Sophia asked me to speak at her mother’s funeral instead of her. It was intimidating because most of the attendees at the service only spoke Russian, so as I spoke my eulogy, it was as if I was speaking to Sophia directly. I compared Sophia to her late mother, Fanya. I said that they both showed the same passion for life — for singing, for dancing,for loving, for family, and even for fighting. In the past, telling Sophia that she was acting “like her mother,” would have put me sleeping on the living room couch, but I think this time, it pleased Sophia to hear her being called her mother’s daughter. Sophia misses her mother. Their relationship was very intense. They spoke several times a day.
The rabbi, a Russian-speaking Orthodox Jewish rabbi, knew Fanya from the senior center. He spoke about Fanya before I did, telling everyone how she single-handedly started up an on-site library at the center. I’m surprised that he didn’t immediately understand that Sophia and Fanya were cut from the same strong-willed cloth, because it wasn’t long before Sophia and the rabbi were butting heads. It is a tradition for a close family member to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, during the burial. To the Orthodox, the most conservative branch of Judaism, this means the closest MALE family member.
“I want to do the Kaddish,” said Sophia. Not only did Sophia know the prayer, she understood the Hebrew, having spent years living in Israel.
“Only men can say the Kaddish at the cemetery,” said the bearded rabbi with the black hat.
“That’s because you’re Orthodox. I’m not.”
“But I’M THE RABBI!”
“That’s true. But this is MY MOTHER.”
That ended the conversation. Sophia read the Kaddish. The rabbi bit his lip. That said, he was a cool guy who had a beautiful singing voice, and said very nice things about Fanya.
The day before the funeral was painful. Although Vartan was in the bedroom when the ambulance arrived for Fanya two days earlier, he still did not know that his wife had passed away. It was time to tell him. Sophia entered the room and pulled a chair next to the bed. Vartan was going in and out of reality, so Sophia had to repeat his name several times before he snapped to attention. Once he heard and understood the news about his wife, the woman who was his everything, who had cared for him day and night for the last six months, he wailed with sorrow, like his soul was stabbed. He was very distraught that he couldn’t attend the funeral. Sophia asked a friend to videotape the funeral for Vartan. I thought it was a bad idea to have him watch the video, but Sophia thought it might give him closure.
After the funeral, we all met in the senior center’s recreation room for food, since no Jewish event is complete without bagels and lox, even during death. Then we went upstairs to see Vartan, thinking of showing him the video. But it was clear that he had returned to daydreaming. He asked her where Fanya was, as if he didn’t remember the earlier conversation, and Sophia didn’t have the heart to tell him again. Sophia told Vartan that she was out shopping.
Sophia has more supernatural leanings than I do. l believe it was a total coincidence that my mother had a flight to visit Los Angeles on the day of the funeral, even though she made the reservations two months ago. Sophia thinks it was fated that she would come to Los Angeles, where her presence was needed. That is difficult for me to accept. Did I attend that zen meditation retreat two weeks ago in order to learn to breath mindfully during stressful situations in preparation for a stressful situation? Did I go on Twitter immediately after learning about Sophia’s mother passing to just happen to find @redneckmommy online, the ideal person to give me advice about keeping a cool head, having dealt with her own family dramas? Does it mean anything that the birthday of my late father was yesterday, reminding me of everything Sophia did for me when my father passed away in 2005? Are Sophia and I supposed to be learning something about the grieving process?
“Do you believe in heaven?” I asked Sophia.
“Not sure,” she answered.
“If there is a heaven, do you think your mother and my father are meeting today?”
“Maybe they’ll hit it off and make out. It is heaven after all. Free love.”
“My mother would never make out with your father.”
Fanya and I had the perfect son-in-law/mother-in-law relationship. Why? Because we could hardly speak with each other. Her English and my Russian were rudimentary at best. That said, I spent A LOT of time with her, and we learned to communicate in different ways. We pointed, we gestured, we mimed, we faked words that we both agreed upon, a hodgepodge of English, Russian, and Yiddish. Much of our interaction revolved around food — buying food, cooking food, and eating food. The only time I was able to get into serious conversations with Fanya was when Sophia was present to translate. That doesn’t mean I don’t know a lot about her life. I heard many stories about Fanya from Sophia, some I will need to get permission to retell. Let’s just say Sophia’s mother was not afraid of telling her daughter about her sex life. As Vartan got older and sicker, he told his wife to take lovers because he knew how important sex was to her, and was sad that he couldn’t please her anymore. We’re talking about a woman over 75!
I felt a true bond with Fanya, because we had to work so hard to connect, like two deaf or blind people overcompensating with one sense over another. I know this will sound strange, considering we couldn’t speak, but we knew how to make each other laugh. She especially enjoyed my jumbling, mispronunciation of Russian words, such as when I mistakenly asked for “a pair of tits” rather than “two sausages.”
This post from 2006, “The Quest for the Toilet Seat,” is my favorite blog post involving Fanya.