My mother's funeral (and Mrs. Gefilte Fish)
Everyone liked my mom, and during her 88 years of life, she shared a multitude of friendships. One special friend was a Holocaust survivor named Sylvia, some 10 years my mother’s senior.
Sylvia was crazy about my mom. She would often tell the story about how difficult it was being a survivor trying to make “American friends,” and how she loved that my “American” mom loved her just as she was.
Sylvia and my mom did many things together, including making gefilte fish. When my daughter Leah was in elementary school she helped her grandma and her grandma’s friend, Sylvia, with the gefilte fish preparation. As a matter of fact, for the longest time, my daughter often referred to Sylvia as “Mrs. Gefilte Fish.”
My mother passed away in April. The day of her funeral was unpleasantly windy, cold, and drizzly. The services were graveside. Our many friends and relatives huddled under a large canopy that loudly squeaked and rattled with every 35 mph wind gust.
My 91-year-old dad wrote a eulogy for my mom and asked our rabbi to read it for him. It highlighted 68 happy and blessed years of marriage. I spoke about growing up in a house that was open to everyone, and of my mother’s cherished virtues. My wife Judy talked about how my mom loved her “unconditionally.”
My daughter Leah had a very close and unique relationship with her grandmother. The rabbi called on her to give the last eulogy. Just six weeks earlier, the same rabbi had presided over my daughter’s marriage; grandma was there in a wheelchair, but could stay only for the ceremony.
Leah walked over to and stood behind the small wooden stand. She began:
I once wrote a paper when I was a young girl in school called “Gefilte Fish,” but it is really about my special relationship with my grandmother. I want to share it with everyone here.
She then read her school essay “Gefilte Fish” aloud and, unknowingly, provided just the right amount of cracked-voice. Our friends and relatives under the canopy added the perfect mix of laughter and crying sniffles:
I hate gefilte fish. I hate the smell of it. I hate the way it tastes. I hate how gefilte fish makes your breath stink and I hate even more when you have to kiss a family member goodbye who just finished eating it.
For those who do not know what it is, it’s a Jewish food that is eaten during the holiday of Passover. It is wet, and gooey, and disgusting.
Yet, most members of my family do not feel the same way as I do. They love gefilte fish and look forward to Passover, so they can eat gefilte fish my grandmother makes.
One year, I slept over at my grandparents’ house the day before Passover. My grandma and her friend Sylvia make their famous gefilte fish together every year. This year, I was going to be part of their famous tradition. I was so excited. I helped crack the eggs, add the salt, matzo meal, carrots, etc. Then it came time to chop the onions. I didn’t even get to finish peeling one onion before I began crying my eyes out. My eyes stung, I was in so much pain. But I wanted to finish the job. When my eyes began to throb, I rubbed them with my hands that had been touching the onions, which made me cry more and harder.
My grandma was so concerned about me and felt guilty for not warning me about the onions. As she washed my stinging eyes and hands I could really tell how much my grandma loved and cared for me. Now that I think of it, even though I hate gefilte fish, I love being with my family celebrating the holidays.
Kaddish was recited, my mother’s casket was slowly lowered into the ground, and the “three shovelfuls of dirt” was tossed onto the coffin. Eventually, people started mulling around, embracing one another, and departing to the shiva.
For a moment, I was alone with my thoughts looking down at the ground and thinking about the loss of my mother. I raised my eyes. Standing before me stood a very frail old woman, braving the cold, and looking at me with watery eyes, supported by her son. It was Sylvia, aka, Mrs. Gefilte Fish.
Residing for many years in an assisted living residence, and well into her nineties, she was the last person I expected to come to my mom’s funeral. Up until this point I had kept my emotions pretty much in check. But being caught up in the moment, I threw my arms around her, and with tears welling up in my eyes, I told her, “Now I am going to cry.”
Harold Witkov lives in Downers Grove, Illinois.