Archive | September 2015

‘The last time I saw Paris….’

photo by Susan Kauffmann

photo by Susan Kauffmann

9 a.m.: Installed on a bench, I’m pouring over the map of the famous Pere

Through the Chunnel, 1st class boring, regular class more fun

Through the Chunnel, 1st class boring, regular class more fun

Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Friends in England teased me about wanting to visit nothing but dead people. Indeed,

I had taken the Chunnel from London to Paris solely for this reason. It is where the likes of Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Bizet, Chopin, Isadora Duncan, Moliere, Edith Piaf, Marcel

The famous 12th century philosopher Abelard & his Heloise, at last united in death

The famous 12th century philosopher Abelard & his Heloise, at last united in death

Proust, Simone Signoret, Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde are buried. Here the 12th century lovers Peter Abelard and Heloise were finally united in death.

If I pay proper homage and breath deeply at the gravesides of these brilliant/talented people, I might even absorb a little of their creativity. I mark the location of each grave I want to see and select the most logical route along Avenue des Peupliers towards Bizet’s final resting place. Just in case no one else has, I tell him his opera ‘Carmen’ (which he believed ‘a definite and hopeless flop’) is popular, famous and beloved today, 130 years later.

Frederic Chopin's tomb, Pere Lachaise cemetery

Frederic Chopin’s tomb, Pere Lachaise cemetery

That duty dispensed with, I turn onto Avenue des Ailantes, looking for Balzac’s grave. What is this? Right between Bizet and Balzac is an ancient, moss-covered tomb with my own family’s surname on it! If I had a name like ‘Smith’, I wouldn’t have given it a thought, but my maiden name ‘Ruch’ is not common. My dad, who immigrated to Canada from Lithuania during the 1920s wasn’t in touch with family left behind, and none lived where I grew up in Montreal.

Was it possible? Could it be? Was I walking around with the same genes as the people in this very tomb? I drop onto a nearby bench contemplating this unexpected turn of events, giving thought to the family I have never known. Unbidden, tears run down my cheeks. I approach the tomb and run my fingers along the rusted gate. I peer within the dark interior, but nothing is revealed. Without flowers to leave behind, I pick up a small pebble from the ground and carefully balance it on the peaked roof as a sign of my visit. Perhaps it is still there today.

Sarah Bernhardt's grave at Pere Lachaise

Sarah Bernhardt’s grave

After whispering goodbye to the “Famille J. Ruch” ghosts, I continue on my way, but that tomb won’t leave me alone. I visit each grave marked on my map, yet questions continue to plague me. How many relatives survived World War II? Where are they? What are they like? Do we look alike? Do any share my interests as well as my genes? Would I like them if I knew them? Would they like me?? How do you locate family you don’t even know?

Later, by mere chance, a friend told me about a genealogy website. I found it, typed in my maiden name and – hey, someone else was looking for people with the same name. I immediately sent off an email to Amanda, who lives in Longmeadow, MA. (USA). We ARE related; our grandmothers were sisters. She has created a family tree and because we found each other, she was able to fill in a few blanks. Amanda sent me a copy. When it arrived, I quickly tore the package open and set to work taping all 20 pages together. There, in black and white, were names and locations of dozens of relatives — in South Africa, Australia, England, Israel, Canada, and the U.S. Some had been murdered during WWII. One, whose dear ones had all perished took his own life; some made it through. Their tragedies and triumphs are, in part, my own.

An inquiry went off to Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Could they put me in touch with any descendants of ‘Famille J. Ruch’? They didn’t respond, after all it IS a very old tomb. And, are Amanda and I alike? Well, both of us are writers…..

Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Full of surprises

Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Full of surprises

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Thy Will Be Done — and the sooner the better

Serious stuff (photo by Timothy Stark)

Serious stuff
(photo by Timothy Stark)

My friend Steve, who had a neighbour going through the hell of a recent death where there was no will, suggested I write this post following my essay on doctor-assisted suicide (February, 2015). I got caught up with other ideas, however Steve was right. Wills are vital although families can still go through hell when a will does exist. If well thought out however, and done with the help of a lawyer, a will can be a blessing.

Plan ahead and achieve what you want

Plan ahead and achieve what you want

Money is easy to divide, but siblings may quarrel over possessions of real or sentimental value and never speak to each other again anyway. Why is that? And why so often? For one, they say we choose our friends but not our families. It may also be because when a parent dies, we are in mourning. We mourn if our relationship was fabulous, or because it wasn’t. We all carry baggage. Perhaps we were not the favorite child, or some other complicated familial issue exists.

I did more for him than you did!

I did more for him than you did!

Severing ties with siblings we may never have felt close to is easier after a parent’s death, especially when YOU wanted that dish or cup or ring. True, wills can’t fix everything, but they are necessary. I have one and update it every five years — family situations and laws change. I strongly believe all wills require the help of a lawyer and your own input. Lawyers know the questions to ask.

She always liked you better than me

She always liked you better than me

Millions of older folk will keel over and leave an unprecedented amount of shekels behind. Who gets yours matters and should be up to you. In spite of our wealth, it is estimated seven out of 10 seniors haven’t bothered to draw up a will. If you are one of the millions who will die intestate (without a will) you will have no control of the distribution of your estate. No matter how long you live or how young you may be, unless you’re related to Dracula, you do need a will. My advice? Do it now.

In a will, you can appoint an executor to handle your affairs, or a guardian to care for very young children (with the chosen guardian/s knowledge and agreement, of course). With professional assistance you can combine estate planning with philanthropy, as well as benefit from tax advantages by organizing charitable programs beforehand. Community non-profits enrich our lives in more ways than we realize. Its easy to take such services for granted, but governments keep cutting back and alternative sources of funding are drastically needed. (Consider using ‘Leave a Legacy’ if it exists where you are.)

Try to specify who you want to have which possessions, even those of no great value. This can avoid battles later. Better still, try to give your children things they like while you are still here — this is something I’ve been trying to accomplish. I no longer entertain much and don’t use or need some of the things I used to. Every time I send my visiting offspring home with something, I feel lighter.full house

And one thing more, be kind. Clear out as much of the stuff you’ve accumulated during your lifetime as you can. It will make things easier for those you love at what will be a difficult time. Friends who have had to deal with huge amounts of possessions after losing a parent often tell me how painful it is for them.

Enjoy your life’s adventures to the fullest, have as many pleasures as possible, and do your best not to leave a mess behind.