No strangers lurked near her casket or behind the hedges. No apparent or misbegotten fortune hunters. The only people not paid to be at Rose Hips's funeral were the family members my grandmother had either cajoled or embarrassed into attending. None of them knew how to contact her sole child, Flora, missing for many years. The gravedigger could have been her ex-husband, a man no one had seen in decades. And now, they each measured how somber they should act.
“She probably died of a sex disease,” said Cousin Muriel.
“Quiet. You don't want the rabbi to hear you. He might put it in his eulogy.”
“She died of a heart attack, like you're supposed to,” said my grandmother Ida of her sister.
But Rose Hips, known for whistling for cabs with her pinkies tucked in the corners of her mouth, seemed too vigorous to have died from a common heart attack. Her very nickname, Rose Hips, arose from the way she danced. She moved with such abandon that her hips did not appear to be attached to her body. If she had not been wearing clothes, they would have flown from her body and circled the room. This was wildly different than the adult who as a shy girl and so thin there didn't seem to be room enough for her intestines.
Later in life, there had been hints and rumors that Rose Hips had been involved with all sorts of men, shadows who disappeared leaving only stories without references. Some suspected she danced the hoochie-coochie, as Fern would say, with anyone. Negroes. Commies. Anyone. Rose Hips knew people talked about her, and she thought that was acceptable.
She would remain out of communication with her family for long periods of time. Her most famous and longest spell without seeing anyone or even a letter came between the wars. Years later, she insinuated that she had spent that time in Paris and was a confidante of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. But she spoke no French, was not a real or wannabe writer or painter, and knew nothing of philosophy, whether it be simple or pretentious. Some speculated that she posed nude, although no one had seen such a painting. There are always those who think the worst. But most thought that she had spent those years somewhere in Brooklyn and simply wanted to be left alone.
Fortunately, the family had engaged an experienced and glib rabbi to preside over the funeral. When no one could offer gentle anecdotes or information that did not require confirmation, the rabbi invoked every cliché he could muster. A verb. A pronoun. An adjective. Mad Libs for the dead.
At the conclusion of the service, Cousin Yudel whispered to his wife, Fern, “Let's ransack her apartment now.”
“Show some respect. We should sit shiva first.”
“We have a whole week for that, and I'm afraid someone might get there before us.”
“Did you see anybody?”
“No. That's what bothers me.”
Yudel turned to my father. “We have to ransack the apartment now.”
“Shouldn't we sit shiva first?”
“Sure. Later. But first we have to lose the rabbi.”
“OK. But we're not going to ransack the place. Just look.”
“Thank you, Rabbi,” Fern said. “It was very touching. Call me if you need a recommendation.”
“That was very good. You should be a full-time rabbi. Somewhere,” Cousin Tummler said.
“From now on when I think of death, Rabbi, I will think of you,” my mother said.
My grandmother had the “just-in-case” key for Rose Hips's apartment, allowing the family to tiptoe in. An awkward danse macabre. Although they all had seen Rose Hips lowered into the ground just hours before, a few feared that they might find her dead again or gently napping on her couch.
“I hear voices,” Fern said.
“Voices? No, no. It's the radio.” Which was still playing softly, its wooden cabinet warm from being on continuously for days.
“This apartment is nice. I wonder if it's rent-controlled,” Muriel said.
“You know, people read obituaries just so they'll know when apartments are available,” my father said.
“I would hate to move into a dead person's apartment.”
“How do you know you haven't?”
Rose Hips's apartment was neither musty nor perfect. Nothing was frayed or old or smelled like an old woman. They had expected it to be dark, with a faint hint of the unworldly, but the window shades were high and white, allowing the sunlight to brighten the room. The walls were adorned with a few Maxfield Parrish prints plus a few family photos, each perfectly framed, most perfectly square. It all seemed a step above her situation.
“No pictures of Herb, the bastard.”
Everyone claimed to have met Rose Hips's ex-husband Herb at least once, somewhere, sometime, but no one remembers the circumstances, what he looked like, or even whether he wore his pants high or baggy. Depending on with whom you gossiped, Herb was either a drunk, a gambler, a philanderer, a fraud, or a Yankees fan. No one could even recall his last name, not surprising after a marriage that lasted such a short time—seconds, it seemed. And Rose Hips always used her maiden name, a rebellious choice for her time.
“Look. Here's a picture of Flora. Do you think she looks like Rose Hips?”
“How old was Rose Hips, Aunt Ida?”
“Aunt Hilda would know, if she was alive.”
“How about a guess?”
“A hundred forty-seven.”
“Maybe we'll find something with her birth date. If we don't, we'll just make something up for the headstone. No one will know but us.”
When my grandmother and her sisters arrived in America, they had no idea when they were born. There were no records. In fact, records were often used against them and were to be avoided. The sisters randomly chose American holidays for birthdays and spread them out over various months so there would be celebrations throughout the year. My grandmother picked Columbus Day, Hilda settled on the Fourth of July, and Hattie selected Arbor Day. No one knew exactly what Arbor Day commemorated, but there were no national holidays in the spring. Rose Hips chose Lincoln's Birthday because it celebrated the birth of our ugliest president.
“I wonder if Rose Hips had a will.”
“So how much money do you think she had?”
“The only thing she had was a sex disease from one of those sailors she entertained,” Muriel said.
“Genug with the sex diseases.”
There weren't enough seats for everyone in a tiny apartment of a Lilliputian elderly single woman who lived alone for many years. My blind grandfather, who still had a bit of mud stuck to his shoes from the visit to the cemetery and dinner, found a spot on a petite couch along with the smaller of the women. They settled back comfortably, their heads resting on yellowed antimacassars.
“Before anyone looks for anything, listen to me,” Yudel said. “I know these things. People hide stuff where they think other people won't look. But I know. So, someone look in the freezer for jewelry. Don't be fooled. If the package says chicken, it could be diamonds. Steak could be bracelets. Also look on the underside of drawers for envelopes taped there that might have money or savings bonds. And don't forget the backside of the drawer to see if there are envelopes taped there. OK, everybody got it? And remember, you don't know what you're looking for.”