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.
And 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.
“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.
“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.
“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?
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.