Story: DORA THE SOUR
By: Paul Beckman
We sat cramped in the Rabbi’s study — four sisters, Dora, Pauline, Annie, and Lena, all in their seventies with Dora being the eldest now that Lizzie was gone. There were two husbands, Dora’s Stan and Lena’s David and one brother, Charlie with his wife Rina. And one nephew. Me.
The anger and bitterness filled the room like vines of poison ivy weaving its way up and down and around the congregated. No one spoke or looked at another. The husbands and wives did not hold hands, but the husbands looked fearful of their wives. The wives all wore pusses. Oh! Such pusses. The brother stared straight ahead, not afraid of his wife, but fearful of his sisters turning on him. His wife sat pleasantly next to him and wore no puss.
We sat scattered in front of the Rabbi’s desk, with me pushed against the wall half-facing both the Rabbi and the family. I turned towards my aunts and they really put on the puss. This was their sister that had died; Lizzy, the only spinster in the family and my aunt and god-mother and friend and my only link to past generations.
Why the puss on these women? They hated to see Lizzy getting all the attention. Would they trade places for the attention? Of course not. The attention was due them as the grieving sisters. The sad part was they forgot to grieve. Don’t get me wrong — they were not happy that their sister was dead, they were angry. Yes angry because she was the favorite target of their maliciousness. Now who could they turn it on? Each other? Me? Of course me. I am the logical target. I was like her son. The others had their own children but were still jealous of our relationship. Something has to be understood here, before this tragedy I got along very well with every person in this room. I just spent more time with Lizzie.
Dora — my brothers and I called her Dora the Sour, because of her puss. It stayed a puss, good times and bad, but always a puss. Her husband Stan, a rough and tumble guy, a real scrapper in his youth, was petrified of Dora the Sour. I don’t know what she could do to make his life more miserable than having him live with and look at the tightened skin around the cheeks rising upwards to her slanted blue eyes. It’s unusual for light blue eyes to look cruel but Dora mastered it. Crew-cutted Stan stared straight ahead, afraid to glance over at his wife for fear she would give him a look.
Dora was the ring-leader and Pauline, Annie and Lena followed her lead — lock-step. The Puss Sisters. They all wore a puss and none shed a tear and not one even had out a tissue or a handkerchief in anticipation. A miserable lot — not even the decency to pretend.
“Tell me,” said the Rabbi. “Tell me something about your sister Lizzie that I can use in my eulogy.”
They all sat silent as stone. I sat waiting. My Uncle Charlie sat in back, away from the pusses, looking uncomfortable, and his wife Rina, the only sister-in-law, and never good enough from thirty-five years ago, sat with her usual bemused look, not even considering telling something.
“Well,” Rabbi Kooper said, “perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. I have to do a eulogy of your beloved sister Lizzy and although I knew her as a volunteer worker here at the Jewish Home for the Aged, I did not really know her well enough for anecdotes, personal traits, or family matters. I need you to help fill in those gaps. OK? Who wants to start?”
I turned to look at them, waiting to hear some loving anecdote or at least some amusing story of when they were kids, or if not that — then something. The pusses took on lives of their own, contorted; hollow, menacing and dry eyes looked straight ahead as if to move would render them no longer invisible.
“Surely there must be something you can tell me,” the Rabbi pleaded. “I know how much you are grieving, but if one tells a little story then that will spark another. That’s how these things work. One small story will spawn another anecdote and so on.”
I put my elbows down on the Rabbi’s desk and rested my chin in my cupped hands.
My Aunt Lizzie didn’t own a puss. She never understood the concept of The Puss or at times like this, the Gang Puss.
“Surely something,” Rabbi Kooper said loudly and suddenly and without patience; and Sour Dora, not moving her body, eyes or head, and barely moving her lips, said softly, “We were always there for each other.”
“We were always there for each other,” said Pauline in the same Sour Dora monotone.
Annie and Lena repeated, “We were always there for each other.”
“Good. That’s a start. What else?”
Three minutes of silence finally broke the Rabbi and he turned to me. “Perry,” he said, “can you share your thoughts?” And I did. For fifteen minutes, while I looked at the Aunts and their pusses. For every loving thing I said their pusses grew in proportion to my loving comments until I stopped, realizing that there may be a group Puss explosion at any moment.
“I would like to do the eulogy,” I said, staring at my aunts.
“Anyone can speak,” the Rabbi said “but I will do the eulogy. Is there anyone else in this room that would like to speak at the funeral?”
Dead silence is an appropriate term.
“Well then,” the Rabbi said, “Would any of your children care to speak along with Perry?”
The Pusses shook their heads no in unison, and the Rabbi got up and opened the door and the Pusses and spouses filed out. I was last and Rabbi Kooper put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I knew Lizzie better than I let on. Tell me. Was she adopted? She wasn’t like the rest.” He winked and I walked out.
My family is not different than many — there are arguments, feuds, battles, jealousies, and talking behind another’s back. One thing I can say from my years of experience at watching this craziness is that, at a funeral everyone ends up speaking to everyone else, and past mischegas, craziness, is put aside as if it were never there in the first place.
Lizzie’s funeral had the opposite effect. It fractured the family into Dora/Lizzie factions. I was the villain all of a sudden because I was Lizzie’s executor and made decisions that Dora, being next in line, thought only she should make. It also didn’t sit right that it was me who was first notified of Lizzie’s death and called Dora.
Afterwards, Dora finally got what she wanted. She became matriarch of the family, such as it was, matriarch in her own mind but the jealousy of not being the ‘touchstone’ to the family as her sister Lizzie had been, only served to make her more bitter.
Her venom finally drove away her brother and other sisters who, while not returning to the diminished pro-Lizzie camp, just faded away into their own sad lives, rarely communicating with each other. Stan and Dora’s sons conspired with Stan to bring Dora to counseling but this only made her worse. Several times her sisters called her only to be hung up on.
I became my heritage. I couldn’t help it. I dropped out of the family — all of the family, save for my brothers, and let my rage burn holes in my innards.
Two years, almost to the day after Lizzie died, Dora went in her sleep. Stan left it up to his sons to call the family and make the arrangements,
Dora’s remaining siblings and her children and my brothers and I gathered in Rabbi Kooper’s study before the funeral and he asked if anyone would like to share a personal story or anecdote about Dora that could be used in the eulogy. He had prepared himself for the worst, but then each son told the Rabbi a funny story, and Stan told Rabbi Kooper that he and Dora had met over a pickle barrel on the Lower East side of New York. The sisters talked about her cooking and sewing and her brother Charles just sat there silently nodding. I sat there with a puss not looking or speaking. I was determined to out puss the late Dora the Sour. They left the eulogy to the Rabbi.
After the cemetery everyone returned to Stan and Dora’s house where, by tradition, we poured water over our hands from a silver pitcher sitting in a basin on the stoop before entering the house. We ate deli. In the great tradition of after funeral Judaism — everyone spoke to everyone else. Every one that is, except for me. I went, but spoke to no one and walked around with a puss. It was the first puss for me and I had to work on it. Before long I could puss with the best of them. Even my brothers knew to leave me alone. For the next three days the family sat Shiva at the house, and with the passing of each day, more and more pleasant memories came out as old family albums were passed around. I was there in puss only. There was as much talk about Lizzie as there was about Dora and when the family sat around the living room with the fire blazing, a Passover meal was planned at a home to be named later. That last night there was a lot of hugging and kissing and hand-shaking along with promises of calls and get-togethers.
There was no Passover Seder. None of the promises of meetings or phone calls ever came to be, since each person waited on ceremony for the other to call first. Dora the Sours’ legacy lived on.
Paul Beckman is a Zeyde who writes, travels and takes pictures both above and beneath the water. He collects memories and punchboards. Some publishing credits: Pank, Connotation Press, Existere, Boston Literary Magazine, Molotov Cocktail, Pure Slush, 5 Trope, Blink-Ink, Litro, Soundzine, Opium, Playboy, The Connecticut Review, Ascent Aspirations and other fine publications on line, in print & via audio. He can be reached at his published story website www.paulbeckmanstories.com . His new flash story collection, “Peek” from Big Table Publishing came out in Feb. 2015 weighing in at 65 stories and 117 pages.