her, but of the person who had addressed her so emotionally. I found it unfair how this family knew me, but I didn’t know them. It took a few years for the subject to pique my interest again, but when it finally did, my mother told me, over the course of a twice-a-year affair, the missing pieces to the story. I now know Susan’s hospitality, her joy, her cross-continental residences. I know the language of the man who cursed the sky. I know the owner of the small, inviting house. Most importantly, however, I now know that knowledge of family is important. It is a compass, a tool to use when I become lost. Their stories instill wonder and cause me to ponder my own, unfinished narrative. My seemingly disinterested nature came not from an inherent part of my personality, but from my inexperienced 11-year-old mind, the same one that once believed she would cheat death.