By Elizabeth Stephens
December 1989. Late one afternoon, David called with news I had long anticipated, “Selma has passed away.” Without skipping a beat, I asked David when the funeral would be taking place. Although he didn’t want me to attend, I felt compelled to go. He reluctantly agreed, “Fine.”
On the day of the funeral, James’ Dad Carlton drove us in his Country Squire station wagon with the wood panel on the side. There was James, Carlton, myself and our three young children. We pulled up to Mt. Sinai funeral home located across the road from Disney Studios. The attendant thought James was the Rabbi and directed him accordingly over to the large group which was gathered inside the waiting area. It was a good thing that we didn’t drive up in our green Volkswagen Van, as the Ford Country Squire was already oddly out of place among the fleet of Mercedes, BMW’s, and Rolls.
As we walked into the room with our children it was obvious that we stood out like a sore thumb among the crowd. We were the only ones with children. No one greeted us at first, well except with their eyes, furtively glancing at us from top to bottom. Someone mentioned that the family looked grief stricken. I saw the direction they were pointing and noticed a small open room off to the side. We walked in and I was face to face with Nancy, my step sister. I said my condolences and then saw David. He rose to meet us. Not a minute later, Frank and Joan appeared, Selma’s brother and sister-in-law. It had been many years since I had seen them. We passed pleasantries and then were introduced to their daughter’s Lali and Lulu who were both quite cordial. We then left for the graveside ceremony.
As we drove to the gravesite, a crowd of about one hundred had already assembled behind all the family members who had been seated in the front row. They were all properly dressed in black, except for David, who was wearing a light blue sport jacket. Honestly, Selma had probably dressed him for so many years that he didn’t know how to dress for any other occasion on his own except for work. In fact, he’d recently told me about doing laundry. He was so proud of himself for figuring out the coin operated washer/dryer.
No seat was offered to us, so we stood apart as a family far to the left of the grave and assembled relatives and crowd. Strangely, it felt like we were standing precisely where we were to witness the passage of a woman who had so cruelly abused me over the years.
The rabbi started the service. As he spoke eloquently about what a wonderful person Selma had been to her family and to the community and began likening her to the godly woman referred to in Proverbs 31 of the Old Testament Wisdom literature, I leaned over to James and whispered, “I wish I had a tape recorder, Adrian should hear this.’
James comforting response was, “Don’t worry, God has a tape recorder.”
Thoughts raced across my mind of making some sort of scene, but I decided against it.
After the service it was time to lower the casket and the family and friends solemnly threw roses on her grave. I felt a bit removed as I stood there observing people’s grief. They had lost their mother and David had lost his wife. The years of emotional separation made me feel like I was watching someone else’s family. And then a complex array of emotions rose again. I contemplated picking up the shovel and throwing dirt on her grave and saying, “Good riddens Selma”, but being polite, I restrained myself. The entire scene conflicted with my sense of justice.
Selma’s brother Frank then came up to me and kindly asked, “We’d like it if your family would come to the wake at the house in Malibu.” I was surprised. The family agreed and we drove over to the Westside.
For the second time, we walked into David and Selma’s house and met other relatives and their spouses. One older gentleman said he had attended David and Selma’s wedding ceremony and remembered meeting me. That was many moons ago. I did not remember him as I was too young. There was a flurry of faces, handshakes, condolences, meeting my half sisters, step-brothers, and step-sister.
Then I met Gabby, who was married to Neil, my step brother. She was so anxious to meet us. She mentioned that when David said he was going over to his other daughter’s house, she was so surprised since she didn’t even know I existed. She had married into the family years before and had not known about some of its dark secrets. I was not surprised since Selma’s modis operandi had been ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
Gabby then dropped two bombshells on us. First, she whispered that she too was a Christian as well and had been since she was 8 years old. Then she said that when Selma was sick with cancer she had tried to speak with her about Jesus. One day Selma called her and said the nurse was telling her the same story. After Selma passed away the nurse told Gabby that Selma had accepted Jesus on her death bed.
We were in shock. Of course I had mixed emotions. I asked, “Really?” Immediately, the story of the laborers in the field came to my mind.
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
~Book of Matthew 20:1-16