In her book Playing Dead, Elizabeth Greenwood recounts how she faked her own death, staging a car crash in the Philippines. My great-aunt Rose did something of that nature—if, admittedly, in the less dramatic mode of an aged Jewish lady with used tissues tucked into her sleeve and sagging, off-color support hose.
Rose’s ride to a wedding in Newark from Paterson showed up as planned, and as confirmed by her the week before. Somebody’s nephew. Rang, rang the bell. —No answer. —Upturned an ashcan in the alley, climbed and, clutching at the window ledge, peered in.
Aunt Rose was gone.
By the other guests massed on the stoop later—a little shikker, drunk, and still in nuptial finery—the same conclusion would be drawn. Damask sofa: absent. Curtains, rugs, china: not there. And Aunt Rose? Decidedly departed.
Her late, sainted husband Bernie’s brother-in-law Hymie, pisher, pisser—all slick mustache, knowing air—ticked off the clues detective-style. Sign of a struggle: no. Known enemies: none.
Not that our Rose was universally beloved. But who was?
They fell silent, thinking through forty years of picnics and canasta.
Despite what was essentially a verbal contract—Hymie shook his head. Vanished! The Night Rose Died was, ever after, how the incident was known. Did anybody try Chicago, where she had a son? File missing persons? Must have.
I couldn’t tell you. I was just a kid.
My sole association with Aunt Rose had been the cheeks—preternaturally soft, unlined—that she would press to mine in greeting and good-bye. Beyond that, truth be told, it would have been hard to say which she was.
The world was chockablock with great-aunts then.
“The Salamenskys were … ” My mother’s haziness these days, which prompts her to search the ceiling for words, conveys a not-unbecoming hauteur. “Peculiar.” Long pause. “Kooky.” She’s not done. “And secretive. And stingy.”
She’s never forgiven me for taking after that side in what she clearly sees as predilection, as well as mien.
“Your father was a good man. Handsome. Tall. But how he stretched a dime!” She veers onto a running theme. “It could be said I wed below my station … ”
“Yes, right. The Night Rose Died. You wouldn’t let up, pestering. So many questions. Do Jews go to Hell, Ma?”
Joanne B. down the street said so. We lived in the Catholic part of town. If you dug a hole deep enough down, flames from the Devil would leap out. —Joanne again. —We had rutted up the small tract-house yard trying.
“Then, Ma, what about Heaven.”
Jews believe in neither, technically. Just Gehenna—a sere valley where Canaanites burned their own children to honor the god Moloch—but that’s reserved for Hitler. Or Sheol—a system of underworld tunnels through which, at the End of Days, our bones will roll to Jerusalem, where we will rise and dance around.
But mainly—not as colorfully—there is The Book of Life. Each fall, Jews thump their fists against their chests, reciting the original of the phase “litany of sins.” Hard-heartedness. Obduracy. Embezzlement. Culpable or not, they repent, praying to get their names in it, a sort of sacred version of the vast-girthed volume that used to be put out by Ma Bell.
Failing to appear in the actual directory was not, of course, to have mortally erred. But—and for my mother, this had clinched a new idea—to be unlisted in the phone book you did have to pay.
“If a member of the Salamensky side is left alive”—another eccentricity: we tend to be short-lived—“you’ll find them,” my mother decided, “in the white pages.”
Where did Jews go when it was their time? She’d mused some more, called after me as I left for the public library. “Try Florida.”
I visited, when I was older. Miami Beach! I had a free ticket to use up. The northeast was cold.
I don’t know why, but up till now I’ve never told a soul.
Rose’s cheeks seemed just as smooth, unwrinkled, at the door.
“Nu?” she shrugged—and so?—at being alive.
“I am called Rosa now.” She’d taken Spanish at the Y, along with mambo lessons. The damask sofa was faded. The art-deco flat was bright. She’d tucked a gay daylily in her hair.
We sat and chatted, caught up on events since her demise. I asked how she’d remained so vital all this time.
She brought me to the kitchenette, took out a big bowl, and pushed over a pen and notepad.
Half a raw onion, diced
Hard-boiled egg, chopped
1 grapefruit, sectioned
Friendship Cottage Cheese—Friendship only, dry curd
Kretschmer Wheat Germ—red lid, the toasted kind
A parsley sprig on top is nice
(It wasn’t at all as bad as you think! Though I do substitute a fresh scallion, of late.)
Perched on the stool while Rose squeezed us more orange juice, I gripped the counter to push off and whirled around.
“You’ll want see the sights. But first”—she dragged over two chairs for us to lean on—“you’re welcome to join with me in my exercise.”
We did leg lifts to a staticky VHS tape of Jack LaLanne.
“And then,” she said, “the final thing. I saw it long ago. McCall’s. I do it overnight. But fifteen minutes ought to be enough, to start. They say the skin gets so dehydrated on planes.”
I put my feet up, shut my eyes. She slathered a cool substance on my face.
“The magazine said butter. —Stay still while I place the cellophane. —But then I wondered: What if I had pot roast? Milk with meat!” Not kosher. “I put margarine instead. It costs less, too.”
Fed, stretched, refreshed, I stepped out for some sun. Strolled the boardwalk end to end. Downed Cuban coffees. Found nice sunglasses on steep discount at the Rexall.
Lifted barbells with altekakers, geezers, on the beach. Plunged into the sea. Wrapped myself in the towel she’d run down Española Way to bring me, arms waved overhead like coconut palms in the breeze.
“Aunt Rose,” I ventured when I returned. She was mashing avocados for us to massage into our hair. “If you don’t mind. I have to ask. What happened the Night You—”
“Missed that wedding.” She sighed. “Once Bernie passed away, I had no ties. The Salamenskys—never mind. It was simply nobody’s business. Felt like going, so I went.”
Who am I to argue with the dead? Seventy-two degrees, clear all week. Divine.
Shelley Salamensky is a scholar and writer. Her work has appeared in print and online in The New York Review of Books, The Believer, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.