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Excerpt from VITAL GROUNDS a novella by Joshua Elias


I will begin where most beginnings begin with a dream of a dream.

Parenthetically thwarted by stillness in the air, a distant poem arrives. It is of me sitting on a refined silt-bed, riverside, dreaming of the light that lays before me and a woman hovers above a shallow body of water, slowly sinking closer and closer until she is submerged by the drink.


Eventually she does sink, softly touching the place where the Earth and Waters meet.  A cloud of Wet Earth dust moves upward, as does the spirit of the woman. Her Spirit soon rises beyond the wetted splotches, leaving the environment altogether. She continues to ascend until the poem of the vision of the river, the light, and the silt once again becomes a vision that lay far back- a distant speck in the midnight blue mass called the sky.


A repetitive hum buzzes through my body- it is ‘airplane shivers’.


29,000 feet up and I climb out of a deep slumber. I blink the dryness out of my eyeballs.


My personal launch begins into two worlds, a double helix of the DNA, made from the visible and the invisible.





                                   Maywood, Illinois





“Lets stop here….we’ll get a coffee…should we getta coffee? Lets get a coffee”, my mom Belle said.


My sister Jenny and I look at each other befuddled. Mom was our master of mixed messages. We shrugged our shoulders, frowned our mouths slightly, which in our family means yes.

It was a blustery day in Maywood, an outlying western suburb of Chicago and it still smelled of yesterday’s rain.


We park in the hinterlands and carefully walk across the parking lot, dodging worms, in our dressy shoes, our linens, and freshly pressed cottons.  Collectively we carry a powerful mixture of perfumed aromas.


The local supermarket has a café setup inside of its frigid doors. I ordered up, a double cappuccino for me, a Chamomile tea for my sister, and a Coca Cola for my Mom. Seated temporarily at a round undersized table, we look at each other glumly as if we are going to a funeral. We are in fact going to a funeral.


Cousin Faith, daughter of great Aunt Mickey, had died or has as my dad used to say, “graduated”. We were in the outskirts of Chicago, but could well have been in Madagascar, for none of us were these familiar grounds. We were the lively part of the family, the vibrant ones, as ironically enough, so was Faith. We were not ones to be seen loitering around a bank of cemeteries, searching out graves and romancing the notion of unlived lives.


 “There is a sale. Going out of business.” Mom had sighted a hardware store out the café window that was closing down and liquidating its inventory.



We suck down our drinks and dash over to the store in our funeral clothes, each of us determined to buy something, obtain a souvenir of something odd, something misplaced. Frantically we troll the aisles, fingering items that were functional and pointless at the same time. A spade I will buy, that will make a nice painting knife. Mom saw some collapsible bamboo hangars and Jenny came away with a set of needle nose pliers.



Before long our heels were sent clicking against the blacktop marching towards the car, not to be late for the funeral that we each had traveled so far to attend. I was to return to California the next day- this made attending the ceremony easier to address, bordering on theatrical. Mom would return to South Florida, and my sister would double back thirty miles away to Evanston, nestled against Lake Michigan…but we were in Maywood now.


“ I hope we’re not late”, Mom posited.


Armed with tissue and hardware, our car slowly pulled up amongst the gatherers. There they were- a field of long lost cousins. Imaginary sparks from our past beaming like an endless sky across the cemetery.  There is joy mixed with the sorrow of being here. A sea of smiles met me, followed with powerful embraces by uncles that reeked of cigars and discounted aftershave. It was a smothering reunion; they always were, laden with doubts as to our connections, our relations.


The funeral itself was chalked with whimsical anecdotes, tear-filled, and absurd. …”Faith as the whacky Mom”… cooking with Pinesol instead of cooking oil … “Faith as the misanthrope housewife”,…. and “Faith as the tireless optimist”.

Verbal banners used to avoid regret, sadness and the what ‘could-have-beens.’


“It’s sticky hot. The reason G-d invented linen were days like these…” Mom gave me her private weather report as she whisked my sister away to a seat up front.


Faith’s two daughters had been fighting- literally fighting. A roundhouse right had landed upon the eye of one of the sisters in a drunken row the night before in an airport hotel room. Sunglasses were being worn to hide the eyes of the living.  About fifty faces of the mourners looked worn, natural and worried, attached to seated bodies burdened and stiff. A thick sheen of style, a fashionable array of black garments, littered the cemetery floor.



Attending such a gathering requires a keen focus on the unseen, the past and the unnoticed. Most of the family seemed  ‘busy-busy’, mind wheels turning, addressing their own mortality. I was no exception. But I was jostled… a curious sound began inside of my head, silent for the others, yet distantly familiar to me.

It began as a slow grumble, like a throat clearing.

It was Mickey, Faith’s mother, sister of my Grandmama… Great Aunt Mickey, of course….she was that ‘curious sound’. She had stumbled into oblivion, died 29 years earlier, so she was not as present as to how one might naturally describe ‘being present’ here in the world of the seen. I thought to shake it off, let it be, a kind of graveyard, audio-mirage. But that was not what was to transpire.


I bid Faith a farewell and dug a deep shovel of Earth three times, to pledge her a good journey. It was the way, the Jewish tradition and Faith deserved the acknowledgement of a life, well… lived.


A strong wind filled my nostrils with an extraordinary powerful smell of some of the finest Columbian Santuario Geisha coffee beautifully roasted. As the aroma hit me, I began to focus again on Aunt Mickey, the family Matriarch, the elegant one, a vibrating being, that had a pristine quality to her nature. Through the coffee scent the spirit of Mickey arrived specifically in my inner world.


“It is up to you Levi… set it right” I heard her whisper.



On this special day, from the great beyond, my Aunt had decided to pay me a verbal visit. It was here at her daughter’s funeral where Mickey arrived into my consciousness and the connection was immediate and crystalline. She traveled on a highly defined network fueled by the seductive scent of coffee.


In her lifetime, the penultimate image of Mickey, would look like this- A stoic silver-haired figure, one hand clutched to a mug of black coffee, a silvery pot nearby, as she gracefully puffed a Benson & Hedges with the off hand. Her pinkish orange lipstick acted as a kind of glue for the cigarette. It would stick between her lips dangerously close to the end of the filter. She had decided they were healthier than the filter-less Herbert Tareyton Blues that her sister preferred. Pointy lips and all, she was perfectly balanced in all of her vices.


“Are you okay?” my sister nudged me.


“Yea, oh yea” I sloughed her off and sent her scurrying back to her wooden lawn chair.


My breath was still hot from the grocery store cappuccino and with each inhale her voice had guided me deeper, landing me into a place of complete clarity.


Mickey insisted that I whisper a message into the ear of one of her feuding granddaughters; my cousin Susan….and that is what I was to do.


Led by her throaty tones, I spoke fluidly, without hesitation into my cousin’s ear.


 “Honor your mother- hug and make peace with your sister. Honor Faith. Honor your mother”


Initially my words were met with little resistance. Stubborn cousin Susan even smiled, a serene, melancholic grin. Then she slyly lowered her Armani sunglasses, and gave me a swift, definitive sharp elbow jab into my thorax.


“ahh,,,,Shit Susan”. I reflexively coughed.


A distant Uncle looked over with wrinkled fig eyelids, hazel discs that were nodding at me with approval. His shaggy brows raised, he had understood me to be emotionally moved by the Rabbi’s rote recitations.


“Honor her…” the Rabbi blathered.


“Honor her”, I re-whispered with a subtle edge into the upper corner of my cousin’s ear.


And then Susan did-she just did.

She embraced her sister and they each wept on each other’s shoulders and laughed as they cried.


“Done’ Mickey said.

The whole thing gave me the shivers.



At first I had taken in her brusque voice with a certain grace. The roughness swirled around my head crashing softly against the inside walls that contain my thoughts. An internal battle quickly settled inside of me and it remained, persistently knocking at some hidden door of my consciousness. Each knock acted like a kind of question as to my own sanity.


One of the many things that I would soon learn was that Mickey’s ‘visit’ was to be a prolonged stay. She would be dipping in and out of my life experiences, acting as a clear guide in a journey eventually leading me towards a new ‘state of illumination’. It would be a series of learned visits, an unfolding, that eventually would lead me directly back to my own personal garden.  She would come to visit me always unannounced and unseen at cafes, mostly in my own neighborhood in Los Angeles and Santa Monica.


I was left with a powerful resonance from Faith’s funeral, left to toil with its implications. Like carrying an extra bag, the incident traveled along with me, heading home to Los Angeles. My shoulders were slumped as I entered the jet. I was weighted down by grief, gravity, and family dogma, as well as by a curious visitor who long ago had departed this world.



Posted by Joshua Elias on 8/16/13

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