Celia's Journey Home
By Carol E. Woien
One of my favorite stories in the Tanach is the book of Ruth, and Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi. That story is the way I feel about my mother-in-law, Celia.
I didn’t think I could have love in my heart for another mother; after all, I already had a mother that I loved. But Celia was larger-than-life, a bubbly redhead that didn’t weigh more than ninety pounds.
From the first day we met, I felt a kinship with her I can’t explain. Maybe it was the red walls in her Queens apartment that I loved, or maybe the way she called me doll. Or the fact that we had a lot in common: her son, chocolate, reading, grapes, the color red, “Law and Order,” and baseball - although I never managed to persuade her to give up the Mets for the Yankees. I think on her part, she was glad that her son, at fifty-one, had finally married.
I’m sure a lot of people laughed at her false eyelashes, red lipstick, and the Mets t-shirts she liked to wear. And those 4-inch high heels she would wear grocer shopping - not even I could manage them! But she was charming, sophisticated, and a class act.
At eighty-three, she decided she didn’t want to drive anymore, so we took her shopping every time we visited. After we shopped, we would take her to Ben’s deli on Queens Boulevard, where we would eat hot corned beef sandwiches, or to Green Acres mall so she could have pizza, or to DaSilvanas for her chicken parmigiano. Celia wasn’t religious, but she did keep kosher at home, which explains the chicken parmigiano.
On September 2, 2006, Celia passed away. She had been living in a nursing home for the past few weeks before her death when she became ill, and was taken to the hospital. I assumed she’d be getting out of the hospital any day, and returning to the nursing home. I wasn’t prepared for her to die.
Aaron and I had been on vacation, and when we got back to Queens, she had been gone two days already. I felt terribly guilty that she died alone, and that we hadn’t buried her within the preferred twenty four hours after death.
Because my father-in-law was also in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, I was used to it being Celia, Aaron and me. Now it was just Aaron and me. I told him we had to make sure it was actually her. We went to the hospital, and into the morgue. I don’t recommend that to anyone. But, I had to make sure.
It was her lying there, and yet it wasn’t. Her body was there, but her beautiful red her hair was white, she had no make up on, no false eyelashes, and no red lipstick. She must have hated that. But her soul, what made her Celia, was gone.
My husband is not the emotional type. He handled this as if it were a family pet that passed away, and never shed a tear. He still hasn’t.
I, on the other hand, wanted to remember every detail. Every time I thought how I would never see her again, in this life anyway, and never hear her voice again, I would start crying all over again.
We went to the funeral home, and picked out a casket. Aaron wanted the cheapest one.
“No,” I told him. “She deserves better than that.”
So he agreed to the second to the cheapest one.
“I’m sorry, Celia,” I said to her. “I tried.”
I know, it goes into the ground, and you don’t see it again, but I thought she deserved the best. Even for that.
The funeral home needed clothing for her. In our haste cleaning out her apartment so it could be sold after she went into a nursing home, we had forgotten to save burial clothes for her.
All of her clothes were gone, except for the clothes we had picked up from the nursing home. That made me cry, too. Eighty-five years old, and all she had left fit in a small box.
Aaron picked out a shirt, and I held it in my lap in the car on the way to the funeral home. Holding it to my face, I smelled her familiar smell, so I would remember. I looked closer. The shirt had holes.
There was no way Celia was going to be buried in this. I almost smiled, thinking how mad she’d be. I took the blouse I had brought to wear to her funeral, and gave it to the funeral home for her.
The next day, Aaron and I gathered in the chapel at the funeral home, and waited for the rabbi. I couldn’t believe that Celia was inside that casket. I had to see. I lifted the lid, and looked at her. She looked beautiful, and very peaceful. I was so glad that I looked. I felt good that she had my blouse on, a piece of me to go with her.
Aaron left the chapel for awhile, and I sat alone. Just me and Celia. I touched her casket, and said I hoped her life was happy, and I was sorry we hadn’t done better for her. I said I hoped she knew we loved her, and that we’d miss her.
I closed my eyes and asked G-d to let me know she was okay. That she had indeed, arrived in heaven. I felt G-d’s presence then, telling me, “I’m here.” I knew then she was okay, and I was happy for her, happy that she had met G-d face to face. How wonderful that must be.
We drove to the cemetery. It was hard to believe that life was going on around us. I felt that for a moment, everyone and everything should stop for Celia. We watched her being lowered into the ground, said prayers, and threw some dirt on her. I didn’t want to leave her behind. I knew that would be my last contact with her.
I wear her wedding band, which she gave me, every day. It makes our connection live on. My husband doesn’t get it. But I hope Celia knows I will never forget her.
from the August 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine