Driving through the Holland Tunnel over and over was taking its toll on me in every sense of the word.
I'd been driving out and back from Brooklyn almost every day since I'd arrived, visiting family in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, visiting places I hadn't been to in five, ten, twenty or more years.
The last time I'd been to Nutley, my hometown, was for my grandmother's funeral.
It was in 2008 or 2009, I can't remember. All went as expected on that day until it was time to receive communion. Despite my being 26, my mother (Jewish) and grandfather (Catholic) were of two minds about whether or not I should go up to the altar. Podium? Stage. We'll go with stage.
In a silent, incredibly brief, but dramatically communicative conversation, Mom and Grampa made their diverging intentions for me quite clear. She wanted me to stay, he wanted me to go.
I followed my grandfather's beckoning, because it was his wife who had just passed and he had enough on his mind.
When I came back to my seat, some older relatives I may have met once in the early 1980's glared at me. Were they angry that I, a Jew (as I understand things), had gone up to receive communion, or were they angry that this was clearly my first time?
Or perhaps they were angry about how terribly I'd fucked it up (as I understand things)?
If they had been watching (and surely they had), they would have noticed me politely take the wafer in my hand. And that's it. I didn't eat it. I think I thanked the priest before returning to my seat.
When I sat back down, I turned to my sister, revealing the palmed wafer as if I was performing an amateur card trick.
"I didn't eat the Body of Christ," I stage-whispered.
She looked at me, pained.
"Well, should I?"
Silently, she waved a "Yes, yes!" motion at me like an exasperated nonna saying "eat, eat!"
I surreptitiously slid the telltale wafer into my mouth the way one would with a breath mint mid-date, disappointed, for some baffling reason, that it didn't taste like the wasabi-flavored rice crackers I love so much.
I don't know what I was expecting. He was Jesus of Nazareth, not Nagano, after all.
The wafer was flavorless, spongy. I reminded myself that I was raised on Pesach dinners wherein we dined upon bitter herbs and salt water to symbolize our tears. I had no room to judge.
I sucked on the wafer until it dissolved, staring unmoved at the mosaic mural of Her Holiness The Queen Virgin Mary (as I undertand it), which was splayed on the wall high above my grandmother's luxuriant casket.
I hardly knew my grandmother, despite decades of visiting and vacationing together. Her lifetime of loss -- of children unborn and fully grown, of memories to alcohol -- made her a closed book.
The memories she chose to share of herself or of my father, her son, were few and well-rehearsed. I felt badly for her passing, and for my grandfather who wept openly over her at the funeral parlor, but not for my own loss.
She was buried next to my father, and I decided to visit him now -- both of them, I suppose -- while I was back in town.
At the cemetery, it took me a few rounds to find them: mother and son, interred next to each other.
He'd had visitors more recently and frequently than I'd been there, as there were more than a handful of rocks strewn on the monolith bearing his name and professions: father, son, and husband from 1955-1984. It wasn't a very long career.
Seeing my father's summary -- and our last name -- etched indelibly in granite gave me pause to consider my own.
I frequently joke about what I want on my epitaph. "Man's Best Friend", "Who Is This?", or really any Seinfeld quote often comes to mind.
I thought of the things I've been for other people -- sister, daughter -- and for the things I haven't been -- wife, mother -- and for the things I've become for myself -- father, husband, friend.
It was getting hot. I placed a melting Snickers bar at the base of his impressive tombstone. I've been told those were his favorite.
I returned to my car, which was now pungent with the smell of Ralph's pizza and about half of Vitiello's bakery parceled away in flimsy white cardboard and striped string, all of which I was bringing back to Brooklyn for my sister.
Earlier, while I stood ordering the pizza, it hit me that I probably looked like a damn townie: drawstring sweats, tiny tank top, big hoop earrings, and an edge to my words that only comes out when I'm back North.
Ralph's hadn't changed at all since I was a kid and could get a slice and a soda for something like $1.25. There's some comfort in knowing people don't always need things to be new. I wish I had some of that...complacency? Is that the word?
Wait, no: contentment.
Ralph's Pizza. Not a goddamn Edison bulb in sight.
I drove back to New York, heading towards the Holland Tunnel and not giving a rat's ass about the toll.
My town was the same. Ralph's was the same. My father's grave was the same,. And Vitiello's still has the best rainbow cookies, which I reluctantly handed over to Sarah when I got back.