Our new grandson Yarrow sits strapped between us in a high tech, metal and cloth contraption, like an infant astronaut. “Did you know,” our daughter asks, “that Navajo Indians bury the placentas of their new-born in sacred places to bind them to the earth?”
I own a scrapyard. It’s paid for Ruth’s college. But knowing stuff like this isn’t in my job description.
“And the lake house is a sacred place to me,” she says.
Ruth has no husband, no significant other, not even a casual boyfriend. But her biological clock was ticking, and she doesn’t care what I think. The baby’s six weeks old now, and Ruth has finally deigned to drive down from Madison to let us see him.
“You could have fooled me,” I say. “I’m surprised you remembered the way.”
Ruth gives me the look, as though she’s the one who’s hurt, and turns to my wife.
“It’s what I want to do, mom,” she says. “I want to have a ceremony in the grove atop the dune.”
“And Yarrow’s placenta?” my wife asks. She’s way ahead of me, sensing where this is going.
“In a cooler in the freezer,” Ruth says.
“What a nice idea,” my wife says, as though Ruth has just said she’s brought along brownies for dessert.
Nice, I think, is having a couple of beers and listening to Sinatra sing “One More for the Road.” Nice is sitting here on the lake house porch, hearing the lapping of the waves and watching lightning flicker in the west. Nice is not the word I’d use to describe a Navajo ritual to bury my new grandson’s placenta.
“But we’re not Navajo,” I say reasonably. And then, as though I’m just pointing out something Ruth might have overlooked: “We’re Jewish.”
“Being Jewish is just an accident of birth,” Ruth says.
It’s an old argument. “Tell that to Anne Frank,” I’d bellowed when she was fifteen, as though if I only shouted loudly enough, she’d hear me. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Ruth be more like my niece Judith, who’d started a family the old-fashioned way, then invited friends and relatives to the bris.
“It’s not an accident,” I say, keeping my voice calm and steady. “Our family’s been Jewish for thousands of years.”
“Everything’s not always about you, dad,” Ruth sighs.
My father used to say that you’re only as happy as your least happy child. And Ruth’s all we’ve got. But I feel the old anger rising, and I can’t stop myself.
“Have you asked any actual Navajos how they feel about borrowing their ceremony?” I ask.
Ruth glares out at the lake, the cords of her neck tightening, tears welling.
“Chinese people don’t blow the Shofar on the Chinese New Year,” I continue. “Indians don’t stomp on wine glasses at their weddings.”
“They’re Native Americans,” Ruth says, as if that has anything to do with anything. “And why can’t you do just this one thing? For me.”
From the spot Ruth chooses, we can see shafts of sunlight piercing the clouds and reflecting on the still lake below. My wife has had a sit down with me, and I’ve done as I’ve been told: gathered a dozen or so large rocks from the side garden, carried the cooler up the patio steps, and brought along a weathered garden shovel. Ruth sways gently as she talks, Yarrow snuggled against her shoulder. I notice as I gaze at him that he has my ears. It’s uncanny. The same angles and wrinkles in the lobes.
Ruth begins with a story about hiking with me in the wooded dunes behind the house when she was eleven. “You remember, dad,” she says. In those days, we’d wander together Saturday mornings exploring, picking wild blueberries for cobbler, transplanting spiderwort and columbine and butterfly weed to the wildflower garden. We’d been walking on the path leading to the Red Arrow Highway, and I’d seen a smooth stone, sharply pointed at one end, glittering in the morning sun. I’d asked Ruth to close her eyes and run her fingers over it and told her that it was an ancient arrowhead crafted by Indians who’d once roamed these same woods. Now, two decades later, Ruth segues into how the Potawatomi were here before us, how they respected the sacredness of the land as we have not, how much we can learn from them.
But I’m not really listening anymore. I’m thinking about how odd it is that Ruth remembers that long ago moment, and how strange that she still accepts as gospel the tale I’d told her. Yarrow stirs and mewls, and Ruth pauses to comfort him. When she finishes her speech, my wife motions to me, and I dig a shallow grave, remove the placenta from the cooler, and gingerly bury it. When I’ve finished, Ruth hands Yarrow to my wife, kneels, and arranges the rocks in a small pyramid, adorning them with multi-colored stones that she’s gathered from the beach.
The next morning, I’m up first, as I always am, and I settle, alone with my paper and coffee, at the wrought iron table on the patio. I’m reading a piece on Nixon and the black hearted Republicans when I hear a noise and see a shadowy movement on the dune. I look up, and, in the grove, I see ravaged ground, the grass uprooted, dirt flung as though a grenade has exploded. A large opossum stares at me, contentedly chewing on what remains of Yarrow’s placenta. With a shout and a stone, I send it scuttling down the dune. I rush to the spot, my heart pounding, and creep on my hands and knees amid the rubble, hurrying to restore the shattered cairn before my daughter and grandson awake.
Herb Zarov has published stories in Jewishfiction.net and The Great Lakes Review and has been short listed in the Pinch 2020 Literary Awards competition and has written articles ranging from John Milton's political rhetoric to developments in American tort law.