The matriarch of our family, Aunt Josephine, died on February 17 and her memorial service was yesterday at Our Lady of Mount Lebanon (St Peter Cathedral), the Maronite Church at the corner of San Vicente and Burton Way, a church that she and her husband Joe had helped found in its original setting in downtown Los Angeles. Cardinal Meoshe (the family changed their name to Americanize it) now a Cardinal in Rome, a cousin of the family, was the original Priest and he married Joe and Josephine.
I've never experienced a Catholic Mass done partially in Aramaic, and with the heavy incense and the Lebanese Bishop's way of enunciating, the two-person choir in the loft whose slightly flat sung replies, in heavy Arabic, a form of ululation, almost, the whole thing was a little surreal. Beautiful, but surreal. The church has an elaborate mural behind the altar, a frieze of old Lebanon with turquoise seas, purple olive-covered mountains, and two very large Lebanon Cedars in the foreground. Bushy-haired blonde cupids abound, and elegant statues of the Virgin clothed in blue. I sat with Sandy, my stepmother-in-law as we shared an order of service, written in both English and Arabic, with some parts in Aramaic. We murmured our way through the service until the relief of the Lord's Prayer or the Nicene Creed ("We believe in one God..") which we could say loudly, so we appeared to know what was going on. A lovely lady, one of Josie's friends, sang Amazing Grace rather theatrically at the beginning, her voice warbling with emotion, and then finished the service with a heartfelt Ave Maria.
It was strangely distant, faraway perhaps, until J's cousin, Michelle stood up with her three little children to say a few words. Each child said a few thoughtful and memorized things about their great grandmother and then Michelle started to read a reminiscence of Siti (Siti means Granny in Arabic); how she threw up on her grandmother's white pants on the way to Magic Mountain, how Siti would sit next to her and hold her hand in church; how she loved to see Siti in the kitchen, always cooking, always entertaining people; how even at the age of 90 she insisted on hosting all the holiday parties at her house; how Siti could grab a sad-looking bunch of supermarket flowers, and within minutes create a stunning arrangement using flowers and branches from her own garden; how Love Story was her favorite song; how Siti made the absolute best hummus in the whole world. As she spoke, the congregation, the rest of the family held on to her words and tried to hold back their own tears. People pulled tissues out of purses and handed handkerchiefs to the person sitting next to them. Josie was married at the age of 17 and how 500 people came to her wedding reception. She and Joe were married (and in love) for 70 years, until Joe died. In heaven, perhaps, they'd be together again.
She'd stayed up all night to write her speech, she told us afterwards, and just wanted to do her grandmother justice.