'Til Murder Do Us Part: A Familial Tale of Death, Dementia, and Drama

Growing old without dignity: Uncle Paul killed Aunt Helen and then tried to kill himself. They were already dead to most of us.

Julie decided to clean out her parents' apartment before visiting her father again. As she expected, she found no photographs of herself, but eventually discovered a box with some old letters, including the one she'd written ending their relationship. There was also a photograph from her first wedding—but she and her ex had been cut out of the picture.

Other telling discoveries included receipts showing that the Weinsteins had spent more than $2,500 on booze the previous year and a box of recently purchased condoms in the night-table drawer. "I don't know why you would need condoms at this age and with the baby factory gone," Julie says. "We were like, What else could you use these for? It was disturbing."

And the funeral? There was none. "My father did not care about a funeral, and, frankly, who the hell was going to come?" Julie says. "It was unnecessary, a waste of money, and just a way to prolong my agony." As Evelyn tells it, "Helen and Paul didn't want to be bothered with going to a cemetery." Though she told Julie she'd abide by her decision, she secretly wanted some type of requiem.

Smoldering Helen and dweeb Paul: A match celebrated by Paul’s mother, Gerta (left), and her oldest sister, Evelyn (right).
Smoldering Helen and dweeb Paul: A match celebrated by Paul’s mother, Gerta (left), and her oldest sister, Evelyn (right).

All of this didn't sit well with my mother, who also thought a service—no matter how small—was the right thing to do. Even worse: The Weinsteins opted for cremation—a big issue for my family, since cremation is taboo in the Jewish religion. Not that it mattered. Neither of them was ever observant, and they certainly had no desire to leave a legacy, much less any trace of their earthly existence. (Paul instructed Julie to cremate him as well and spread his and Helen's ashes together at a site in the Poconos.) "It's weird," Evelyn says. "It's like you've never been on Earth."

And so, with zero acknowledgment of her life of 71 years, there was no ceremony, flowers, or even one word spoken on her behalf—despite being survived by a daughter, two grandchildren, three older sisters, and countless nieces and nephews, most of whom did not even know she existed.

When Helen's remains arrived at Julie's workplace several days later, my cousin was unruffled. If anything, the delivery supplied a dose of comic relief.

"My mother's ashes arrived in a large can similar to a 28-ounce container of crushed tomatoes," Julie says. "I have a warped sense of humor. I introduced her to a few people, and she rode shotgun in the car with me that day. We had a nice talk—the first time I got to have my say. I just don't have any grief in my heart for her. It's just not there. On the other hand, I feel sympathetic to my father's situation, though it's more like being sensitive to a friend's situation than feeling deeply that this is my father."

A Santa Barbara, California–based freelancer, Arnie Cooper is working on a memoir about his childhood growing up in New York

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