Of Soil and Feathers: Reflections on Life and Death


We were born in different countries.  We grew up in different societies, and we never met. And yet, from the minute I opened “Heartburn,” I felt as if I knew her all my life. She was my kind of person: smart, funny, and razor-sharp ironic. She knew what she wanted and didn’t take crap from anybody. She was the person I’d love to be but, let’s face it, never will be.

noraAnd then she died.It happened a year ago, but I am still grieving. I know it makes no sense. Famous people die all the time; some deaths leave me cold, some sad–like the death of Paul Newman, my virtual lover :). Yet her death I took personally. It was an affront to the world order in general and my world in particular. She was Nora Ephron for goodness sake! We had so much in common. We both were Jewish by birth and secular by conviction. We both remarried–well, she twice and I once. We had a similar sense of humor, and we were a little sentimental and a lot middle-aged. Still, one morning I turned on my radio and listened to the announcement of her death.

I couldn’t believe it. I had recently finished reading “I Remember Nothing,” a smart, funny, and somewhat sad book, and I hadn’t even discussed it with my friends! It was unfair. Almost as unfair as the death of my mother, who died while I was on my way to visit her. She was alive when I left Missouri, but by the time my plane landed in Tel-Aviv, she was already gone. She wasn’t even sick — at least not recently. True, she was eighty-eight and had a variety of afflictions, but nothing immediate or life threatening. She had dinner with my sister’s family, played with her great-granddaughter, and went to bed in a good mood—only to never wake up.

I arrived in the afternoon, several hours after Mom’s body was taken away in the ambulance. I knew nothing. My sister sat me on a chair, took my hands in hers, and said, “Mom’s died.”

“What?!” I said. “I brought her presents and Splenda!”

I always brought Splenda for Mom. I must have been the only person in the world who carried Splenda to Israel, for Mom believed that American Splenda tasted better than Israeli Splenda.1-IMG_1315_1

“She died overnight.” My sister said. “The funeral is tomorrow morning at 11:30.”

I started to wail. Israel is a good place for wailing. It seems appropriate, even if you’re not doing it by the Wailing Wall. Besides, what else did I have to do until next morning?  I did so much wailing that I had no voice left in me, or so I thought–until I saw Mom being carried into a little chapel where we had gathered to say our last good-byes.

I had attended Jewish funerals before — my grandparents’ funeral in Moscow and two more in America. Yet nothing prepared me for my mother’s funeral. For one thing, there was no coffin. Mom’s body was wrapped in a linen shroud that covered her head-to-toe and made her look like an oversized UPS parcel. And if that was not bad enough, we were not supposed to approach her. If that was her, for how would one know whose mother was hidden inside a wrapped package?

The ceremony was quick. A rabbi said Kiddush, and my sister and I repeated it after him–I barely following the Hebrew sounds. Then he stepped back, and the men who brought my mother inside hurried to carry her out.

Mom “Wait,” I screamed, suddenly aware that this was my last time with her.

The men stopped and stared. I was screaming in English.

“Let me see Mom’s face!”

“You can’t.” My sister grabbed me by the hand.

“Let me go!” I freed myself from my sister’s grip, rushed to the covered figure, and kneeled before it, trying to feel familiar features. Yet nothing felt familiar through the fabric whose purpose was to hide and separate, and not to reveal — neither the person beneath it, nor the mystery of her departure.

Somebody picked me up and pulled me to the exit and to an open grave in the harsh noon sun. Mom’s body was lowered, and the same men who carried her began shoveling red Israeli soil on top of her body.

No! – I wanted to yell. — In Russia, we didn’t pile dirt on top of our dead. We protected them from being crashed under its weight. We put them into coffins. We said, “Let the ground be like feathers for you.” Feathers, not heavy soil!

But, I didn’t yell, just closed my eyes. Quickly, the grave was filled and a little hill formed above it. The mourners topped it with small stones, and the procession headed back to the parking lot.

Mom and I, 1957

Mom and I, 1957

“Don’t take the same path back,” somebody said, and I thought how wise that was, for, of course, everything must be different now. There won’t be weekend phone calls to Mom, which always started with, “Svetochka, how good to hear your voice,” and ended with “Don’t forget about me, dochenka [Russian endearment for daughter].” Nobody will remember what a terrible eater I was as a child and marvel at the fact that I now eat “like normal people!” Nobody will demand Splenda from America, and nobody will ask me to send photos to her.

I was the only person in the family who sent Mom photos — my daughter’s, my sister’s (who lived in the same house with her!), and mine. In fact, my daughter once said to me after visiting her grandmother, “You should stop sending pictures of the two of you skiing. They all look the same, you know.” No, I didn’t know. Mom never said that. She wanted to see that I was healthy and happy. She always asked if my American husband and I loved each other. “Yes,” I’d say. “We do.” But next time I called, she asked again.

The wake in my sister’s house was like every Russian-Jewish wake I’ve attended. It started with a toast to Mom’s memory but soon turned to the business of living. I wasn’t attentive, though. I kept thinking: How did Mom die? Did she just stop breathing or did she wake up in pain and call for help?גרובמן

I’ll never know the answer, as I’ll never know how Nora Ephron died. Does it really matter? Probably not. What does matter is that both of them are gone–the person I knew all my life, and the person that I’ve never known. And the best I can do in their memory is to say goodbye.

Goodbye Mom. Goodbye Nora.                                  Let the ground be like feathers for you.

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What Was That Holiday in November?


Dear friends,

This is a story I wrote some time ago for the Christian Science Monitor.”  I hope you like it 🙂

“I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving.”

“Why?”

“It’s their holiday. I don’t know what it’s about. Besides, what’s there to celebrate?”

I looked at the middle-aged Russian woman. She had settled in our town recently, and I hardly knew her. Yet, I knew her very well, for, reflected in her tired eyes, I saw myself many Thanksgivings ago.

Every time I heard the phone ring, I felt like dashing to the bedroom, covering my head with a pillow, and pretending that I was still in Moscow. 

The honeymoon phase of immigration had passed – when the never-before-seen abundance of food sent me into a trance, and aisles of Wal-Mart clothes thrilled me as much as a field trip to Lenin’s Mausoleum. But a new reality had set in – a nagging fear that I’d never make it in America and that bringing my young daughter here was the most irresponsible thing I had ever done.

The phone kept ringing. I picked it up, muttered, “I don’t speak English,” and immediately hung up. At night, it rang again, and my daughter, who knew some English, answered it.

“The Hermanns are inviting us over for Thanksgiving dinner,” she translated.

“Thanksgiving? What’s that?”

“A holiday.”

“What’s it about?”

“I’m not sure.”

Americans had invited us to meals before, and I appreciated their effort, although not the food. One family cooked us a Mexican dinner. The only thing I knew about Mexican culture was that they wore sombreros. As for the food, I had no idea what it consisted of, so when I bit into a jalapeño pepper, I was surprised and unprepared for the spicy aftereffect. The alarmed hosts rushed to me with a glass of ice water, the only drink they had at that meal. Where I came from, nobody served tap water to guests.

Another time, we were invited to a Chinese restaurant. I wasn’t familiar with Chinese food either. Also, we weren’t given knives and forks, and I couldn’t eat with the chopsticks they gave me. So I left that feast hungry.

On Thanksgiving, I timidly opened the door of a two-story brick house from which came wonderful aromas of food. What were we celebrating?

Back in Russia, we celebrated the anniversary of the Great Socialist Revolution in the fall. A large military parade took place in Moscow’s Red Square. Rocket launchers, nuclear missiles, and tanks shook the square’s cobblestones, thousands of troops goose-stepped, and “volunteer” factory workers paraded past Lenin’s red-granite mausoleum, where high government officials waved and smiled to shouts of “Slava!” (glory) from the crowd.

None of it seemed relevant now. No tanks rolled through our Midwestern town, and no military marches were heard.

Could Thanksgiving be a religious holiday? I had vague recollections of Thanksgiving prayers in the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet, there wasn’t a single onion-shaped dome in our town.

What holiday was it, then?

The house was decorated with carved pumpkins and mums. On the table rested a large brown turkey, a gravy boat, a bowl of cranberry sauce, carrots, beans, sweet potatoes, and pies.

I wasn’t used to turkeys – chickens and ducks were more common back home – but I liked the taste. I didn’t touch the cranberry sauce, though. (Who eats poultry with jam?) Sweet potatoes looked weird (aren’t potatoes supposed to be white and salty?), so I skipped them, too.

I also skipped the pumpkin pie. My mother used pumpkins to make kasha (porridge), not a dessert! There was some kasha-looking dish on the table called “dressing.” To me, “dressing” implied putting on clothes, so I didn’t try it.

When the dinner ended, I asked my daughter to inquire about Thanksgiving. “Oh, Thanksgiving started at the time of the Pilgrims. They celebrated their first harvest and good fortune. And we, like them, express gratitude for everything we have,” she was told.

I had never studied American history, and the only pilgrims I’d heard about were people traveling to holy sites in the Middle East, not in America. As for gratitude, I mentally reviewed my situation. Formerly an engineer, I now worked nights at a retirement home making minimum wage. I rented a small apartment and drove a rusty car. I had no friends, and my daughter was my only family. I couldn’t even speak English. I had little to celebrate, I thought.

Many things have happened since then. Gradually, I learned English. Later I met and married a wonderful man, and, in time, my daughter became a mother herself. My life was similar to the lives of others who came here before and after me – with work and worries, sadness and happiness.

As for Thanksgiving, it became mine, too, because who are we immigrants, if not pilgrims? Like them, we come to a place we don’t know much about. Like them, we rely on the kindness of strangers. Like them, we go through hard times. And like them, we come to appreciate our good fortune.

I looked at the Russian woman. “You’ll celebrate Thanksgiving,” I said. “You’ll see. Just remember our Russian saying: ‘Without effort, one cannot pull even a small fish from the pond.’ ”

Thanksgiving turkey by antonellomusina
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