by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 28, 2006
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Will Shulman was buried Tuesday in a plainpine box.
He died of renal failure last Thursday. Having been born in 1913, it would be hard to say his death was unexpected. In fact, given that he was completely deaf, had a serious heart condition, didn't care to paint anymore and was consigned to an assisted living facility, you could say it was welcomed.
Willie, a very quiet and kind man, was buried in a Florida cemetery built on limestone, where the ground keeps bubbling up and cannot be kept flat or even green; it's just a piece of segmented land surrounded by tall, scraggly, mostly dead trees.
I know this cemetery well. My father and my grandmother are buried close to where we lay Willie in the ground today. In fact, my mother and I are part of a class-action suit against this cemetery - they were caught doubling and tripling bodies in graves to save space and make extra money.
You've got to love south Florida.
I've known Willie for a long time, because for three decades he was my mother's collaborator on the Broadway-style musical shows they put on at their retirement condominium complex.
Willie was a playwright, a sculptor, a painter and a scene designer - a Renaissance man, according to a speech made today by his son, Arthur.
Arthur flew in from Australia for the funeral, affecting a large-brimmed black cowboy hat and talking about his father in terms of paradox and contradiction: a shy man who deeply wanted acceptance, an artistic loner who wanted to be part of a community.
I knew him as another kind of paradox: the only beatnik in Lauderdale West.
Lauderdale West, where my mother lives and where I am writing this, is a place where conformity is not only desired, but required.
Here diamonds are still a girl's best friend, although they grace the necks and lobes of carefully groomed women long past "a certain age." Gold and shiny stones, coiffed hair, manicures, well-matched outfits, high heels, lipstick. And rules, lots of rules. Don't park here, don't run there, don't build out, don't speak out.
Into this scene came Willie and his vivacious wife, Rose. They became close friends of my parents, and when I looked through Willie's picture books this afternoon, I found some surprising photos of my father, tanned and handsome, his legs crossed, one hand casually tucked into the pocket of his sports jacket, a big smile on his face. I must say that I never saw him happy like that, not once in the 48 years I knew him.
Willie, on the other hand, wore a goatee, a bolo tie and a beret. He favored baggy pants held up by suspenders. He carried a large sketch pad and would always be drawing. He seemed to have stepped out of a Gene Kelly movie, probably "American in Paris," and that's where I always pictured him - in Paris, not Plantation, Fla.
He was a good artist, although he leaned heavily on Marc Chagall.
The backdrops he painted for the shows were especially lovely; I have photos of many of them: a bright pink bakery with shelves of cakes, vivid stained glass windows, rainbows, tropical carnivals.
At the funeral, I learned that Willie's father was a carpenter and contractor; his mother was a seamstress and a poet. A need for art ran through the family. He started out as a playwright, but ended up running a children's furniture store with his brother. He ran that store, 60 hours a week, for 30 years.
His wife, Rose - Willie had two Roses in his life, his wife and my mother - was bright, lively and quick-witted. I always enjoyed her company. They had a good social life in Florida - the photo albums have lots of pictures of them dancing.
Rose spent her last years fighting off scleroderma - a terrible disease in which the body hardens. She lost control of it, piece by piece, and then doctors had to lop some of the pieces off.
She was already confined to a wheelchair when I found myself talking to her at a dance party. She struggled to stand, and when she was upright, shaking from the effort, she looked at me with a fierceness I'll never forget and said, "Take my advice, Joyce, and do everything you want to do - do it now, while you can! Don't ever let anything stop you, because you might end up like this."
Rose died in 1998. At the cemetary, I was sitting next to her grave marker.
I learned today that Rose was the driving force behind the Shulmans' move to Florida. She thought Willie had worked hard enough. It was time for him to paint.
Willie flourished in Florida, painting, sculpting, writing plays with my mother, designing and painting stage sets. His paintings hang on the wall of the clubhouse. My mother treasures a group of sketchbooks he made when he traveled from Elderhostel to Elderhostel after Rose's death.
Many of the people in the Shulmans' photo albums are gone now. Many of the people in my mother's photographs are also gone. I don't know how she stands it.
During the funeral, Willie's grandson, a young cantor with a stunning voice, sang a moving poem from the young Jewish fighter Hannah Szenes, who was executed by a Nazi firing squad. "O Lord, My G-d/I pray that these things never end/The sand and the sea/The rush of the Water/The crash of the heavens/The prayer of woman and man."
But another Szenes poem, "Blessed is the Match," seems even more apt: "Blessed is the match that burned and kindled flames/Blessed is the flame that set hearts on fire."
I started hearing Rose's voice again, practically leaping out from her grave. Seize the day. Carpe the hell out of the diem. Do it now. We only have one life to live, one moment to live it in. Kindle flames.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.