customs/rituals, death, death rituals

How Do We Remember?

Harold working as an extra in a Pepsi ad with a chimp. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.
Harold Dresser with a chimp, working as an extra in a Pepsi ad, mid-1990s. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

My husband, Harold Dresser, died on February 2, 2007. For the 10 year anniversary of his death, I wanted to commemorate the occasion in a special way.

I had his name and death date engraved on a gold plated marker that hangs on a Memorial Wall inside the Alevy Chabad Center, an Orthodox Jewish place of worship here in Las Cruces. On the date of his death, the light adjacent to his name will burn brightly. Then for the rest of the month the light will merely flicker.

Recently, when I went to see the marker for the first time, the rabbi kindly turned on the light so that I could take a photo to send to my non-local offspring. Harold’s name alone stirred sorrow within me, but with the adjacent glowing light, the sadness intensified.

Harold's memorial marker with light on. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.
Harold’s memorial marker with light on. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

There are many ways to remember a deceased loved one. In Cruces, I often see memorial car rear windshields as exemplified below.

Windshield memorial in a random car in Las Cruces. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.
Windshield memorial in a random car in Las Cruces. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

Commonly, fatal auto wrecks are commemorated with floral displays and crosses at the site of the carnage.

090126 - Kennesaw - Friends and fellow students of Garrett Reed, 16 gathered at the scene of roadside memorial Monday morning, January 26, 2009 at Sylvia Drive and Midway Road where he died early Sunday morning. Drive and hit another car about 12:30 a.m. Saturday, Cobb County police Sgt. Dana Pierce said. Reed died at the scene. The other driver, Richard Reyes, 25, of Dallas, was taken to Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in stable condition, Pierce said. The wreck happened less than a mile from Harrison High School, where Reed was a junior wide receiver and defensive back on the football team. Reed was the second Harrison athlete to be killed in a wreck in recent years. Luke Abbate, a junior on the school's lacrosse team, was killed, and four of his teammates injured, in a February, 2006 crash. The funeral for Reed will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday at First Baptist Church in Powder Springs. Visitation is scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. Monday at West Cobb Funeral Home. jspink@ajc.com

Back to the Jewish tradition, every year we light a candle (Yahrzeit candle)  that burns for 24 hours marking the death date. But with my night prowler cat, Sweetie Beattie, it is dangerous having an unattended burning candle while I sleep, so I have switched to an electric one that does the job safely.

Two examples of yahrzeit lights: traditional candle, electrical. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.
Two examples of yahrzeit lights: traditional candle, electrical. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

What are the ways in which you memorialize a deceased loved one? I would like to know and share the information with others.

Norine Dresser is a folklorist feeling sad at this time of the year.

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death, Suicide

Do You Know How Another Person Feels Inside?

Bow tie memorial. Photo by Robin Zielinski. Shortly after installation, the tie was stolen then found. It has not yet been re-installed. For full story see: http://www.lcsun-news.com/story/news/crime/2016/03/04/social-media-posts-lead-police-silvas-bow-tie/81344646/
Bow tie memorial for Miguel Silva. Photo by Robin Zielinski. Shortly after installation, the tie was stolen then found. It has not yet been re-installed. For full story see: http://www.lcsun-news.com/story/news/crime/2016/03/04/social-media-posts-lead-police-silvas-bow-tie/81344646/

Recently, a beloved former councilman, Miguel Silva, age 55, committed suicide here in Las Cruces. What a shock to us all because Silva was known for his outgoing personality and fun-loving ways. He wore outlandish hats, performed magic tricks and had a rowdy laugh.

He often wore a bow tie, to me, a symbol of jauntiness. Accordingly, the community paid tribute to him by commissioning a local artist, Scott Murray, to design a bow tie memorial. They attached the tie to a tree in Klein Park, located in Silva’s former district.

The bow tie belies what Silva must have been feeling. The cravat masked his heartache, which is why we all were so stunned by his death.

Unfortunately, I have had many close-at-hand encounters with suicide. One relative attempted it in my living room. Although he was unsuccessful that day, years later, he succeeded. Another relative’s about-to-be ex-wife alerted us to her husband’s suicide threat, so my husband and brother rushed over, intervened, and brought him home to sleep over. I had a restless night listening to his moves up and down, fantasizing about what he might be doing in the bathroom.

A work acquaintance once called and asked if I would invite him to our next party. I promised to add him to our guest list but nothing was being planned for the next month or two. After I discovered that he committed suicide, I felt mortified.

I would never criticize a person who committed suicide, but I would counsel that it leaves survivors with a lot of guilt. Is that part of the intent?

I had another friend who took his own life. Later, I learned that so had his mother and sister. Was committing suicide genetic? Or was it a learned behavior? Regardless, suicide is a terrible legacy.

Once, of my daughter’s friends arrived at the door and claimed he was suicidal and would we help him commit himself at County General Hospital? We called the hospital that advised us to bring him in Sunday, the next day. Meanwhile, we felt helpless. It was a Saturday night and while my husband, Harold, distracted him in the living room, I went into the den and called the Suicide Prevention Hot Line. Guess what? The line was continuously busy and I never got through.

Decades ago, my insightful four-year-old granddaughter admonished me, “Do you know how another person feels inside?” I had to admit that I didn’t recognize her pain. And that is a life lesson. We never know how another person feels inside regardless of outward demeanor.

 

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who treasures every day of her life, especially now that she is closer to the end of her journey.

 

customs/rituals, death, death rituals

These Cups Runneth Over With…Mystery, History, and… Angst?

Mystery Kiddush Cups.  Photo by Rachel Stevens.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015
Mystery Kiddush Cups. Photo by Rachel Stevens. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015

What would you do if the religion you practiced were outlawed and death was the penalty for not converting to the mainstream religion?

Would you leave the country you loved where you had family and property? Would you comply with the new law?   Or would you overtly practice the new religion but worship covertly?

In a nutshell, that was the dilemma for hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims living in Spain and Portugal in the 15th century during the Inquisition when Spain forced Christianity upon its population.

Historians disagree as to how many were murdered – from 6,000 to 31,000, in one example. Another estimate has Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, single-handedly responsible for the deaths of 35,000. Those Jews who remained and converted to Catholicism were called New Christians, Conversos or Anusim and even held government and church positions. Those Muslims who claimed to convert to Catholicism but practiced their faith secretly were called Moriscos.

The expelled Jews fled to North Africa, the Middle East, Europe as far north as Scandinavia. Others traveled to the Caribbean and Mexico. Alas! The Inquisition occurred in the New World, as well, so many Jews journeyed from Mexico into Northern New Mexico to escape scrutiny. Nonetheless, they were still wary of openly practicing Judaism for fear of being discovered. So it was that for centuries Crypto-Jews (Hidden Jews) lit Sabbath candles in concealed parts of their homes, abstained from eating pork, practiced male circumcision, placed Jewish symbols on gravestones, and heralded the Sabbath by blessing the bread and drinking wine from sacred goblets, called “Kiddush Cups.”

            ***

Knowing the above history, can you imagine my excitement when hearing about Rachel Stevens, a Las Crucen art professor at NMSU, who had two mysterious Kiddush cups (pictured above) given to her by a former student who found them abandoned in an old apartment?

As a member of the Society for Crypto-Judaic studies, I immediately assumed that these cups might be evidence of Crypto-Jews living in Las Cruces. I envisioned all kinds of horrendous scenarios. So imagine my disappointment when I actually saw the Kiddush Cups and realized that these were not ancient relics. Instead they were manufactured in recent times – most likely the 20th century.

Hebrew letters that translate as Pri Hagofen.  A prayer for the blessing of the wine.  Photo by Rachel Stevens.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Hebrew letters that translate as Borei P’ri Hagafen. Prayer for the blessing of the wine. Photo by Rachel Stevens. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

 

New questions arise:

When were the cups manufactured and where?

Why were they discarded?

What happened to the owners?

Is it possible that they lost or misplaced the cups?

Is it possible that someone surreptitiously took them? If so,

why did they not end up in a pawn shop?

Despite my let-down, I still have hopes of discovering a Crypto-Judaic presence here in Las Cruces. Accordingly, my colleague, Rachel Spector, and I visited a large Catholic cemetery. Although the omnipresence of Christian symbols prevailed, we still spotted small rocks deliberately placed on or next to memorial stones on several graves.   Putting stones on grave markers is a Jewish custom to mark one’s visit to the departed.

 

 

Rocks on Catholic Grave.  Photo by Rachel Spector.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Stones on grave at St. Genevieve’s Cemetery. Photo by Rachel Spector. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Stones on Catholic graves. Photo by Rachel Spector.  © Norine Dresser Photo collection, 2015.
Stones on grave at St. Genevieve’s Cemetery.
Photo by Rachel Spector. © Norine Dresser Photo collection, 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it just a coincidence that these stones are there?

 

Or is this a secret way to let insiders know that the family has Jewish roots?

 

Speculation is the core of research. And although at this time there is no way to positively ascertain the meaning of these anonymous rocks, I long to discover the truth.

 

Norine Dresser is a folklorist, who as a child, enjoyed listening to a radio show called, “I Love a Mystery.” Although that program no longer exists, she still loves a mystery.

cats, death, loss, pets

How Shall I Remember Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

 

Departed souls stay in our consciousness and we long to acknowledge them.  Especially during Day of the Dead, we pay concrete tribute in a variety of ways.  At La Casa Camino Real here in Las Cruces, NM, some of us created portable shrines.

Suitcase shrine for Harold Dresser.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.
Suitcase shrine for Harold Dresser. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.

I received satisfaction selecting the items that Mariah Chase artistically arranged.  On the inside of the suitcase lid hang polaroid photos of Harold in various costumes worn as a movie and TV extra during the last 25 years of his life.  A box of DeCecco spaghetti rests on the bottom.  Pastai was his favorite food especially when tossed with olive oil and garlic.  You can also see his eyeglasses, his AFTRA membership cards, some plastic pipe fittings that represent the family business, Florence Plumbing Supply, and the cover of the Buena Vista Social Club CD.  Since he loved Cuban music, I played this CD as friends entered the chapel for his 2007 funeral.

Nearby at the Mesilla Valley Plaza, I encountered different styles of remembrances.  They are a reminder that nothing is as powerful as the name of the departed to elicit strong  emotions.  Although I knew none of those names on display, I choked up realizing that each one represented one human being and a history of their impact on earth.  On a multicultural note, I love that each Latino name had an origami crane above it — a Japanese symbol of long life.

Names of deceased with folded origami crane above each one.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014
Names of deceased with folded origami crane above each one. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014

 

Name of just one person and photo mounted on a stick.  ©Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.
Name of just one person and photo mounted on a stick. ©Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.

 

 

On Day of the Dead, November 2 (All Soul’s Day), we also acknowledge beloved pets.  The shrine below features paw prints of each of my departed cat companions, their toy, Nemo, and two cans of cat food.  After the unexpected death of Tortuga, my dear friend, Rachel Spector, sent me the stuffed cat as a condolence gift.

Mini shrine to my departed cats, Tommy and Tortuga.  Photo by Mariah Chase.  ©Norine Dresser Photo Collection, 2014.
Mini shrine to my departed cats, Tommy and Tortuga. Photo and shrine by Mariah Chase. ©Norine Dresser Photo Collection, 2014.

 

Beyond the momentary acknowledgment on November 2, pet owners find other modes of perennial commemoration.  For example, I gave some of Tommy’s cremains to artist, Rick Rotante.  As part of his Ashes to Art project, he combined Tommy’s ashes with the oils he used to create a painting of Tom.  When I sit at my desk and look up, there he is, that rescue cat who rescued me from depression after the death of my husband, Harold.

Portrait of Tommy his ashes mixed with the oil paint. Photo by Mariah Chase.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.
Portrait of Tommy, his ashes mixed with the oil paint. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.

My friend, PJ Dempsey, remembers her Half Arabian Pinto mare, Endless Luv, by gazing at a beautiful ceramic bowl in which Luv’s horsehairs have been ingrained.  This is another aesthetic way to commemorate their 19 years of companionship.

 

Luv's horsehair embedded into a ceramic bowl.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014
Luv’s horsehair embedded into a ceramic bowl. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014

 

No matter the method and regardless of species,  we humans yearn to maintain our relationships with departed souls of those who impacted our lives.  In this way, we honor the spirits of all sentient beings.

 

Norine Dresser is a folklorist, who anxiously awaits the arrival of her next furry friend.  Details to follow.

cats, death, loss, pets

The Princess Has Left the Building

 

Princess Tuga.  Crown photo shopped by Mariah Chase.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.
Princess Tuga. Crown by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.

 

She was dainty yet elegant. When she took possession of my Las Cruces home, she proudly padded around with tail raised high. But like all royals, she had a flaw – a poor braking system. She’d leap toward a destination yet often miss her mark looking clumsy as she struggled to regain her balance. “You’re just like me,” I’d comment, trying to make her seem like she was truly kin.

Up to now, her life had been traumatic. She had spent her first year and a half in an unstable relationship with an owner who had substance abuse issues. Then when her owner died and lay in their home for four days before discovery, the poor princess was equally untended until authorities marked off the house with yellow tape, tossed the cat into a county animal facility as they carried her owner’s body to the morgue.

Fortunately, a compassionate neighbor adopted the frightened feline from the shelter despite the maximum number of cats she already owned. That’s when she contacted me.

I had recently euthanized my beloved first cat, Tom. Before he became sickly and old, he had been a good companion but very independent. When he jumped onto my bed at night and I petted him too much, he would move to the corner of the bed, and if I persisted in talking lovingly to him, he would leave the room. The princess was different and I treasured her contrasting personality.

When I sat in my recliner at night watching television, she would stretch out above my head on top of the chair. Then after a while, she would make little sounds, seemingly to request a move down into my lap where she would snuggle. I was in the proverbial seventh heaven, and she seemed equally appreciative.

I told her that she would be my furry companion until I exited this plane. My daughter, Andrea, had already agreed to take her after my death. We even joked about it when Andrea visited and regularly asked, “Where’s my kitty?”

But the joke was on me, when, less than a month ago my sweet princess stopped eating.   I took her to the vet, and an x-ray showed a cloud covering her left lung. Further tests and surgery revealed that she had a diaphragmatic hernia. Her stomach and liver had pushed into her upper cavity and her left lung was necrotic.

She survived the surgery and seemed to be recovering but still refused to eat on her own. For over a week I drove her daily to the animal clinic where they force-fed and hydrated her – but to no avail. She failed to thrive. Finally, I couldn’t stand to see her continued suffering and called the euthanasia vet, who concurred that nothing more could be done to improve her condition. When the doc administered the sedative and lethal dosage, my princess, Tortuga, had her eyes focused on me. I kissed her head and told her how much I loved her. Then she was gone.

Farewell, darling Tortuga. Your life was too brief, yet you will remain forever in my heart.

 

Norine Dresser is a folklorist, who, after an acceptable time of mourning, will adopt another cat. Let’s hope that this third time will be the charm.