Every year as the High Holidays approach, I visit the family plot in Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus, New Jersey. Remembering, honoring, and celebrating loved ones before Rosh Hashanah is a tradition for many Jews, as old as the Talmud. But for me, the visit isn’t exactly “traditional,” because of who’s at the cemetery. My mother is buried there. So is my father. And so is my father’s second wife, Jean, the woman responsible for the breakup of my family.
My parents separated when I was 5. My father moved in with Jean in the Bronx, but my parents told me we would be safer if we pretended my father was still living in our apartment in Queens. “My father isn’t home right now, but he’ll be back soon,” I learned to say, trying to believe the phantom father I saw only on Sundays still offered protection.
But no matter where my father lived, or whom he lived with, my mother remained his wife and we remained his family. My mother didn’t file for divorce because my father said he’d give her more if they stayed married. So, we lived the lie.
Somehow my parents continued to be genuine friends; my mother never said anything bad about my father. And she hardly said anything at all about Jean.
My father he took his financial obligations to us seriously. There were ballet and piano lessons for me, and later New York University rather than a less expensive public college. And when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, there was never a question about his paying every medical bill. We were his family—as was evidenced by the “family plot” he bought at Cedar Park Cemetery when I was 12.
Despite the friendly relationship, however, my mother’s anger at my father had apparently smoldered for years. As she lay dying in a Manhattan hospital room at age 54, she told me in no uncertain terms: “I won’t be buried next to him, I won’t. I didn’t live with him, and I won’t spend eternity next to him. Promise me.”
“All right,” I said without hesitating. “I promise.”
I had given my word, but I didn’t want to hurt my father. When my mother died, my father’s checkbook was at the ready, but decisions about the funeral were left to me. I was grateful that, with my father still alive, there was nothing I needed specifically to do then to honor my mother’s wishes. Without asking, the cemetery buried her, as my father’s wife, at the head of the plot. My burial problems were over—but just temporarily.
Growing up, I made excuses for my father and why he left my mother: He wasn’t a man who routinely “fooled around”; he had fallen in love. Even so, I couldn’t understand his leaving my mother, who was filled with joy, and who loved books and theater. Out of respect, I had refused to meet Jean while my mother was living. My father asked but didn’t push.
After my mother died, however, I agreed to spend time with both of them. I would drive to their small house near Pelham Parkway to see my father. Jean acted as though I’d always been part of their lives together. We were cordial with each other. But I kept emotional distance from her.
My father and Jean got married nearly a decade after my mother died. My father told me they’d “eloped,” deciding “impulsively” to get married after they’d been together for nearly 30 years.
Several years later, my father had a fatal heart attack. Helping to clean out his dresser, I was amazed to find press clippings and photos from shows I’d been in, tear sheets from articles I’d written, and the newspaper report of my appointment as theater critic at WINS-AM radio. He had tucked tokens of me between his sweaters and scarves. He was never demonstrative, and “love” hadn’t been part of my father’s vocabulary. But finding these reminders of me among his personal things, a cleansing rain seemed to wash over me. My father loved me.
Jean left the funeral arrangements to me, but that took some doing. To keep my word to my mother, now at the head of the plot consisting of four graves, I had to bury my father at the foot, with a large space in between. This was an unconventional choice, and it took some explaining.
On the phone, trying to clarify arrangements with the cemetery, I was informed by a functionary: “Your parents should be buried side by side.”
“No,” I insisted. “This is important. I know what I’m asking.”
I had begun visiting my mother’s grave starting with the unveiling—the one-year anniversary of her death, when the headstone is installed—and continued driving out to Cedar Park before each succeeding Rosh Hashanah. Not particularly observant, I welcomed the rabbi’s explanation of the visitation tradition, including the necessity of carrying a small pebble or stone to place on the grave.
I would stand in the shade of the nearby tree, weeping quietly, letting my mother know how much I missed her, repeating the 21st Psalm, and saying kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. Now my father would be part of this private ritual.
After my father died, there was no longer any need to have contact with Jean, but much to my surprise, I began to visit her regularly. We shared memories of him, and I always felt better after seeing her. She became the link to my father. I never used the word “stepmother,” and she wasn’t exactly my friend, but she always sent a birthday card and I would always call her on New Year’s Eve.
Jean was smart but uneducated. She had been dirt poor, from the hills of West Virginia. One day she opened up about her past. “I had to leave school when I was 10,” she said. “I was practically a slave taking care of my brothers and sisters. I ran away to New York.”
Jean married young, but her first husband beat her and took any money she earned as a barmaid in Manhattan. “Your father helped me get a divorce from that terrible man,” she said. My father was the bar’s lawyer and accountant, and that’s where he first saw Jean.
I can’t say that I grew to like or love Jean, but I did come to understand and sympathize with her. She had had such a tough early life and had waited so long to become my father’s wife.
Jean lived almost 20 years after my father died. One day she blurted out that she wanted to be buried alongside my father, but there was a problem: “Cedar Park is a Jewish cemetery. They’ll never let me in there,” she said.
“Promise you’ll help me,” Jean pleaded. “I want to convert.”
She never mentioned her birth religion, instead telling me: “I’ve always identified as being Jewish.”
She never explained exactly what that meant. Religion couldn’t have been an issue with my father. He wasn’t observant.
Apparently, years earlier Jean had told my father that she wanted to convert. “But his business partner was Orthodox and he said it would be too hard,” she told me. She repeated that she’d always identified as being Jewish, but clearly the main reason she wanted to convert was so that she could be buried with my father.
Knowing my father, he had probably bet that Cedar Park would assume Jean, as his wife, was Jewish and there would be no problem. But Jean wanted to be sure everything was “kosher.”
“Yes,” I said to her request. “I promise.”
Through friends I learned of a rabbi in New Jersey who could help us. I explained Jean’s educational limits, and he was thoughtful and understanding. He talked to Jean and was convinced that her desire was genuine. He gave her reading materials and, after that first meeting, they spoke several times by phone.
The day Jean got her certificate of conversion she looked happy as a bride. She had it framed and hung above her bed. Becoming Jewish had been important to her, observing rituals, not so much; being buried near my father, vital.
When Jean died a few years later, I buried her next to my father at the foot of the family plot. My mother is at a distance, above them.
I experience visiting the graves every year as a time to embrace my parents as still being part of my life. After all these years, the loss still overwhelms, but I feel them close to me there. I like to think the best of them is reflected in whatever is good in me.
I can’t say that I include Jean in my reflections. My feelings about her remain ambivalent. I’m grateful to her for caring so much for my father and for making him happy. At the same time, my father remains something of a mystery to me. Why did he keep my mother tied to him all those years? She deserved more in her life.
Still, every year, when I visit the gravesite, the arrangement makes me smile. In the end, my father got what he wanted. So did my mother. So did Jean.
Leida Snow is an award-winning journalist. She was theater critic for WINS-AM for 13 years and is writing a book about Broadway. Follow her on Twitter @LeidaSnow.