Sunday, 6 January 2013

Shiva Sharks by Naomi Elana Zener


"Marvin!" Mom shrieked. "Everyone will be arriving any second and the couches still have all of their cushions. Get down here at once and remove them."
"Gail, you remove them, he was your father!" Dad bellowed back. "You're already downstairs and I'm in the toilet."
"How dare you! I'm sitting Shiva and you are trying to make me work?" Mom screamed. "Either you get your ass off the can and prepare the couches or get our daughter to."

"Can't you just sit on the floor?" Dad replied.
"What kind of Jew do you think I am? My mother and brother should be taking care of this, but they are useless, so I'm stuck with this crap," Mom muttered loudly while finishing off her glass of wine before the guests arrived to pay their respects.

"Moira, go take the cushions off of the sofas in the living room," Dad instructed me from his porcelain throne.

I trotted out of my room, dutifully removing the offensive cushions to comply with a nonsensical religious ritual being adhered to in a household that believed that using the "milk" dishes to eat shrimp was compliant with kosher laws. My mother's preparation of our house for the incoming onslaught of visitors transformed it into a monastery. When I gently inquired as to why she felt the need to hide every valuable from sight, my mother explained that she needed to ensure that the only thing lost was her father and none of her valuables at the sticky hands of her relatives.

I hate funerals. Moreover, I hate Shiva houses. They are full of relatives you never see, frenemies of your parents about whom you only hear of in passing during a moment of schadenfreude and occasionally one or two people you actually like. Shiva is a mourning ritual pursuant to Jewish law that transpires for a period of approximately one week after a person dies. The only people legally allowed to 'sit' Shiva are the blood relatives who are one degree away in relation from the deceased: spouse, child, sibling or parent. In my personal experience, most people hanging around the Shiva house are just bottom-feeders circling the family either in the hopes that a few pennies will fall in their direction that drop from the bucket that was just kicked or to eat free food. Occasionally, there are some genuine mourners who really do express their sincere condolences, but they are as rare as finding Mother Theresa in a whorehouse.

Grandfather had died peacefully in the comfort of his own bed at the ripe old age of ninety-two. There was nothing sad about his demise, as he had lived a full, rich, healthy and happy life. So happy in fact that his heart gave out at the exact moment in which he had managed to fondle his palliative care nurse as she reached over his head to adjust his pillow.

Grandfather was rich, not Warren Buffet wealthy, but he did amass a sixty-five million dollar fortune (that the tax man knew about) during his lifetime. Grandfather’s wealth had transformed him into a Jewish WASP who insisted on being called 'Grandfather' instead of 'Zaida,' explaining that we could speak English and think Yiddish. Grandfather sported bespoke suits, shirts and ties acquired during bi-annual trips to Saville Row, which were replaced on a frequent basis due to his Yiddish-eating mouth that routinely dribbled almost daily mustard from his smoked meat sandwiches or oil from his herring and onions.

I didn’t expect many of my friends to show up to Grandfather’s Shiva simply because I never told them that Grandfather died.  However, I have one friend on whom I’d bet my entire inheritance from Grandfather will becoming to the Shiva because she is a professional Shiva-goer. During our friendship, not one week has gone by without us having a conversation in which she informs me that she has at least one Shiva to attend: it’s for my fourth cousin three times removed through marriage; it was my mother's best friend's sister's father-in-law; it was my aunt's dog walker's funeral for her Pomeranian. She claims that it gives her a sense of belonging. I think she goes to make herself seem like a beneficent person when in reality she is trying to find eligible men wherever she can.

Everyone in my family, with the exception of myself, his only grandchild of whom Grandfather was eternally proud for my academic achievements, and his pet poodle who pissed all over the world just like Grandfather did, was not sad to see him go. Aside from living a long decadent life, he was known to be a miserly bastard with his children, believing that they should be given less than nothing so they could hopefully become a fraction of a something. The only problem was with the enforcement of Grandfather’s philosophy because his wife, my beloved Bubbie Iris, spoiled her kids rotten. Thus, neither my mother nor  her brother, Uncle Phil, ended up doing much with their lives except spend Grandfather’s money. After my mother got married to my father, also known as the “Great Disappointment,’ Grandfather welded shut the leaking money faucet, a.k.a. Bubbie Iris, ending the flow of the unlimited cash supply to both my mother and Uncle Phil. My mother was particularly stressed because she had racked up substantial credit card debt on a 'secret' Visa card, of which my father had no knowledge, in pursuit of her very expensive four 'C' addition: carat, colour, clarity and cut. Grandfather’s demise was timely as her outstanding balance was set to go to collections. I, on the other hand, was the golden child he never had since I was set to become a lawyer.  Grandfather happily paid for my law school tuition and was grooming me to take over his real estate development empire.  Everyone else had spent the past ten years waiting for him to kick the bucket hoping to score the jackpot by inheriting millions.

The actual funeral was a gong show. The temperature was ninety-eight degrees, with air so dense due to the sweltering humidity that the attendees thought that they were inhaling the dirt from underfoot. Bubbie Iris made it clear that she was the chief shovel distributor, carefully dictating to those men selected, a melee of a few of my mother's ex-boyfriends, Uncle Phil’s loser buddies and sons of Grandfather's competitors, to fill the grave site in the proper Jewish Orthodox tradition as a final dig at Grandfather's self-hating Jewish attitude.

"Alan, why aren't you shoveling?" Bubbie Iris inquired of the man who my mother dated before she married my father.

"Iris, this heat is awful! We're shvitzing to death - can't you just have the backhoe fill in the grave?" Alan replied. "Even your son-in-law Marvin is not shoveling!"

"Exactly! Marvin could drop dead from a heart attack if he had to cover the casket with dirt, so get moving!" Bubbie Iris ordered.

"So could I!" Alan shrieked.

"Better you than him! You didn't put a ring on Gail's finger and my precious granddaughter Moira still needs her father," Bubbie Iris retorted.

I readied the sofa just in time, as the doorbell rang abruptly signaling the arrival of the Shiva sharks. A flood of cousins, Grandfather's business associates and their families, and friends of my grandparents, my parents and Uncle Phil arrived like a swarm of locusts, each one with their own agenda, with the actual paying of respects falling to number fifty on their priority list.  

"Oh Gail, Moira, Marvin - we are so sorry for your loss," three women chimed in unison, leaning over uncomfortably to hug my mother, who was desperate to stand given the spring poking through the frame of the sofa and into her ass.
 
"Where's the food?" Uncle Phil inquired immediately upon crossing the threshold. In tow, were Uncle Phil’s girlfriend Kelly and her two ne’er-do-well sons, who were constantly importing and exporting themselves in and out of failed business ventures.

"That's all you have to say? Where the hell have you been?" Mom cried. "You could have gotten here earlier to help me! You don't get to eat - you sit Shiva! Your girlfriend can get you food."

"My nails are still tacky from my manicure, so maybe sweet Moira can get her Uncle Phil a plate," Kelly offered.

"If you had time to get a manicure after the burial before coming here to help prepare the Shiva house, then you have time to get your boyfriend something to eat. If you don’t want to ruin your chop shop bedazzled cheap manicure, get on of your kids to do it seeing as how they are fit only for manual labour," I snorted watching Kelly's two sons, Dumb and Dumber, sort through the liquor cabinet in search of something to keep their buzz going.

"Honey, please just be a doll and get Phil something to eat," Mom pleaded. 

"Why the hell should I?" I whispered to my mother.

"I should look like I have an ill-mannered daughter at my father’s Shiva?" Mom replied rhetorically. "I can't have people say such things. Jesus Christ, I'm sitting Shiva!"

Begrudgingly, I walked over to the crowded dining room table where the rabid dogs were throwing elbows around more violently than during an NHL-playoff game in order to take as much smoked salmon as they could before it ran out.

"Remember, Phil is on a no-wheat, no-gluten, no-dairy, no-fish and no-sugar diet," Kelly advised, as she air-dried her freshly painted fingernails. I peeked through the human shield of bodies in front of me at a table full of tuna, egg salad, herring, smoked salmon, bagels, cream cheese and other foods offensive to Uncle Phil's stomach’s sensibilities. I returned to the sitting ducks on the sofa with a plate of three slices of cucumber for Uncle Phil.

"I'm here!" Bubbie Iris sang out as she marched into the house, an hour after the Shiva started, with a very young Frenchman on her ninety year old arm. "Where should I sit?"

My mother, half-glaring and half-hiding with embarrassment at her mother’s lack of propriety for bringing a date to her own husband’s Shiva, pointed to an empty space next to her on the couch.

"Oh no that won't dooooooo," Bubbie Iris chimed. "I can't sit so low with my arthritis. Besides, that spring poking through will snag my Chanel. Jean-Francois, be a dear and pull up a comfortable chair for me."

Date aside, being decked out in a red mink stole draped over her new red wool crêpe Chanel suit, Bubbie Iris made it known that acting solemn and understated were not attributes of which she was fond. In fact, only days before Grandfather died, Bubbie Iris acutely informed Grandfather that she was more likely to go to Disneyland after he died rather than prepare a Shiva house.

"Iris, my love," Grandfather whispered as he lay surrounded by a myriad of hospital equipment in his bedroom, "you don't have to worry about losing me. When I go, you'll come with me."

"That's what you think. You fly solo on this one," Bubbie Iris stated emphatically.

From my perch in the armchair next to the mourner's sofa, I could overhear the gauche conversations taking place amongst our visitors. The ‘guests,’ all of whom were members of the tribe, were about as subtle in both the volume of their voices and the content of their discussions as an obese woman eating at a table with a bunch of anorexic models. One group was trying to guess how rich my parents would become as a result of Grandfather's demise, while another consisting of Grandfather's competitors, was plotting when the best time would be to swoop in with a hostile takeover of Grandfather’s company.
Robotically, my mother dutifully thanked people for coming to the funeral and Shiva house, while keeping one eye on the Shiva meal calendar on the fridge in the kitchen, which she had positioned strategically in her direct sight line so as to see how quickly it would fill up with sponsored meals. The visitors streamed in and out for hours. It felt as though time stood still. Finally, after the mandatory prayer session, the house emptied, leaving only my parents, Uncle Phil, Kelly and her Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum sons, Bubbie Iris, Grandfather’s estate lawyer and myself. We were seated at the dining room table waiting in nervous anticipation wondering what would come first: the person to take the first bite of food or the person to ask the lawyer about the Will.

"Let's deal with the elephant in the room," Uncle Phil instructed. "What does the Will say?"

"Shouldn't we eat first? Won't it spoil the meal?" Mom asked.

"Tear off the band-aid quickly," Bubbie Iris stated.  

"It's quite simple really, Gail and Phil each get fifteen million and Iris gets a life interest in the thirty-five million dollar residue with the residue going to Moira upon Iris' death," the lawyer advised. “As for the real estate holdings, they all devolve to Iris, as they were held in joint tenancy, so when she dies, the real estate will be distributed under the terms of Iris’ Will.”

"I'm surprised," Phil stated feigning shock.

"Phil, since your father already had informed yourself, Gail, Iris and Moira about his intended dispositions, I'm surprised that you thought anything would be different," the lawyer replied.

"But, I thought he was going to provide for his other grandchildren," Kelly whined. “Phil , you promised me that they would be taken care of.”

"What other grandchildren? We only have two kids and one grandchild! Are you insinuating that my husband was unfaithful?" Bubbie Iris shrieked still smarting from Grandfather's dying act of fluffing his nurse's ample pillows.

Not wanting to get hit by a stray verbal bullet, the lawyer quickly packed up his briefcase and took his leave of the Shiva house.

"I'm talking about my kids with Phil," Kelly advised.

"Correction, they are your adult children from your first failed marriage that live with you and Phil," Mom advised.

"But, my sons are like his grandsons," Kelly spat.

"No, they are more like gangrenous appendages that require amputation," I offered.

"How can you say such a thing about your cousins! After all the times I tried to set you up with them. You should be so lucky to have one as a husband!" Kelly cried.

"So were they or weren’t they Grandfather’s grandchildren when you wanted to marry me off in an incestuous marriage to one of them?” I retorted.

"Please stop fighting, we are sitting Shiva!" Mom cried. My father uninterested in the commotion, snuck off to the kitchen to eat in peace and watch the baseball game with Kelly's two sons.

“It’s too bad that I wasn’t born a lesbian so as to avoid your matchmaking efforts,” I cried ignoring my mother’s pleas.

"Why would you want to be gay? Gays can't get married!" Kelly stated emphatically.

"Of course they can you gold-digging troll! They can marry, divorce, get half of the marital assets and spousal support," I spat back.

"Young lady, you do not know what you are talking about! I was divorced, so I am very aware of the law," Kelly advised.

"Putting aside the obvious fact that I stand in the top of my class in law school, just because you got fucked and left doesn't make you a divorce lawyer!" I shouted.

"I refuse to be spoken to this way. Phil, we are leaving!” Kelly dictated. "Boys get your coats, we're out of here."

"But, honey, I can't go home. I'm sitting Shiva, " Uncle Phil muttered, as noodle kugel fell out of his mouth.

"If you want a home to come back to tonight, you will leave here with me!" Kelly screamed.  Uncle Phil sheepishly followed after his girlfriend and her sons.

"This was all quite entertaining, but I have to get going. Jean-Francois is picking me up for our dinner reservations," Bubbie Iris advised kissing my mother, father and I before leaving.I will see you tomorrow for Shiva.”

As quickly and mightily as a tsunami wave forms and hits its prey, my relatives departed leaving in their wake my very angry mother.

"I cannot believe how disrespectful they all were. Don't they realize that I’m in mourning? That I’m sitting Shiva!" Mom sobbed while cleaning up the dishes.

"Honey, it's your family. Did you expect something to change?" Dad offered. "Iris and Phil were selfish narcissistic assholes before your dad died and the only difference is that now they are rich selfish narcissistic assholes."

"I'm not talking about my mother and brother," Mom stated snarkily. "I'm talking about those shleppers who came here to stuff their faces, gossip about my father's titty grab, and act like yentas guessing how much money he left us! Not one of them sponsored a lousy Shiva meal!"

"That's what you're mad about? You're nuts!" Dad exclaimed.

"I'm not nuts. I'm in mourning. When someone is in mourning the right thing to do is to sponsor a Shiva meal! For all those rich bastards who came, fressed on my smoked salmon and quiche, not one of them had the decency to buy me a dinner! I will never sponsor any of their Shiva meals again, mark my words!" Mom advised.

"How many more days of this shit do I have to put up with?" Dad inquired.

"How dare you clock-watch during my period of mourning!" Mom spat.

"Only two, since Grandfather died just before Yom Kippur, so Shiva is shortened," I offered.

"I swear, I will put out cat food tomorrow for those schnorrers and call it pâté!" Mom continued.

"If you do, at least you'll be able to atone for your sinful behaviour in a few days," I laughed. Mom scowled.

"What does it matter now? Gail, you're rich! Just put out some food like you did today and before you know it this charade will be over," Dad grumbled as he climbed the stairs to go to bed.

"This is not a charade. Show some respect. This is SHIVA!" Mom screamed. 


© 2012. Naomi Elana Zener. All rights reserved. 


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