Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: funeral

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.

Sophia’s Mom


Sophia’s mother passed away on Tuesday. Today is the funeral. It was unexpected, since it was her husband who was bedridden.

Fanya had an interesting and adventurous life, which took her from the horrors of war-torn Soviet Union to present-day Los Angeles, in order to be close to her only child, Sophia. Fanya was so proud when she became an American citizen.

The love of her life was her husband, Vartan. She met him in Odessa, Ukraine, where he was her doctor. They had a long and passionate relationship. Fanya and Vartan were inseparable. When Vartan grew ill six months ago, everyone thought it best to put Vartan in a convalescence home. We told her that it would require too much work. She refused to discuss the issue. Despite having an aide, and the help of her family, Fanya was her husband’s primary caregiver, dealing with all the physical strain and lack of sleep. Even as we saw her weakening from the stress, she refused to leave her husband’s side.

Yesterday, Sophia told Vartan the news of his wife’s passing. He is very distraught, especially about being too ill to attend the funeral.

Out of a total coincidence, my mother had a flight coming to visit us today in LA, so she will be attending as well.

Fanya was a bigger-than-life woman. She was tough in spirit, but also extremely caring to others, and will be very very missed.

If you want to send a message to Sophia, you can do it here or send me an email.

Earth, Wind, and Fire

Today I will continue my tradition of writing a blog post about my neighborhood without walking a block from my mother’s apartment building. 

I’ve introduced you to the supermarket downstairs with the crashing cars and the religious Jewish guy with the condo fliers.  I’ve told my tales of the worst McDonald’s in the United States and the seventeen year old black kid who is the assistant manager and the elderly Chinese saleswoman selling porno DVDs.  I’ve exposed the evil landlord from Palm Beach, Florida, who is trying to close all the small stores a half a block away to build some sort of Kmart.  Today, I’ll move across the street — to the mini-mall next to McDonald’s. 

In this non-descript Los Angeles-style mini-mall, there is a small deli, a chicken/pizza place, a hair stylist, and a “car service.” Other than using the car service to go to the airport, my mother doesn’t go into any of these stores.  They mostly cater to the Muslim, mostly Pakistani and Afghan community.  Now in my mother’s defense, she doesn’t go into the religious Jewish stores on Main Street either.  These small insular establishments are not very friendly to the outsider.  I’ve tried the pizza at the Muslim pizzeria a few times, and the food was pretty bad.  And for the record — women in burkas don’t like you checking out their asses.  But I have used the “car service” to go to the airport.  The drivers are excellent, despite all of them looking like Bin Laden’s brothers.

Over the car service is a small mosque, built into what seems to be a former dentist’s office.   A crescent moon stands proudly on the make-shift fabric domed roof.  From my mother’s living room, you can look directly into the mosque.  It is Ramadan now, so there are services at night.  I sleep in the living room, because the mattress of the convertible bed my mother put into my bedroom is like sleeping on metal.  While I lay on the couch, I can look inside the mosque window and in the brighness of the room, watch the religious praying, kneeling and facing Mecca. 

Later today, is my uncle’s funeral.  It has been a crazy week since he passed away.  He lived in San Francisco, but he wanted to be buried in New York — near my father, who was his eldest brother.  This opened up some neurotic family discussions, and also a debate over how to get him to New York.  He wanted to be cremated, which could be iffy in some Jewish cemeteries. 

And the big question — “Can you carry an urn with ashes on an American Airlines flight?”

This morning, I woke up to the sound of my mother’s loud dishwasher.  I also heard the sound of prayer.  It was comforting, even if it was coming from another religion — from a religious group that doesn’t usually see eye-to-eye with mine.    I thought about religion in general, and how we are all alike at heart.  All of us trying to make sense of life and death, all having the same hopes and dreams.

And then the whirl of the dishwasher stopped.  And what I thought was prayer was not prayer at all.  There was no one praying at the mosque.  What I imagined as sacred prayer was the janitor’s CD player blasting songs from “Earth, Wind, and Fire” as he worked on his old Toyota out front.

Modern Talmudic Question

If a rabbi comes to make a shiva call and there are no available parking spaces outside so he parks "illegally" in the parking-lot of the next-door supermarket, is he required to buy something from the store or is it considered stealing?

Thanks

At my father’s service, I made a little speech where I talked about my father’s different "families" — his relatives, his co-workers, his friends, etc.  I wonder if at the funerals of the future, people will also be talking about the "family of fellow bloggers and readers."

Who would think I would get such comfort from all your kind comments and emails?  Last night, after the extended family and the shiva visitors left, Sophia and I sat with my mother as she read the comments on my laptop.  She was extremely touched.

I was also surprised about how eager I was to write to you with updates about my life.   When I didn’t have a laptop at the hospital, I wrote some comments on the back of a package of gauze.    I really felt like you were a new kind of family.

I haven’t read any of your blogs, so I have no idea what is going on it your lives (or minds).  Soon, I’ll be back to normal — writing stupid comments on your blogs.

Thank you, my blogging "family."

The Funeral

Today was my father’s funeral.  The last two days were very emotional and I still find it too difficult to write about it.

As the limo took us home, I said:

"The rabbi had it easy.  He said such beautiful things about a genuinely beautiful person.  What does the rabbi do if the guy is a real jerk?"

Sophia said this reminded her of a joke:

A  famous Jewish mobster dies, a man well-known as an embezzler, a crook — someone who loved scamming old retired Florida ladies out of their savings. 

The mobster’s brother, himself a mobster, asks the local rabbi to do the service.

"I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars if you say something nice about my brother."

The rabbi is a serious, religious man.

"I really can’t do that.  Your brother was a crook."

"Listen, rabbi.  I’ll give you a hundred thousand if you say something nice about my brother."

"I’m sorry.   A rabbi can’t lie."

"OK, here’s my final deal.  I’ll give you a quarter of a million dollars to say something nice about my brother."

The rabbi thinks about all the repairs that need to be done to the temple roof and the new Sunday school that he’s been dreaming about.   He agrees to the offer.

On the day of the funeral, the rabbi steps up to the podium and says:

"This man was a crook, a liar, a thief and a terrible human being.  But compared to his brother, he was a saint."

We all laughed and felt a little better.  My father would have loved this joke. 

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