Mendel Letters 47– Morning Mourning

The Mourners (Sitting Shiva), 1928, by Emmanuel Levy

September 18, 2021

Dear Mendel,

Mommy died on Monday night February 20, 1961. I had just turned 11. Warren was not yet 9.

Warren and I spent days that Sunday and Monday, Washington’s Birthday, with your brother Bernie and Aunt Bea at their apartment in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, but we came home to sleep. Your brother Abe’s wife, Aunt Mary, was a registered nurse and she was at our house taking care of Mommy. You woke Warren and me Tuesday morning to tell us Mommy had gone away. We figured she was back in the hospital again. No one had prepared us. We had no idea what happened, and then you started to cry.

Wednesday was the funeral. I remember there were a lot of people at the funeral home and that Warren and I wore suits. They cut my tie, the only one I had, as a sign of mourning. I think I remember standing lonely at the gravesite.

That week we sat shiva, Jewish ritual mourning, and there were people around. Mrs. Williams from Cancer Care came to the apartment to say goodbye. She had been with us for what seemed like months. Warren and I cried and asked her “Mrs. Williams, who will take care of us?”

People left us used books and clothes. They were my first books and the clothing Warren and I got were the best clothes we had. I remember we received matching red pants that we loved. You bought a pair so the three of us could wear red pants together.

After the weekend people stopped coming, you went to work, and Warren and I returned to school at PS 104. Everyone there knew Mommy had died, she was active in the Parent’s Association and you ran the local luncheonette, but no one there said anything to us. There was silence. I remember we started eating school lunch. Worse than the food was the ban on talking and if it was raining outside they made us stand on line once we finished eating. It was our punishment for whatever sins we had committed that gave Mommy cancer.

One of the used books I received was called Sons of the Sword Maker by Maurice Walsh (1936). I still have it and sometimes re-read it. The book contains two extended novellas, “Face of Stone” and “Flann of the Left Hand.” “Face of Stone” is my favorite.

Orugh, an Irish swordmaker, in the Kingdom of Connacht during the era of the Roman Empire, had five sons. The oldest, Delgaun, had been a wanderer and just returned to his home village. The next oldest, Urnaul, was a swordsman, killed by Fergus of the Running Water, in a fight over the red woman Alor. One by one the brothers of Urnaul go to Running Water to avenge him. Cond is killed by Fergus and Flann is maimed. Delgaum refuses to go by finally agrees to accompany his youngest brother, Maur, on a quest, hoping to keep him from challenging Fergus. On the quest with Delgaun, Maur carried the sword made by Orugh that Urnaul, Cond, and Flann had wielded. Delgaun only carried a staff. Eventually Delgaun and Maur arrive in Running water and Delgaun orders Maur to return home while he enters the village. He then asks Alor to travel with Maur to the home of Orugh and pleads with Fergus not to fight. They are goaded by the local townspeople and both enter the fighting ring. In the first strike the swords are joined at the hilt and Delgaun, his face turned to a mask of stone, slowly backs Fergus around the ring until with one blow Fergus is dead. Before he dies Fergus realizes he is battling the infamous swordsman and killer Stone-Face. With Fergus dead, the mask of stone melts, Delgaun is at peace, and he returns home with Maur and Alor.

During my youthful adventures or just standing on line for a half an hour after lunch, I imagined myself Delgaun, rising to the occasion as a hero.

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