“The hard thing about when a person dies is that there’s just so much to do.”

This was what my mother said, right after getting the call from Uncle Marty letting her know that Uncle Irving had died.

“And it’s sad,” I said.

“Yeah, that too,” said my mother.

It was indeed sad news, but it was not a surprise.  Uncle Irving was my grandmother’s younger brother, he was in his late 80s, and he had suffered a couple of strokes in the past few years, which he had spent, not very happily, in a nursing home.  But there also was a lot to do, and while my mother said that mainly to take the edge off the situation, the women in my family are very practical.

The men, at least on my mother’s side, not so much.  Take my Uncle Marty, my mother’s younger brother.  He’s a very sweet man who’s stuck with the same selection of polyester bellbottoms since the 70s, cannot go anywhere outside of Queens without getting lost, and is always misplacing things – his keys, his wallet, his car.  He is a perpetual bachelor who loves Judy Garland and little dogs, has had the same “roommate” for the past 20 years, and despite the fact that my parents have had gay friends for at least that long, Uncle Marty still describes him to us as just that.  You might say that I am adhering to stereotypes except that his very openly gay friends finally asked my mother, “So, do you not know?”  We can’t figure out if he is just naïve enough to think that we don’t, or socially awkward enough that he’d prefer not to upset the status quo.

Anyway, Uncle Marty lives in Queens, but when he was notified about Uncle Irving’s death, he was in Florida.  He’s spent most of his winters there since taking early retirement at age 55 from his job as a public school teacher. (My grandmother, who grew up during the Great Depression, convinced both him and my mother to take up education as a career, telling them, “You’ll never have to worry because they’ll always need teachers.”  Again, practical).  Uncle Irving had also lived in Queens, which was why Uncle Marty was his next-of-kin and was supposed to make all the decisions about how to handle his death, but only so much could be done over the phone.  My mother was at home in Pennsylvania when she got the call, and would have been at work except that she was sick with some never-ending rhinovirus she’d had for two weeks already.  And I was at my mom’s because I was, at the time, living on the air mattresses and couches of friends and family throughout the Tri-State Area.  This was because a couple of months before, I had broken up with my live-in boyfriend, put all of my stuff in storage, and gone traveling in South America for seven weeks.  Which was great, except that then I had to come home — to no money, no relationship, nowhere to live, and no jobs (disappearing for an extended period of time tends to make people in the freelance world forget that you exist).  In a matter of days, I’d gone from exploring ancient ruins and hiking volcanoes to spending all my time surfing Craig’s List, cruising up and down the New Jersey Turnpike (the guys at the Molly Pitcher Service Area now knew me on sight), and rushing to open houses so that I could beg the owners to let me fill out the 63rd application for their $1200 studio apartment, the one with a hotplate behind a curtain posing as a kitchen.

“So what has to be done?”

“Well,” said my mom, “he wanted to be cremated, so that has to be arranged.  And someone has to sign for his possessions.  But before that, somebody has to identify his body.”

“Can’t the people at the nursing home do that?” I asked.  “He’s been there for three years, they ought to know what he looks like.”

“No, it has to be a relative or a friend,” she croaked. “I guess I’ll have to go up there and…”

She trailed off into another medley of hacking, which ended with a loud finale of nose-blowing into several tissues at once.  Sure, my mom claimed this was only a cold, but she is the kind of person, as I relearned every winter of my childhood, to whom every infection is a cold until it’s pneumonia.  She insisted that she was going back to work before the end of the week.  Now that she was getting close to her retirement date of June 30th, she was getting increasingly worried that the piles of remaining paperwork that she had intended to plow through before she self-terminated would ever get tackled without her.  And since she worked for the state, she was probably right.

I did not enjoy watching her suffer, and not just because I was familiar with the post-nasal drip.  Spending a lot of time at your mother’s house tends to make you regress.  Mine, though she is no coddler, still likes to buy me my favorite foods, do my laundry and, you know, take care of me.  So naturally, when I come home, I get the uncontrollable urge to relive my adolescence.  In other words, to do nothing but lie by the pool or watch TV and let her make me iced or hot beverages, depending on the season.  Seeing her looking unwell and kind of frail, however, suddenly made me think about the fact that both of us were now closing in on ages when I would have to be the one taking care of her.  This thought scared the living daylights out of me.  I have no children, since I’ve been an adult I’ve even only ever had surrogate pets – ones that belonged to my roommates, who I could cuddle and enjoy without having to feed, walk, or clean up after them on a regular basis.  I’d left my plants with friends while I was traveling and came home to find that they were doing much better than they had when I was around.  I’ve never had a job that lasted longer than 6 weeks, and I don’t know where or with whom I’ll be working until someone calls me up and asks me if I’m available, and then a few days later, someone else calls and tells me where and when to show up.  Was this the existence of an adult?  I think I’d had more responsibility on my shoulders when I was 12.  At least then I’d had homework and chores.

The cumulonimbus cloud these thoughts were forming in the back of my mind must have something to do with why I said, “I’ll go.”

“No, no, of course not,” said my mother.

“No, really,” I said.  “I’m going to be up in New York anyway.  You’re not feeling well, it would be ridiculous for you to drive all the way up there.”

My mother stared at me.  “You really want to do this?”

“Well, no,” I said, wavering a bit.  “But…somebody has to, right?”

Irving Rosenberg was born in 1920 in Jersey City.  He grew up around a big extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins, and with two older siblings, my Uncle Gordon and my grandmother, Annette.  They were the children of poor immigrants from Poland, so even though all three kids were smart, they couldn’t afford to go to college.  My grandmother went into the civil service and rose quickly, eventually making it from typist to supervisor in the New York City Parks Department.  Both of my great uncles were a bit more aimless.  Neither one had a serious job until they got drafted, Gordon to become a cook on a destroyer and Irving to teach “radio science,” which was essentially a basic form of physics and engineering.  He liked being in the Army.

“One night, my buddy and I were on leave, and we were walking down the street, you know, in our uniforms.  Two young, good-looking soldiers.  Well, this limousine pulls over, and we’re thinking, ‘Uh oh, what’s going on here?’  Well, inside are these two beautiful girls.  One of them turned out to be Lauren Bacall’s sister!”

This was a typical Uncle Irving story.  At some point, he would come to, “And I was quite a ladies man.  I was an excellent dancer, so of course they all were interested in me.”  Then the anecdote would end with some innuendo like, “And well, you know what happened next…”  Of course, those weren’t the only details that were fuzzy, and Lauren Bacall didn’t actually have a sister, but the stories were related with such delight that it didn’t really matter.  When I was a kid, I was fully entertained just watching him tell them, even the parts I didn’t get.

After the war, Irving went to work for the Long Island Railroad as a signal switcher.  It was a do-very-little job that allowed him to spend his days reading and listening to the radio, storing up information on everything from the history of Mesopotamia to the dangers of nightshade vegetables.  A whole new category of stories came out of this.

“Now you know that the Israeli name ‘Peres’ comes from the Spanish name ‘Perez.’  They both come from the word perera, which means ‘pear’ in Spanish.  This is because the Jews were living in Spain in the Middle Ages.  We were very wealthy and did all of the banking for the king, and this was why we were eventually driven out.  The same with the Rothschilds, who were bankers throughout Europe.  Now, you know that the name ‘Rosenberg’ is the German version of the name ‘Rothschild’…”

It was always tough to distinguish the actual history from the things that Uncle Irving made up to fill in the blanks because they made sense to him, even if he didn’t know if they were true or not.  The word for ‘pear’ in Spanish is pera, so he was close, and there was in fact a large, wealthy Jewish community in Spain for centuries, so the connection between Peres and Perez might very well be true.  But I’m pretty sure that my family is not related to the Rothschild financial dynasty.  Irving just loved to make connections that seemed to him to be brilliant discoveries.

Uncle Irving’s life changed dramatically in 1978, the year that Resorts International, the first casino in Atlantic City, opened its doors.  He started going to AC when he still had a steady paycheck, then once he retired, he had even more time – and the senior citizen buses to take him (as a native New Yorker, he never owned a car).  Now, his stories became about his winning streaks, and how the casino would start comping him – first drinks, then dinner at the buffet, then a hotel room.

“It’s this big suite, with a huge bathtub, and in the room there’s champagne. They were treating me like a high roller!”

I really think that was the point for him.  In Atlantic City, Uncle Irving got the thrills and attention that he’d always wanted.

Of course, he also developed a serious gambling problem.  Between 1978 and 1983, he lost all of his savings at the blackjack tables.  After that, he’d just go and gamble away his pension and social security, and then have to find a way to make it through the next few weeks.  He used to laugh when he talked about it; on some level he knew how insane it was, what he was doing.  But he couldn’t stop, and I’m not at all sure he wanted to.

I don’t know when Uncle Irving’s last trip to AC was, but I know that around the year 2000, he started having trouble walking.  He had a cane but he hated using it, so he generally didn’t.  Finally, after a fall left Irving not badly hurt but bruised and embarrassed, my Uncle Marty decided that his uncle couldn’t manage on his own any more, and moved him out of the apartment in Flushing that he had lived in for close to 40 years. When we went there to collect his things for him, before his landlord cleaned the place out, the situation we found was staggering.  The apartment was filled literally to the rafters with piles of newspapers, old lamps and television sets he’d been planning to fix.  By the bed was a giant rack — one that must have been tossed out by a shoe store — holding various types and sizes of shoe that couldn’t all possibly have fit one person.  In the bathroom was the most baffling thing: a tower of PVC buckets up to the ceiling next to the toilet.  Perhaps they were there to catch a leak that had dried up long ago.  All the drawers were stuffed with papers and photographs and roaches were everywhere, as if they now knew the place was theirs.

After seeing all this, I didn’t feel so bad that Uncle Irving had had to move, especially since, soon after, he had a minor stroke, which confined him to a wheelchair and made it hard for him to use his hands.  However, I wished that he hadn’t had to move into the Dry Harbor Nursing Home.  It’s one of those understaffed facilities that survive on social security and pensions, where elderly people in various states of coherence are packed into a room with a television most of the day.  My uncle, who was not at all a vegetable at 87, didn’t like television.  He also didn’t like reading – his eyes hadn’t been great for a long time – or books on tape, when I suggested them to him.  The two things he was attached to were talk radio and talking.  Early on at the nursing home, his small transistor radio disappeared, and when Uncle Marty bought him another, it got stolen again.  The people there either wouldn’t pay attention to Uncle Irving’s stories (the nurses) or couldn’t (most of the other residents).  Toward the end, when we would come to visit, he’d beam and he’d start talking, and sometimes you would see a couple of the lady residents, who clearly found him charming, listening in and chuckling.  But then he’d arrive at the end of the first anecdote and the light in his eyes would flicker.

“You don’t want to listen to me,” he would say, sheepishly.  “You young people, go back and enjoy your lives.”  It was as if society had finally convinced him that he was just a lonely, useless old man who had nothing of value to say to anyone.

I had a lot of time to think on the way up to New York, and not about anything good.  For one thing, there was mortality; my uncle was dead, my mother was sick (maybe it was a cold, maybe it was consumption; the people in those Victorian movies coughed a lot before they wasted away), and I was having a midlife crisis, which meant that I had to be at midlife – aka, halfway to death.  I also felt guilty about how my relationship with my uncle had gradually eroded over the past two decades.  When I became a teenager, I made the unexpected discovery that he was more mortifying to have around than my parents.  The guy wouldn’t shut up with the awful stories about girls, and you definitely couldn’t get him started on race or religion.

“And you know, Ham was the third son of Noah, and he was cursed and cast out, so he went off and settled in Africa.  And that’s why that’s where all the blacks come from.”

Oy.  It took me years to accept that I couldn’t get him to stop saying this stuff.  By the time I’d been through college and film school, I had matured enough to realized that he was always going to be a product of his time.  I think maybe the latter helped me appreciate him the way the rest of the family did, as a colorful eccentric with an encyclopedia of great tales made more fascinating by the fact that they partly fictional.  But at that point, I was trying to work my way into the film business and had no time for anyone outside of it, much less my older male relatives in the next borough.

There was also the larger existential guilt.  My great uncle’s generation had had no opportunities.  My parents had worked hard to give me some, and here I was downwardly mobile, throwing all of them away to pursue a crazy dream career at which one in, like, a bazillion people actually succeeded — and those ones generally have a lot more chutzpah than I do.  As a lifestyle choice, this meant that I never knew how I’d be surviving from month to month and that I now couldn’t seem to find a decent place to live that I could afford.  I couldn’t even afford my car without my parents paying my insurance.  And for what?  Every script or story I’d ever written had been passed on and the one film I’d made in the past ten years had been rejected from about 57 festivals – not that I’d kept count — including all of the ones in New Jersey that nobody has ever heard of.  How, I had to wonder, would things have been different for Uncle Irving if he could have gone to college and graduate school and found a purpose for his life, maybe as a real scientist?

I arrived at the funeral home and went into the office, where I explained why I was there.  A nice, officious man said he would take me down to the room where Uncle Irving was being “stored.”  We got into an elevator.

“How do you…I guess he’s been…refrigerated?” I asked.

“That’s right,” said the man.  “He’s fully chilled.”  He grinned a little, then looked uncomfortable, perhaps as he realized, despite the fact that I was probably younger and asked weirder questions than the people who typically showed up for corpse identification, that this was probably inappropriate.  He quickly led me off the elevator and into the next room.

“Um, here we are.”

People look different when they’re dead.  At least, Uncle Irving did when I saw him laid out in the brown cardboard box that they would use for his cremation.  It was hard to pinpoint why.  His skin looked waxy and slack, but he had grown paler over the years.  He seemed smaller, but I knew he had never been tall.  No, it was his face that really looked different.  I was taken aback for a moment.  I was here to identify the guy, and he just didn’t look like the man I had known my entire life.  But when I looked back at his face I realized what it was that had changed.  The features were all there but the person wasn’t.  Perhaps this is only true of people who were truly vibrant when they were alive, but his face was just a different face now that he wasn’t in it.

I nodded and said, “Okay.”  The funeral home attendant took me up to sign the paperwork.

My family had a memorial get-together for Uncle Irving a few weeks later.  Outside of our immediate family and my Uncle Marty, only Cousin Miltie made it (Uncle Gordon’s family lived in Arizona and couldn’t make it out).  Miltie had grown up with Irving, he was the same generation but about a decade younger.  I was surprised to hear that he was a retired doctor.

“You know, I always looked up to Irving,” Miltie said as we ate bagels and lox and my nephew and niece ran around the dining room, screaming.  “We’d all go to the pool together, and Gordon would do a cannonball off the diving board – Gordon was the clown.  But Irving would do these perfect, graceful dives.  He was a terrific dancer, you know.”

“And a ladies man,” chuckled my mom.  “So he told us.”

“He was,” said Miltie.  “It was almost as if things came too easily for him.  You know, after the war, the Army sent him to college, but he dropped out.  He just didn’t like school.  He could have been an engineer.”  He smiled and shook his head.  “Irving was brilliant.  He just had no ambition.  But he always did what he wanted.”

Not long after that, I finally found a new apartment, one into which I could actually fit all of my furniture.  I started working and writing again, and, eventually, I started making a new film – the documentary I’ve been working on for the past few years.  I think it’s going to be good.  And if it’s not, well, the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met while making it have given me lots of stories to tell.

Maybe I should take Uncle Irving’s life as a cautionary tale but I don’t see it that way.  We all have to make choices about who we want to be, and then we have to live with them.  But he really did live with them.  Plus, I figure somebody in the family has to take over the job of spinning a good yarn.  Because my younger brother?  He’s an economist.

Tombstone and mausoleum photos by the author.


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    The Author


    BTL is a New York-based filmmaker and writer who listens to stuff for money – aka, works as a sound mixer and boom operator on movies, TV shows and commercials. She blogs anonymously not to build her own mystique (which she's been told she already oozes) but to make sure she gets her next job. BTL is currently working on a screenplay, a novel, and a documentary, none of which she can tell you anything about — but she can tell you that she likes travel, platform shoes, and bacon-infused bourbon.

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