At my mother-in-law’s funeral six years ago, a friend from my synagogue told me that she was one of the women who had performed the tahara (ritual preparation of the corpse, as described in “Help Us See Your Face”), and that she hoped it would comfort me to know that my mother-in-law had clearly been very well cared for at the assisted-living facility where she’d spent her last two years. “No sores or bruises,” my friend reported. “Nails recently cut…. And believe me,” she added, “that isn’t what we always see with bodies from nursing homes.”
It had never occurred to me before (though I suppose it should have) that the burial society members probably see all kinds of shocking things, for which the deceased cannot issue explanations or cover-ups as they might offer even to a doctor. Once I realized that, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I knew I would write a story about an upsetting surprise in a tahara.
I had written several previous stories about Blanche Blick, the POV character in “Help Us See Your Face,” and I briefly considered having the bruised dead woman on the table be her. But having Blanche’s emotionally-abusive husband turn out to be physically abusive, as well, wasn’t much of a story; I needed the women doing the tahara to be shocked. And I wanted Blanche to be one of the women experiencing that surprise, and waking up to how off the mark her envy of Lois Levitan had been.
I wrote the first three quarters of the story pretty quickly (leaving blanks for technical details on which I would consult with several friends who have served on burial societies) but once I’d opened Blanche’s eyes to the truth about the Levitans, I had to figure out what she was going to DO with her newfound knowledge and for a long time, I was stumped. Some of my writing colleagues and early readers suggested having Blanche make a scene at the funeral, but I felt strongly that the Blanche I had been building throughout the years of writing about her wouldn’t do that. I set the story aside for a while, until, a few months later, I remembered being at a burial years earlier at which the rabbi invited anyone who wished to approach the casket and ask forgiveness. The long-estranged brother of the deceased had stepped up silently, with his head bowed. The simplicity of the gesture, juxtaposed with the complicated emotions I imagined the man was experiencing, were immensely powerful and I decided that having Blanche do something similar would give the story a meaningful ending without pushing her out of character.
In the years since I wrote “Help Us See Your Face,” I have written several more stories about Blanche, and I’m currently at work on the piece in which she, herself, will die. There are some surprises in that story, as well—but they are happy surprises, because after all the indignities I have put Blanche through over the years, I think she has earned a bit of peace.
SUSAN KLEINMAN’s short stories have appeared in The American Literary Review, Another Chicago Magazine, The Baltimore Review, Inkwell, JewishFiction.net, The MacGuffin, The William and Mary Review, and TheWritingDisorder.com, and her articles have been published in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and New York Magazine. She has taught writing at The New School for Social research, the Bronxville Adult School, and the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was a Gurfein Writing Fellow in 2010.