Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Fanya’s Funeral

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

“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.”

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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.

43 Comments

  1. She sounds amazing, this was truly lovely

  2. May she rest in peace. I’m so sorry for your, and Sophia’s loss. Hey, how come Sophia’s mother wouldn’t make out with your father in Heaven? It would be so very Gossip Girl.

  3. Beautifully written, Neil.

  4. This is beautiful Neil.

  5. What a stunning picture.

  6. Sounds like she was one hell of a woman — your tribute to her is certainly something which will live on.

    And good for Sophia for sticking up for herself re: the Kaddish in the cemetery. The funeral was NOT for the rabbi, but rather for Sophia and family, and the traditions therein should have been inclusive of her.

    I’ve had conversations with my stepmother about similar things: would her first husband and my mother meet each other in Heaven should it exist? Would they be getting along swimmingly? Were they both getting sloshed in the balcony miles above my Dad’s wedding last November? You’re certainly not alone in thinking of those things…

    You’re an amazing person to help Sophia and Vartan through this tough time.

  7. What a lovely tribute to Fanya, Neil. May she rest in peace.

  8. What a lovely tribute.

  9. Sophia resembles her mother so much. I can totally see Sophia telling the Rabbi she was going to do what she was going to do “because she is my mother!”

    That is this thing. The rite of passage, the mother/daughter relationship is so hard to understand yet will be deeply missed.

    Again, please share with Sophia my condolences. My heart hurts for her.

  10. I’m glad you found peace in a stressful situation and remembered Fanya for who she was.

    Often I find the rituals surrounding death harder to take than the death itself. I’m thinking when I go, they should just send my body to the state medical college for the students to dissect, we’ll skip all the rituals and the arguments over who is worthy enough to say a prayer or participate in a service.

  11. i didn’t know her but you made me feel i did…and made me feel her loss. that is a tribute well-done.

    well-done too, to Sophia, for holding her own on the saying of Kaddish. i am sorry for her loss of her mother, and sorry for all of you for this strange, mixed-up time.

  12. first of all, you go girl! Sophia, well done and props to the Rabbi for giving in.

    Second, what a beautiful relationship you and she had. My Ex MIL speaks perfect English and we never got along. SAd

  13. This is such a lovely tribute. My dad is dying of an inoperable brain tumor and as he fades away I keep trying to learn the lessons that life keeps trying to teach me about how to get through it. I need to learn some grace from all the smart people in the computer.

  14. If my son in law writes a post like this as fond of me EVER, then I know … I will know that I could not have been too bad of a Mother in law. No-one can ever sound this fond of someone without really loving them.
    Lovely post Neil.

  15. Neil,

    Please extend my deepest sympathies to Sophia. As you already know so well, the loss of a parent can leave us at times inconsolable.

    You mention something that is of significant help to me: mindful breathing. It has helped me through many crises.

    Many many hugs to you & Sophia

  16. This was beautiful, Neil. Fanya sounds like a great lady and your fondness for her shines in this post.

  17. Baruch dayan Emet. Sorry for your loss.

  18. Another Citizen of the Month post in true Neilochka style. Makes us smile in spite of the difficulties you’re going through. You write simply, comically, and the genuine affection for and admiration of Fanya shine through.
    I love the bit about Sophia being Sophia — regardless of what the rabbi said.
    And I’m glad your mom was there, Neil, to support the two of you in this trying time…

  19. Neil, Fanya was lucky to have someone as caring and observant as you in her life. Sophia, too, I’m sure appreciates the love and respect you have for her and her family. You are a good person. Sending you and Sophia my love.

  20. This was beautiful, Neil. Thinking of you all…

  21. I’ve been thinking of both you and Sophia, Neil. I love that she honoured her mother in the way that felt best. Reading this, it almost felt (if it’s not too presumptuous to say) like Fanya had *her* say, too, through the insistence of her daughter.

    Love is storytelling.. storytelling like this, but also like the story Sophia told to Vartan. Peace is good.

    Love to you both.
    xo

  22. Fanya sounds like an amazing woman; what a blessing to have had her in your life. I’m so glad Sophia stood up to the rabbi & was able to recite the Kaddish–like hell anyone would tell me I couldn’t stand & recite it for either of my parents when the time comes.

    This post is a wonderful tribute to Fanya; as someone else said, I obviously didn’t know her, but your writing makes me feel as if I did.

    It speaks volumes about fate (something I do believe in). Sometimes the universe knows when tough times are coming and lines up the support you’ll need to get you through.

    Thinking of you, Sophia & Vartan during this sad time.

  23. Beautiful post. Be sure to keep Fanya’s and Vartan’s stories alive. They have lived a history we haven’t and their stories are (a word that means beyond important, full of wisdom, perfect in their imperfections). Sorry, I’m not a wordsmith like you. Your writing is gorgeous.

  24. Beautiful post-full of honesty, love and truth that are the foundation of all family relationships. My thoughts and prayers are with you, Sophia, and family.

  25. Lovely, Neil. I truly got a glimpse of Sophia’s mother, of their relationship, of your relationship with her. Wishing you both much peace and healing.

  26. this is beautiful, neil. i can’t imagine how hard this must be, and i’m continually impressed by your grace. i wish you both some peace and calm soon.

  27. It was absolutely not a coincidence that your mom had a flight to LA on that day!! A similar thing happened with my mother-in-law when my father died. It was pre-ordained. Fanya sounds like a wonderful woman and you were a good son-in-law.

  28. This post. It made me both cry and laugh.

    You’ve always written in a way that I admire, Neil. Whether joking or exploring your own feelings, I enjoy every visit here.

    Thanks for that.

    Please tell Sophia she is held up in thoughts and prayers. Wishing healing and peace for you and your extended family, Neil.

    xoxo

  29. What a beautiful tribute to your mother in law. I’m sorry for your loss.

  30. If your dad is anything like you, he’s definitely propositioning Fanya … (grin)

    thanks for this post …
    xx,
    JP/deb

  31. It sounds like a lovely service. I recently attended a Jewish funeral and there are so many traditions that are so comforting, and a rabbi with a lovely voice? Perfect. Hugs to all of you.

  32. I like this piece.
    Rest well, Fanya.

  33. What everyone else said. This post shows how fond you were of Fanya. And it give us an intimate look at your relationship with Sophia. RIP Fanya. xx

  34. Gorgeous photo of Fanya, may her memory be for a blessing. And I’m with Sophia regarding: your mother’s plane ticket.

  35. This is beautiful, and I love the story about the toilet seat. I’m so sorry for your and Sophia’s loss.

  36. This is a really neat post, Neil. Very cool. Love to you all.

  37. To find laughter with another is a true connection. I’m glad you had that with her. May she rest in peace. Much love to you and Sophia.

  38. Neil, what a lovely tribute to your mother in law. I have never met Sophia (nor you for that matter – looking forward to it in August) but I gotta love any woman who can stand up to an orthodox rabbi like that. The toilet seat story is priceless – but what in a million years made you think Home Depot, the Mecca of all things home hardware, wouldn’t have toilet seats?

  39. I think my heart breaks most for Vartan, with his stabbed soul, but how to quantify loss? I’m sorry.

  40. Very sad for your loss, and hugs to you both. Yes, as a believer in the afterlife, my assessment is that it is very likely that she is making out with your father somewhere in heaven, and having a grand old time.

  41. What a beauty…And, her daughter looks so much like her. You are a lucky man, Neil!!! Seriously.

    I am sorry for the loss to your family while at the same time I am sure that Fanya lives still in her daughter and all those that were blessed to know her.

  42. Please give a hug to Sophia for me Neil. And have her give you one from me as well.

  43. This was incredibly moving, Neil. What a beautiful tribute – to more than your MIL.

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