The idea of visiting them was not something that came to me for any particular reason; I drove past Mount Sinai Memorial Park every day to and from work. My shortcut along Forest Lawn Drive put me within a thousand feet of my grandparents twice a day. I found myself making the left that day in to the gate without really realizing it. The parking lot was empty, but there was a Latino guy wearing a suit in the little room by the gate.
“Excuse me, would you be able to tell me where to find someone?” I only had a vague idea of where they were. I had only been there twice, three years earlier, for visits four months apart.
“No sorry, someone in the main office can help you out with that.”
I parked the Ford Focus Daddy Norman used to drive around Palm Desert under a tree at the edge of the parking lot. I vaguely remembered the spot on the sidewalk nearby where my cousin had sobbed in to my sister’s arms. I saw the door that led to the beige hallway with the small rooms leading off of it, where my family sat drinking bottled water provided by Mount Sinai waiting for the services to start.
Inside the lobby a middle aged white guy with a mustache and a striped red tie looked up at me in a way that politely suggested, “I’m not on the clock very much longer.” The park closed at five, and it was a bit past four-thirty. He gave me very detailed instructions and two different maps marked with pink highlighter in case I forgot them. As I drove the Focus up past the edge of the parking lot through the main entrance, the guy from the front gate said to me through my open window, “Take your time –someone will come by and let you know when we’re closing up.
The thought of the place “closed up” made me uneasy. How could I get a bowl of pho twenty-four hours a day, but only visit my grandparents between 8am and 5pm Monday through Friday, 9am and 4pm Saturdays, and not at all on Sundays? I imaged the park on a Sunday, the sun shining nicely off the polished marble for no one to see, pinwheels stuck in the grass spinning to themselves.
I made the second left and took the road up to the corner where an eternal flame burned as the centerpiece of a Holocaust memorial, and made a right. Daddy Norman had been in the army during World War II. He and his battalion stumbled across a town called Nordhausen that boasted a death camp for the area’s Jews. He never really talked about it.
A little bit further down the road I found the small white numbers stenciled on a post letting me know I was in the section the map referred to as the Garden of Ramallah. I recognized the view, the low cement walls interwoven with hedges and tasteful water features. The little map said I was looking for plot 17C, but I left the map in the car as I made my way up towards the gravesites. The path was narrow and made from cement encrusted with tiny pebbles. I had a distinct memory of helping to roll a casket down the path, and worrying about making the sharp left turn.
I stood on the edge of the terrace of graves and started scanning the names, looking for two brown marble headstones laid in to the grass. I couldn’t’ find any in the section of lawn I had thought looked the most familiar. I walked quickly around all the other squares of grass on the terrace. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I was wasting time looking, and the park was going to close soon. Of course you’d get all the way here and not be able to find it, I thought to myself, of course.
I circled back around to the first spot I thought I’d find them and looked straight down. It was right there. I had forgotten that they died so close together that both of their names were on the same headstone. The ceremony known as the “unveiling,” which according to Jewish tradition happened a year after their deaths, was a completely blurry memory. I dropped down on the carefully clipped grass and stared at the engraving.
Norman Lowenstein and Muriel Lowenstein. You were our sunshine. Shluff gizunt. Nanny always sang, “You Are My Sunshine” to me, my sisters and my cousins. I remembered going to the Northridge mall with one of my sisters to get a wooden music box that played the song to give Nanny for Chanukah. When she opened it, she cried. She hugged and kissed us and told us she was the luckiest woman in the world to have a family she love so much and who loved her so much back. Shluff gizunt is a phrase in some form of Yiddish that Nanny and Daddy Norman said after “good night” when I spent the night at their house in Palm Desert. It means “sweet dreams.”
After a short while, I noticed that the band of a soil evenly framing the headstone had some errant blades of grass growing in it, and I immediately tore all of them out. With the back of my hand I wiped away a thin layer of settled smog from the nearby 134 freeway. I traced their names with my finger. I stared at the brown marble and thought, “I’m going to make you guys proud; you already would be. I’ll keep making you proud. You made me me.”
I didn’t know what else to think or do so I sat staring at the headstone for a while. Should I cry? I felt like I wanted to, but it wasn’t happening. The last time I had been at the site I had tried very hard not to cry and had succeeded. Maybe I had somehow made the spot a no-cry zone for myself. The next thing I knew I was walking back to the Focus. I wanted to feel better, but instead I was pissed that I wanted to visit my grandparents but all I got to visit was a piece of polished rock. I put on a Frank Sinatra CD and started back down the hill.
I don’t have any desire to visit the grave again. I think about Nanny and Daddy Norman all the time, but I think of them alive, not as names etched in to a headstone on some terrace of graves carved in to a hillside overlooking a city where I never knew them to live. My memorial to them isn’t near a gurgling fountain.