Driving shiva

Traditionally, mourners sit shiva for seven days, staying in the house, covering all the mirrors, sitting on low stools, being visited by friends and family, and talking a lot about the deceased.

As you may have already gathered, Mom was not particularly traditional, and she asked us not to sit shiva in the usual manner. This was an easier request to agree to than having private services, but, again, we’re not completely agreeing to it. So we are having shiva minyans (on both coasts on Wednesday and Thursday nights!), but we’re not staying at home.

I spent most of today driving around Richmond, visiting places I’d been with Mom over the years. I couldn’t visit every place of significance, and I’m pretty sure there were some places I went today that she and I had never been to together, but it was a great way to deal with memories of her life.

I started by doing something she never did: I got on the freeway and drove to downtown Richmond, getting off I-95 at the Broad Street exit. This put me down by the Department of Highways building, where I’d worked one summer during college. I then came west on Broad — the first couple of blocks (in the MCV complex) were as I remembered them, but everything was different from the Library of Virginia building at 9th and Broad until I turned South onto Adams. The Library of Virginia had replaced the old Trailways Bus Station; I didn’t go in, but I can imagine that it was an enormous improvement. And, unlike the old Virginia State Library that I occasionally visited when I was in high school, it looked to be user-friendly and welcoming to the public. I bet not all of the books are in closed stacks, either!

Other parts of Broad weren’t as clearly improved; there was a big construction project on the south side of the street at 7th, and the Thalheimers building was gone at 6th. Miller & Rhodes was still there, but fenced off; last week, I read that they were going to convert it into a first-class hotel. As I went further up Broad, the few businesses which were there got steadily less appealing (just as was the case when I lived in Richmond), though the Schwartzchild Building at 2nd and Broad is being reclaimed for apartments and a restaurant.

At Adams, I turned left, and then left again at Franklin, right by the Jefferson Hotel. The Jefferson has always been a Richmond landmark, but I don’t think I’ve been in it more than once. Mom did go there occasionally, though, for Ethyl activities. I passed the Richmond Public Library at 1st, then the Richmond Newspapers building (err, make that the Richmond Times-Dispatch building) at 3rd, and parked between 4th and 5th.

Parking was disquietingly easy for a Monday at 11:30am. And there were no meters — the posts were still there, but the meters were gone, except in a few blocks farther south and east, near the Federal Reserve Bank. There were also more surface lots than I’d remembered (probably because there were fewer buildings), and even a few multi-story garages.

I walked back up Franklin to the Richmond Public Library and went in. The building had been renovated a few years ago and it looked great. The book collection looked OK, too; I went directly to the SF stacks, and there were books which I’m sure I’d checked out when I was a kid, as well as many newer books. The library had a few people in it, but it wasn’t terribly crowded. I grabbed a few sheets of scrap paper (they’re reusing cards from the card catalog) to take notes as I wandered, and then left.

I walked back down Franklin — I could see the former Central National Bank building on Broad, of course. At one time, it was the tallest building in Richmond, and it used to give the weather forecast by the color and blink pattern of the “CNB” atop the building. The “CNB” is long gone, and I noticed a big “FOR LEASE” sign on the building as I drove past it on Broad. I only really remember going into the building once — with Mom, when she visited a lawyer to file for divorce.

At 5th and Franklin, I looked to my left and saw the Miller & Rhodes logo on the Grace Street side of the building, just as it ever was, so I decided to go that way. On the way, I passed the John Marshall Hotel — it used to be one of Richmond’s best hotels, but it’s closed for renovation (or so the recording on their phone says). And, of course, Miller & Rhodes is long-gone, too.

On my way up 5th, I also passed the Cokesbury Building, also at 5th and Grace. Cokesbury was (and I guess still is, but elsewhere) a bookstore owned by a church (I think the Episcopal Church), but they sold all kinds of books there. I bought my copy of Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love there, and I’m sure the church would not have approved of all of that book! The building had a new marquee, but was closed.

I walked back West on Grace to 1st, passing a few open businesses, including Perly’s Restaurant (which I think I remember from childhood, though I never went there) and the Virginia Republican Party headquarters, as well as a new hat store in the building with a “Gigi’s Hats” sign — I remember the sign. The Sydnor and Hundley building was closed; I guess they finally did go out of business, as they were often threatening to do on their commercials.

I backtracked on Grace, passing the old Berry-Burk building at 6th (being converted into luxury apartments, so they say), as well as the former Loew’s Theatre (where I remember going to see Fantastic Voyage). It had been converted into the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts after I left Richmond, but now it, too, is shuttered and vacant (though I’ve been told there are plans to revive it). There was still a bit of the back of the Thalheimer’s building left on the Grace Street side — that was always my favorite part, because it was where they had the Fancy Foods department (in other words, candy).

703 East Grace was the home of the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company of Virginia when I was growing up (hence Virginia’s original area code, 703). The building had a gold line around it on the sidewalk marking the limit of public access, so that they could legally keep out strikers — the gold line was gone, but it’s still an active telco building (now, of course, the telco is Verizon).

Once I passed 8th Street, it was like being back in the Richmond that was — instead of holes in the ground and abandoned storefronts, there were active churches, and then Capitol Square.

The State Capitol itself is under serious renovation and is closed, but there was a temporary Visitor’s Center in a trailer, and I stopped in and talked with the guide and then with a historian about old Richmond. The tunnels connecting the buildings (which extended all the way to MCV at 12th and Broad) had been closed right after 9/11 and will never be reopened; I used to enjoy wandering around under there, though it could be awfully warm. The Legislature has moved to the old State Library building during the reconstruction (hmmm, that’s probably a bad word to use in Richmond!); when they move back, that building will become the Governor’s offices. The state also will probably take back Richmond’s Old City Hall, which is currently being commerically leased and is apparently riddled with lobbyists.

By this time, I was starting to think about lunch and about moving my car, since I’d parked in a two-hour space. So I wandered back via Main Street, which was far more populated than Grace, Franklin, or Broad. This didn’t surprise me — there are lots of financial buildings along Main and just south of it; it’s the center of gravity of downtown Richmond and has been for years.

For lunch, I decided to go to Shockoe Slip. Mom had worked there for many years at Virginia Elevator; when she worked there, there might have been one restaurant within an easy walk. That’s not the case now; the area got redeveloped starting in 1985, and now it’s chockablock with restaurants, as well as a few hotels, and a few businesses (I mostly saw ad agencies). The streets are still cobblestones, though, and the sidewalks are still brick.

I had lunch at the Taphouse Grill, which occupied the same building that had once housed Virginia Elevator. I could see some elements of the architecture I remembered, especially where the freight elevator had been, but it was a very different place (for one thing, the first floor was well-lit, unlike the old days — Mom’s office was on the second floor, but getting there was none of the fun). The menu did talk about the history of the building, but it ended in 1866, long before Virginia Elevator (or Mom) came on the scene.

The food was good, as was the beer (another difference — when I was growing up, Richbrau was a typical local beer, and it went out of business long before I was old enough to drink it; the new Richbrau Brewing Company is a craft microbrewery, offering about six different brews), but I didn’t linger. I had more territory to cover.

When I returned to the car, I discovered that a Mercedes was right on my tail, making it difficult for me to get out of my spot. I succeeded, but not without discovering one of the worst attributes of cobblestone pavement — it’s hard to move slowly and gently, because the pavement is quantized. I guess it’s just as well that I only had a half-pint with lunch.

I drove past the Ethyl campus, but didn’t try to go in. When Mom first worked for Ethyl, she was in a subsidiary, Converted Film Products, which made plastic bags. She used to take us to the office with her on Saturday or Sunday so she could use the WATS line to call out-of-town relatives (I guess the statute of limitations has passed on this); it was down near the old Tredegar Iron Works. The main campus was at 3rd and Canal, and she worked there for several years, but it wasn’t nearly as colorful as the CFP office (which might have been in a trailer, if I remember correctly).

Instead, I drove over to Oregon Hill. We lived there, at 625 South Holly, when we first moved to Richmond after my father left us, and my grandfather had a grocery store at 701 South Laurel for many years. We moved out to the West End before I started school, which was probably a very good thing for me. But that meant that Mom had to go down to the store every day; she didn’t drive, which meant taking the bus. Two buses, in fact; first the Broad Street 6 as far as Laurel, then the Laurel 11 to the store. I went with Mom every day until I started school, and sometimes in the summer thereafter, so I remember the bus rides well. The Laurel 11 didn’t run very often, so we had to wait a long time; there was a chop suey restaurant at the corner of Broad and Laurel, and the owner would let us wait inside. Of course, we never bought anything because it wasn’t kosher — but he was kind and let us stay anyway. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, just that it said “chop suey” — now, it’s the Aladdin Restaurant.

Oregon Hill has changed enormously. It had always had a great view of the James River and Hollywood Cemetery (I remember being creeped out by the signs on the road there: “One Way In”), but the houses were, well, deteriorating. Grandpa ran the store for many years and gave people a fair deal — I used to help out occasionally, even though I was very young — I could make change and run the cash register (at least I could once I was strong enough to push down the keys — it was one with discrete mechanical keys for everything, instead of a ten-key pad or even a matrix of keys). And the people on the Hill were nice enough to us.

A developer had bought up the blocks containing the store and the old house, and had built the Overlook Townhouses, a development of two-story townhouses, some of which have a direct view of the river, and all of which are within a block of a great view. They sell for between $300K and $560K — that’s approaching California pricing, I think. And there aren’t any grocery stores nearby, either.

There are still a few older homes left in the area, probably with some of the original Hill dwellers. I wonder what kind of interactions they have with the yuppies who are buying the townhomes.

The old playground at the end of Holly Street was still there, and still fenced-in with serious fencing. I went there on occasion and played with a few of the neighborhood kids — but then I’d go back to my suburban home in the West End, while they stayed on the Hill. One girl did eventually move out to the West End and went to Tucker with me, at least for a short time, but I don’t remember her at all well from high school.

I got back in the car and drove up Pine Street, passing Grace Arents School, where the neighborhood kids went (and which my grandfather told me to claim I went to when I first applied for a Richmond Library card, back when they wouldn’t give a card to someone who lived outside the city limits). I passed a couple of businesses which looked vaguely familiar, such as the Pine Grill and the Pine Street Barbers (I never went to either one); when Pine ended, I went over to Cherry and on up to Cary Street.

VCU had moved into the neighborhood near Cary, and it was entirely different than when I’d last been there. I drove past Paragon Pharmacy, which was closed and locked, though there was someone inside, and it looked like there might still have been some medicines on the shelves. Then I drove up to Main and Laurel, home of Richmond’s Landmark Theatre (it was The Mosque when I was growing up, but was renamed in 1995 after a renovation), where I’d gone once with Mom for some sort of telethon.

After that, I drove on Broad out to my old neighborhood; I parked in front of my old house and took a walk around the block. When I was growing up, there’d been a vacant lot at the corner of Byrd and Fitzhugh — we called it “Woodville” and spent a lot of time playing there. Now, there was a large house there, though they had left a few trees in place.

I walked back to my old house, and the “new” owner was in the yard (he’d bought the house from Mom in 1976 or so). We chatted briefly, and he agreed to let me do something very silly. For some reason, there were two little structures on either side of the walkway leading to the house — I used to love to walk up the one on the left (I think the total height was two feet) and jump off. And I did it again today — it didn’t feel like as much of a jump as it used to, though.

My last stop for the day was the JCC; it, too, had been significantly renovated and expanded while my back was turned, but when I went inside, I could still see some of the bones of the old building, especially looking down at the gym floor from the second floor balcony. My favorite room, the library, was long gone, as was the book collection (donated to other libraries) — I can’t tell you how many times I’d checked out Goren’s Hoyle from there, learning to play just about all of the games in the book. I also remember borrowing Auntie Mame, which was pretty racy stuff for a pre-teen!

I left the JCC and drove back to Old Richmond, then to Libbie, and then out Broad to Dickens, where I decided to make a quick detour past my old elementary school before driving to Mom’s apartment to do a little cleaning up. The school had been renamed from Bethlehem Elementary to Charles M. Johnson Elementary; I decided not to stop.

And that ended my day of driving shiva. I came back to the house (after a brief stop at the apartment to take a few things — Cliff’s wife had been very busy there all day, and tomorrow, I will have a lot of packing to do!), where we had dinner and the shiva minyan.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Richmond for this trip; I expect to spend a lot of it at Mom’s, packing things to ship home. I’ve already turned off her phone and DSL service; her email will continue for another couple of weeks, so I can look for late mail. It’s beginning to seem awfully final…but I guess that’s only reality rearing its head.

Eulogy Remarks for Elaine Singer

Rabbi Gary Creditor of Temple Beth-El gave the hesped at Mom’s funeral yesterday. He kindly sent me a copy of his remarks, which I wanted to post here for those who couldn’t be at the funeral.

Eulogy Remarks for Elaine Singer
April 30th, 2006

Dear Family and Friends,

From many diverse ways I had the pleasure of knowing Elaine Singer. We shared the simchas of the family from Cliff and Michael and through their children. I saw her occasionally in synagogue and other times at the JCC or other events. I enjoyed our repartee, her sense of humor and funny comments. We also remarked on growing older and its attendant ailments. But she would give me a special look and comment. I think that she mostly respected that I was a Rabbi in what comments she shared with me. I have been distressed to know that she was ailing and now at her passing. But I take comfort in knowing that she was blessed in life in many ways and from many people, that she gave blessings, fun, enjoyment and love to many, and bestowed a measure of goodness to the world, her family and her friends. These treasures and qualities are eternal, and their merit accompany her neshama to heaven.

Elaine was born in here Richmond and she attended Thomas Jefferson High School like so many of her generation, and also Richmond Professional Institute, now Virginia Commonwealth University. She was a very intelligent and capable woman, perhaps just a little ahead of her time. In listening to Cliff and Michael in the office and to David speaking from Los Gatos, I learned that Elaine was a very remarkable and special person. In many ways, she was born to serve. She was the faithful daughter of Abraham and Ethyl Winer, extremely devoted to them and took care of them. She was blessed with her brother Harold who predeceased her and his wife Dubby, and her brother Leonard in Denver, to whom we send our condolences. Her mother died first and her father significantly later, and she was constant in her attention. Elaine was a single mom before it became truly recognized. She devoted herself to raising Cliff and David with everything that was necessary. Through these years and onwards she worked in the family grocery business on Oregon Hill, as did so many Jews of that generation, then at Virginia Elevator Company, and finally at Ethyl Corporation, where she was the secretary in the audit department. Her capabilities were recognized by her bosses and co-workers alike. In another time and age, she could have risen very high in that company or any other, such as were her talents and abilities. Though she kept in touch with friends from work, retirement was the happiest day of her life, and much richly deserved. Between serving her parents, working and serving her sons, her life was totally absorbed and left little time for anything else. She acquitted herself of her self-assumed responsibilities with distinction and aplomb. The three agreed that proper adjectives to describe Elaine’s sense of humor would be salty and spicy. That may be true, yet I see these as the qualities of her soul that enabled her to face up to the challenges of life and triumph, to persevere and succeed, to see her grandchildren and friends, and shep much nachas from them and from life. Elaine Singer was a very special lady.

Elaine definitely had a few special qualities. In 1964, having gotten lost and wound up in Ashland, it became her first and last times that she every drove on an interstate! In her youth she was a dancer, that being her major at RPI, and she loved ice skating as well. It was for that reason that she enjoyed watching her granddaughters’ performances and attended so much of their school functions. She kept kosher all her life and never ate treif, with a strong Jewish identity and component of her soul. She was supportive of many things in Jewish life and affairs. At one time she got her hands on a computer and she used it extensively. Cliff said that 80% of her email to him were her jokes, many of which were not too good and not fit for public recitation, at least by me. Perhaps one of the great stories that typify Elaine and her life is the following. Trying to send something to Cliff she just typed CSinger at [redacted]. But instead of getting Cliff, she got a stranger, Carol Singer, with whom she promptly struck up a lively correspondence. From this accidental meeting blossomed a great friendship. Just a few days ago, Carol sent the following to Elaine:

Hi, Elaine,

I just have to tell you how much your newsy letters and your silly jokes have always meant to me. Through your heartwarming letters, I have come to know and enjoy your family. All of the love and pride you have for your family has always come through loud and clear. I’ve enjoyed looking at all the picture albums you’ve emailed to me. We’ve spent a lot of time bragging about our children, too. I have been too busy to tell you about my wonderful 15-month-old grandson. You’re right, grandchildren are something special. I love it when he sleeps at my house sometimes on the weekends.

I have to thank you for all the Jewish jokes you are always sending my way. I forward many of them to my brother, who, as you know, is a Gabbai at his Temple in Pennsylvania.

Now you hurry and get well so you can lighten my day with your sense of humor.

Carol Singer.

That is quintessential Elaine. Now she will brighten up our lives through memory and perhaps some special type of communication, this time, just from further away and through a different medium. May it still bring joy to our hearts.

Elaine was blessed with a large and loving family with whom she stayed in touch throughout the years. She was extremely generous to family and friends and also lived to give advice. She was truly blessed with four grandchildren, the girls Allison and Meri, and the boys Cory, here in Richmond, and Jeffrey in Los Gatos. All of you have very special and wonderful memories of your grandmother to carry with you throughout all your lives. Being girls was enough to make you special and she kvelled at your achievements. She admired Cory who is supposedly just like Cliff was in his youth, and a small car in her doll house for him to find, necessitating she have a large supply to induce a return visit by him to discover more. Jeffrey loves coins and Elaine kept a subscription for him, one that just came this past Wednesday. Three years ago, making a real effort after her surgery, she attended Jeffrey’s Bar Mitzvah and enjoyed it immensely, meeting Jeffrey in his environment and meeting the family and friends in California. In 1978, though not a happy traveler, she did come on a trip to Israel.

Yet as David and Cliff spoke about their mother, I heard an echo of yesterday’s Torah portion. Specifically, it refers to two words: tahor – pure, and tamey – impure. We are instructed to follow out rituals as well as to refrain from certain animals, because they are impure, for whatever reason, and only eat from the tahor, the pure, and follow that behavioral trait throughout our lives. David framed it very beautifully when he said that there were things that their mother did not teach them to do, though it would have been so easy to do so.

Though having a difficult life, with particular misfortunes in the beginning, that made the entire journey ever more difficult, she did not teach them to hate. Though she grew up in the 1920’s and onwards, and Cliff and David were born during the tempestuous times in the South in the 1950’s, Elaine did not teach them to become racists. She always preached that everyone was a person and should be treated accordingly.

Elaine Singer was remarkable and made people better by her values, her wisdom and her words. In her way she blessed us and brought a drop of God’s precious salvation to the world. Now her neshama resides in a kingdom of eternal peace, without pain and suffering. And if, in the mysterious sounds of heaven, we may imagine that we are hearing a divine guffaw, then let us also imagine that it is caused by Elaine, sharing one of her jokes with God and eliciting such a heavenly response. May that memory bring a smile to our faces and warm our hearts.

I personally imagine Elaine being a little testy that I have spoken this long, but her family gave me a lot of very good material. That is how God made her, and now in His all embracing arms, may she rest in eternal peace. Amen.