In Memoriam: Ella Braigen 1945–2017

Her name was Eleonora Braigen, though you probably knew her as Ella. She was Khana’s daughter. She was Michael’s sister. She was your neighbor. She was your friend. Or maybe you followed her on Twitter, where she was actually kind of famous, regularly getting retweeted by Pulitzer Prize nominees. But for me, and for my sisters Miriam and Nika, she was Mommy.

I didn’t tell too many friends that at 34 years old I still called my mom Mommy. I was a little embarrassed, but that is the truth of it. That’s who she was to me, to us. She was Mommy. And I think if she were here that she would agree that motherhood was one of the great stories of her life.

She learned from the best: her mother, our Grandma, who raised her and her brother Michael to be brave, and bold, and to pursue the things they wanted out of a life that could often be hard and unforgiving. And our Grandma learned from the best in turn, from her mother Manya, our Mommy’s beloved grandmother, who overcame unimaginable adversity to raise four brilliant, caring, adventurous daughters, two of whom are still with us today, our Grandma and her youngest sister Mila.

Mommy carried that torch. She moved through every year of her life savoring each breath she took, even if some of those were a bit too smoky for our liking. For 64 of those 72 years she breathed into only one lung, having had the other removed in a medical procedure in the Soviet Union at age eight. For 39 years she breathed not just for herself but for Miriam, and for 38 years she breathed for Nika, and for 34 years she breathed for me. That her small frame and her one lung could carry not just herself through decades of ups and downs, but carry an entire family, is a testament to everything I loved about her: her grit, her stubborn will, her boundless love for those she chose to surround herself with. To swim in the sea of that love, well, the only greater gift that I’ve ever received is this body I’m breathing in right now. And guess what? She gave me that, too.

I’ve been known to spend a lot of my time in the clouds. Mommy lived on the earth. She was not a believer in immaterial things, of gods or of spirits. She was a believer in the body and the mind. And oh, how she nourished ours. Now, I’m aware that, for all of us to get through this, I have to make you laugh at least once, and Mommy did love to laugh, so I’ll take this moment to mention that a) she didn’t love cooking and thought herself bad at it but b) when we all lived under her roof, she would regularly cook us three different meals for dinner, depending on what we each wanted. Which is actually some form of insanity that I can only guess was a side effect of the bottomless devotion that fueled her motherhood.

We will miss her chicken. We will miss her salmon. More than anything, we will miss her salad.

My sisters and I, we are children of the mind. We are writers all, and we are fiercely devoted to pursuing truth in the ways that call to each of us. We record and investigate worlds, whether real or fictional, and we always plumb the depths of what we find in order to go even deeper. And that is Mommy’s legacy: the blessedly stubborn insistence and perhaps even compulsion that we three feel to not just be in the world but to question it, to write our way through its puzzling complexities, and also, to wonder at it.

Mommy filled with wonder from a young age. In a totalitarian state, her imagination ran wild, and she drank and danced as she fiddled with antennae in basements to catch the static-y sounds of freedom on the shortwave radio. Freedom sounded like the Beatles. It wasn’t enough to simply hear and listen to that freedom, though. She had to put pen to paper and mark down the words, and then translate them so that others could hear them and could understand the lyrics so that freedom, like pollen, could spread through the fallow fields of her darkened homeland.

And even that was not enough for her. She made herself into pollen, and she carried freedom with her through the Iron Curtain in a pair of suitcases and she smuggled freedom in her body and in her mind. She crossed the world, into the unknown, chasing a dream. She had tasted freedom, she had danced with it, and now she wanted to live in it. And for the rest of her life in this land of the free, she never once took it for granted. Until the end, she celebrated it, and questioned it, and prodded it, and worried when it was threatened, and wondered how it could be made better, how people could be made freer.

All of that is in the three of us. And it is my feeling, and my hope, that for those of you here who never knew her intimately, but knew her through the children who adored her, that you feel all of that spiraling out of our bodies and our minds and into yours. If you do feel it, please remember to follow her example. Don’t just keep freedom to yourself. Turn it into something that someone else can understand. Give freedom away so that that others can be free as well.

Now, this feels like the point where I should offer you some platitude, where I should look at her casket and tell you that now, she is truly free. But if you knew Mommy, and you know my sisters, and you know me, then you know, well, that’s just not how we roll.

Mommy is no longer. Mommy was. She was. She was in all the ways that only she could ever be. My sisters and I, we carry echoes of her, and we will make these echoes into songs all our own.

Three and a half years ago, most of you will I’m sure remember that Mommy was hospitalized and underwent a very traumatic surgery that the doctors cautioned she might not survive. But she did survive, of course. She’s a Braigen woman. That’s what they do. The last three and a half years of her life were some of her happiest. There was a brightness in her eyes and a fullness to her laugh that remind me of the amazing photos you see here of her dancing and screaming like a Beatle when she was young.

She went to the theater, to museums, out to dinner with her beloved children, and went on two amazing trips to Italy to be with her beloved brother and her sister-in-law, trips that filled her with wonder again as she visited Rome, the city where she had spent a year waiting for her American visa when she left the USSR. Then, she had dreamed of freedom. Now, returning, she lived it. She lived each day of the past three and a half years filled with gratitude for the breaths she was able to draw into her one precious lung.

Before her surgery, the day after Mommy was hospitalized, I took the train out to Flushing and spent hours talking with her. She told me the truth of the tumor in her chest, and she said, Maybe it’s just my time. She was a bit sad when she said it, but she also seemed understanding; not of anything like fate or destiny, but just the simple fact that for each of us, there comes a time.

I told you that I’ve been known to spend my days in the clouds. For some years that put a strain on my relationship with Mommy. The night I visited her in the hospital, something opened up between us. I want to say it was something new, but truthfully, it was something very old, like the umbilicus that once bound me to her, the first of all the many ways she nourished me. That new old connection remained bright and vibrant between us until she died.

For a time I had lived in a story where Mommy believed in nothing but I believed in, well, something, and that divided us. That night I realized the truth was something else: we both lived in wonder. That life could evolve over billions of years to be the two of us sitting holding hands in a hospital bed: how wondrous, how strange, how perfect.

I had begun to sing again recently, for the first time since childhood. That night, sitting on her hospital bed, I asked her if I could sing her a song in Hebrew. She was astonished that I even knew a song in Hebrew! After all, as a family we self-identify as Bad Jews. But I had learned this song, and it meant a great deal to me, and so I sang it for her. She listened with tears of pride and love in her eyes. In that moment, I was fully myself to her, and she was fully herself to me. We never turned back from that.

The song I sang is a prayer, the Shehecheyanu. Again, we are Bad Jews. It’s a song you’re supposed to sing at beginnings, not endings. And I don’t really sing it the way it’s traditionally sung, I don’t think. I just sing it the way it feels to me right when I decide to sing it, and that seems to me a lot like our Passover seders, and our Rosh Hashanah dinners, our family’s unique take on ancient traditions, dinners at which her absence will be a presence for the rest of our lives.

The Shehecheyanu calls to God, and it thanks God for creating us, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this, the present moment.

I know, and Miriam knows, and Nika knows, that it’s Mommy we have to thank for all those things. For creating us. For sustaining us. And for enabling us to reach this, the present moment, a moment in which I stand here in wonder at all she gave us, and wonder at all the love that we have welcomed into our lives by learning from her, and wonder that she’s gone, and through it all, the desperate quest to remain grateful. Where did I learn all this wonder? Where did I learn all this gratitude? From her, of course. She gave us so many gifts.

I would like to sing that song for you now.

Baruch atah Adonai 
Eloheinu melech hao’lam
shehecheyanu
v’kiyimanu
v’higiyanu
lazman hazeh

Daniel Elder — daniel.i.elder@gmail.com — @tumblehawk

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