A Jewish Story

    January 2010            
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The Three Coffins

By Larry Centor © 2009

On her Flying Blanket, Amanda thought, This is really getting complicated. Maybe I should take a nap before I get a headache.

She looked down at herself and her niece, then surveyed the area. The Bronx Zoo was a green oasis set down among block after endless block of apartment buildings.

"Tell me about the gloves."

Amanda was still gazing thoughtfully at the lions.

Amanda was staring thoughtfully at her control panel.

"Look at how strange that setting is, the lions out there, the buildings behind them. Did you know that your great-great-grandzedda — David Chaim — lived across the street from the zoo?"

"Now you're going to tell me about my great-great-grandzedda instead of the gloves. Right?"

Amanda smiled at her niece. "Right! But you can blame it on the Great Computer. In Aunt Marni's and your mom's day it was the Great Typewriter." Amanda paused. "But progress is progress."

"I know," said Batya. "And a person is a person." She smiled at her aunt. "So Great-great-grandzedda lived across from the Bronx Zoo."

"And he was buried in three coffins."

"Oh come on, Aunt Amanda. Give me a break."

"Bubby didn't believe the story either, at first."

Batya shrugged in resignation, positioned herself against a railing, so she could watch the animals in the faux Serengeti grasslands and said, "Regale me with the three-coffin story, but you better get around to the gloves."

"Regale. Regale. What a big word for such a little girl."

"Regale doesn't seem like such a big word."

Amanda smiled at her niece. "Botz, I consider myself properly chastised."

"What's 'chastised'?" asked Batya, looking seriously at her aunt.

"Chastised means..."

And Batya burst out laughing. "Got ya."

I don't believe what I'm hearing. My niece is putting me on. I wouldn't have fallen for that even at my age, which is her age. Besides, I knew — know — big words. I know what regale means. Unseen by anyone in the immediate vicinity, just above the trees, Amanda arched one eyebrow, glanced around her Flying Blanket and punched a few strokes on her computer.

"Regale. To entertain, usually with a story."

Just checking! thought Amanda, a tad smugly.

Leaning against the railing with Batya, the two of them watching the captive panorama spread out before them, Amanda started. "One evening around supper time, Zedda mentioned to Bubby that his grandzedda died while he was a freshman in college."

"He must've been pretty old."

"He was, Botz. Zedda once figured that David Chaim's in-laws, that's Sara Devorah's bubby and zedda — whom Poppa Sam knew — were born when John Quincy Adams was president."

"Why would he even want to figure out something like that?" She looked at her aunt thoughtfully, wondering if she was going to be suckered into another detour. But her curiosity got the best of her. "I know who Sara Devorah was — Mom's named after her — and David Chaim must have been her father." She took a deep breath and plunged on. "But we're talking about Great-great-grandzedda's in-laws. Right?"


Now resignedly, because Amanda's face was lit up with a broad smile. "And they were?"

"Sara Devorah's mother was Froma Esther."

That's the setup, though Batya, but she didn't say anything, just waited patiently for her aunt to continue. "And Froma Esther's mother was Reyzhinka."

In for a penny. "And her husband's name."

"Never knew it. Grandzedda never told Zedda, or if he did, Dad doesn't remember."

"Aha," said Batya triumphantly. "A dead end."

"Well, in a manner of speaking," admitted Amanda. "But your grandzedda did remember them from Europe. They lived well into their nineties. In fact, Zedda told me that when Poppa Sam was a little boy, seven or eight, his mom used to send him over to see her bubby — Reyzhinka — to bring her some food. She was really old by then, and spent a good deal of time in bed.

"One time, after visiting his grandbubby — Reyzhinka was Grandzedda's grandbubby — he was leaving, when he turned around for some reason. And he saw that Reyzhinka had taken a bottle out from under her pillow. She looked at Poppa Sam, I suspect with a slightly wicked smile, and Poppa Sam looked at her."

"What was in the bottle?" asked Batya.

Botz! Get real!



"No. Schnapps, with a 'c.'"

"I really don't believe you Aunt Amanda."

I really don't believe you — me — either.

"So Reyzhinka smiles at her great-grandson, puts a finger to her lips, and says, "Sralsimcha, don't tell your mother."

"Sralsimcha?" Damn!

"It was his nickname," said Amanda innocently, "just like yours is Botz, and Notz' is Notz."

"Notz to Mom."

Amanda groaned.

Oh-h-h-h my god. I can't imagine where it comes from.

"Aunt Amanda, did he tell Sara Devorah?"

"And like one of my nicknames was Mundy, ignoring her niece's question."

"Did he tell her?"

"Know how I got that nickname?"

"Did he tell her?" not rising to the bait.

"Doubt it. Zedda says Poppa Sam was a quiet man. He was probably quiet as a boy too. My guess is he kept it to himself."

"Which takes us back to, or back back to?"

"Well, Reyzhinka and her husband — who were wood peddlers, so I've been told — were born when John Quincy Adams was president. That's a long time in living history."

"How's that 'living' history?" Batya swallowed quickly and tried to retreat. "Forget that, please."

Her aunt, true to form, ignored Batya's request. "Well, you and I are living, so, in a sense, we remember people who remember people who remember people, all relatives, who were alive way back in the 1820's."

I like that. I know someone, who knew someone who knew someone who was alive nearly 200 years ago. I could use a Twinkie. She reached into a compartment just under the Flying Blanket's control console, rummaged around, and smiled with anticipation as she took out a Twinkie.

"Zedda was always thinking of things like that. It was just something he did. Bubby used to call him a 'garbage brain.'"

"That doesn't sound too flattering."

"I guarantee she said it with love, Botz. Bubby always said that she had trouble remembering yesterday, much less the trivia that roamed around Zedda's head."

When is she going to get on with the three coffins, the gloves, anything? grumbled Amanda. Oh the hell with it. I know me. She turned away from the computer, reached into a storage locker and took out a couple of pillows. Might as well get comfortable. She swung the ocular enhancer into a position just over the edge of the blanket. Then she placed her elbows on the pillow and after a few contortions settled down to watch the scene below.

On second thought. She turned over, opened the food locker again and took out half a dozen miniature Three Musketeers. This is probably going to take a while. Stripping the wrapper off one of the candy bars, she resumed her station.

"The three coffins, Aunt Amanda."

"Right, Botz. Zedda tells Bubby they buried David Chaim in three coffins. And Bubby says, 'Oh, come on!' or something to that effect."

More likely, she said, "Bullshit!" said Amanda out loud. I know my Mom. Amanda is just cleaning it up for Botz. I mean I'm just cleaning it up for Botz.

"Aunt Amanda, Bubby never said, 'Oh, come on!' She probably said, 'Bullshit.'"

"Botz!" Her aunt looked at Batya in mock shock.

"I know my Bubby!"

"Anyway, Bubby didn't buy it, so Zedda explained that his grandzedda was in his nineties, and his foot became infected, then turned gangrenous and had to be amputated, so that the infection wouldn't spread."

"And they saved the foot?" asked Batya, with more than a hint of skepticism in her voice.

"Orthodox Jews — and David Chaim was ultra-orthodox — believe you have to be buried complete, with all the parts of your body, so they put the foot in storage."

"Okay, let's say I buy that. Where did the third coffin come from?"

"Some time later, Leslie had to remove the leg."

I knew it! I knew it! Another tangent. !@#$%!

"Who's Leslie?"

"I knew it! I knew it!" Amanda pounded her fist on the Flying Blanket. "She, I, suckered Botz right in."

"Forget I said that," said Botz, just a bit too quickly. "Please. I don't really want to know who Leslie was, is, will be or will lead to."

Amanda smiled at her niece with a twinkle in her eyes, and just the barest trace of wickedness in her voice. "It's too late."

A groan escaped from the younger girl. "Are you ever going to tell me about the gloves? I'll bet there were never that many gloves."

"And 17 scarves," amended Amanda.

Botz sighed, her shoulders slumped slightly and she said quietly, "Leslie. You were going to tell me about Leslie."

Sounds like me all right. Definitely sounds like me.

"He was David Chaim's grandson. His mother, Bessie, was your great-grandbubby's sister."

Botz nodded.

That's not a nod, thought Amanda. That's a shake of resignation.

"You know Leslie was medical examiner of Nassau County for over 40 years," said Amanda. "And his son Rick did Cousin Barry's eyelids."

She's not going to bite.

"So his grandson amputated the foot," said Botz, "and later on he had to remove some more. Right?"



"And they kept the parts, so that when David Chaim died, he could be buried with all of his parts."

"Is this my story, or yours, Botz?"

"But why didn't they consolidate everything into one coffin when they buried him?"

Amanda thought about that for a moment. "I guess it must've had something to do with health considerations."

"How did Zedda convince Bubby about the three coffins?"

"Well, he didn't actually see the three coffins. Remember he was off doing the important work of being a freshman at Syracuse." She looked closely at her niece. "You want to hear about your zedda at Syracuse?"

"Aunt Amanda, if you start with Zedda at Syracuse, then you'll take him into the army or something, and god knows where or what else. Please, please, no more tangents."

"This time," agreed Amanda, "but one never knows." She looked around, seemingly lost. "Where was I?"

"You started in Bayside, picked me up in Manhattan and drove me here. Remember?"

Now I've got two clowns on my hands.

"The three coffins," said Amanda. "Aunt Paulette told Zedda the story. And he told it to Bubby, finishing with, 'If you don't believe me, ask Paulette.'"

"That made Bubby believe Zedda?" Botz's eyebrows arched at the thought.

"Not for an instant. She always thought Zedda was putting her on. She called Aunt Paulette."

"'How're you?'"

"'Fine. How're you, my brother, niece and nephew?' although I doubt those were her exact words.

"'We're fine. Tell me about your grandzedda's funeral.'"

"Bubby didn't mess around, did she?"


"So Aunt Paulette said..."

"'You mean the three coffins?'"

"I mean, what did Aunt Paulette say?"

"That's what she said. 'You mean the three coffins?'"

"'Was he really buried in three coffins? Did your brother call you? Is this a set-up?'"

"'He was really buried in three coffins, though two of them were pretty small.'"

"And that was the conversation?"

"Pretty much. Bubby was convinced."

I really don't believe me, taking advantage of my niece like this. By the time she, I, get around to the gloves, I'll be the age I am then, now, whatever. She unwrapped another Three Musketeers candy bar, and bit it neatly in half. Food for thought, she thought, grinning broadly.


from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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