Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1996
In the beginning we were 22 young cousins. The oldest is now 85, the littlest 59. Of the two oldest, one is in a nursing home, afflicted with Alzheimer’s (she was the one with the sharpest memory, who knew everyone’s birthday); the other is a much-loved family doctor, retired now, who has just written a book on sex. Of the two youngest, one teaches English in a New York City high school, and the other is a concert pianist in Tel Aviv. For the old-fashioned music of it (and for the sociological flavor of the first four decades of our vanishing century), here are their names, divided by sibling constellations: Sarah, Sylvia, Bella, Sholem; Jacob, Sylvia, Bella, Vivian; Rosalyn, William, Stanley; Phyllis, Naomi; Julius, Cynthia; Ephraim, Naomi, Leon, Sharona, Tamar; William, Rena. Of the 22, three are deceased. Rosalyn died only last summer, and Sylvia, one of Sholem’s three sisters, years before.
Yesterday the remaining cousins, a widower and five widows among them, gathered at a Westchester cemetery, along with other family and friends, for a little ceremony called an unveiling, sanctioned not by tradition but simply by local custom. What was unveiled was a newly laid rectangular granite footstone: small, neat, modest. Sholem lies under it, memorialized as follows: Always loving, ever-beloved husband, father, grandfather. November 23, 1918–November 13, 1995. A sublimely clarifying October day stretched before us: dazzling green lawns covering the silent dead, leaves turning gold and wine, clouds high and cottony, sunlight painting our shoulders with hot benison. This was a cemetery of the kind known as manicured. Except for Abraham, the poet-uncle buried in the holy earth of Israel, all our parents (and grandparents too) are in overgrown, overburdened, filled-up, turn-of-the-century cemeteries, their headstones crowded together like gossiping villagers. Those more venerable graveyards seem to vibrate with a bee-buzz of voices, cries, supplications, memories, sufferings, lost savory joys. Where Sholem rests there is spaciousness, decorum, and silence.
Sholem was a painter who made his living as a commercial artist. As a young man he studied at the Art Students’ League under Philip Guston, and afterward enrolled in courses at the New School, inquisitive about history, literature, philosophy, science. About 25 years ago he gave me a good part of his library–resplendent art books (Rembrandt, Hals, Degas, Rodin, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ben Shahn) and Modern Library volumes (in my teens how I coveted his Keats and Shelley!), Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales, Ulysses, Blake, Heine, old copies of Transition, volumes of Greek verse in translation, Doubt and Certainty in Science, and hundreds more. Later, when (at my mother’s deathbed) I lost my one-and-only fountain pen, Sholem scoured the city until he found a reasonable duplicate. As we stood in a cluster at Sholem’s graveside, a plume of similar cousinly recollections spiraled upward: Sholem’s fresh boyishness, goodness, selflessness, gentleness, generosity. Bernice, Sholem’s widow, who sings opera, said wryly, sweetly: He didn’t know when he married me that he would become a patron of the arts. Julius read a trio of Psalms and the Lord Full of Mercy prayer. Sholem’s son and daughter recited the kaddish.
The dates make Sholem’s life look long, but it was cut short; his genetic legacy was to have lived until 99, like his father. A commercial artist’s tool destroyed his lungs–the airbrush, now obsolete and replaced by computers; every day in his studio he breathed in lethal paint mist. Because he was born close to the Armistice heralding the War to End All Wars, his parents named him peace–Sholem–which according to tradition is one of the names of God. He thought well of everyone. The world delighted him. He was the most peaceable of all possible cousins.