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Daily Helping for December 15th, 2020 – Amy Hempel – In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried

An image of the name of this short story and author Amy Hempel's name, laid over a graphic design image of a wrinkled hand.

In recent years, I’ve developed a new-found appreciation for short stories. These works of art have to create a whole world and characters the reader will care about in just a matter of pages. They have to be concise and purposeful, yet still hold the reader’s interest. When done well, it’s an extraordinary feat of storytelling, and today’s helping is one such feat. It’s also weirdly relevant, despite being originally published in 1983. I’m not sure if author Amy Hempel ever envisioned this story being read during a worldwide pandemic when she wrote about characters being frustrated with wearing face masks, but that’s art for you. There’s always new meanings to find as time goes on and contexts change.

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is basically about how we all deal with grief differently. How grief is complicated and never a straightforward process. And it’s about the shame you can feel when you don’t react the way you think you’re supposed to. Or even want to. And yes, I know. It’s not exactly the feel good story you probably want to read after the year we’ve had, so if you want to skip this one, I get it. It’s a sad topic for sure.

But it’s also very poignant. The story is about a woman coming to terms with her best friend’s terminal illness. More specifically, it’s about her coming to terms with how badly she deals with it. Like the fact that it takes her two months to visit her friend in the hospital. Or how she just wants to leave once she’s there. Not because she doesn’t love her friend, but because she’s in denial over the imminent loss of a woman she clearly loves so much. It’s a painfully real situation, because I’m sure there are lots of people who have reacted poorly to bad news from a loved one. I know I have. And the fact that you reacted badly because you love them somehow makes it all worse.

So yes. It’s not a particularly happy story, but it’s a beautifully written one. And if I can’t have happy as this year comes to an end, I will absolutely take beauty.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!