DEATH, GRIEF & RITUAL: COMMEMORATING MY MOTHER

By Ellen Gould-Ventura

I feel great pleasure and gratitude to be able to present this guest Blog post by musician Ellen Gould-Ventura.  Ellen was unable to be with her mother, Hetty Ventura, at the time of her death in 2002.  But Ellen brought her mother’s ashes home, and created a unique and beautiful ritual involving her young children to help process her grief and honor her mother’s roots in southern Spain.  She has written a sensitive and moving chronicle of her grief recovery journey, and the special role that ceremony – and the next generation of family – can play in that process.  After reading Ellen’s post, please visit her website to learn more about this talented artist and her musical projects.  Thank you Ellen!

I was only able to connect with my mother, over the phone during her last days. My papers weren’t up to date for either Serafina (who was still on the breast at the time) or myself.  The Spanish and Canadian embassies wouldn’t have been able to issue even emergency traveling documents in time for what was happening to her finally.  So we spoke over the phone several times near the end.  She wasn’t at home, but was with her dearest friends and some very wonderful care givers at the Baycrest.  She was hanging on despite the pain she was in, to be able to see me. So, from Barcelona, in a phone call, I asked her if she knew she was going.  Did she know that she was on her way out?  She said yes.  I don’t know where it came from, but I told her that if she needed my permission to go, that she had my blessings and must leave her body, which was so ill and painful for her at this point.  I told her I wasn’t going to make it due to the traveling papers and explained that I didn’t want her to suffer, just because she was waiting for me. She repeated the words thank you about 15 times, in as many ways as she could muster. Then we proceeded to say “I love you’ to each other in as many ways and as many times as we both could find a way to do so.  I kept calling in after that to ask about her and hear her breathing….My sister wouldn’t contact me, sadly enough as I had done the unspeakable in leaving Canada so many years ago.  However, the folks at the Baycrest hospital were lovely with me, nonjudgmental and kept me on the phone as long as I wished.  It was the strangest way to say good bye to the person who birthed me, but we managed at least to make some form of contact and I was very thankful for at least that. After the last time on the phone, I put the phone down and walked to my altar.  Lit the candles, and proceeded to engage in a form of pushing chant. I sat in front of the flames of the candles as though “in labour”, like she had brought me into this world, so many years ago.  I then helped ‘push’ her into the light. Wished for her to give gentle surrender. It was like the earth gently swallowed her back into its womb…things were going forward in time, yet the motion felt distinctly like inhaling.  She didn’t have the strength anymore and we couldn’t be together.  So this is how it manifested for me.  She was gone about 12 hours later. My best friend, Ali was the one to call me with the final news.

After many discussions with my mothers friends in common, several months later after the 20 minute funeral my sister had held for her in Toronto with Rabbi Aviva, and after she had been cremated according to her irreverent yet ‘practical’ wishes, her ashes were sent to me here via UPS messenger.  It was probably about the weirdest sensation I could ever have, opening the door and a man in a brown uniform handing me such a portentous cardboard box.  I placed ‘her’ in the fireplace, as I really had no idea what to do.  My grief was still very deep and I couldn’t actually face opening the box till much later.

About two months after that, I was writing an email to someone….something completely unrelated to any of this.  The – then baby – Serafina was playing around my feet in the office and made some sound that drew my attention to her, away from what I was doing on my computer.  As I turned around, my hands hit the keyboard, inadvertently. When I turned around, the letter I was drafting was gone and a website had popped up for the rental of some houses in Granada territory, in a small town called, Montefrio. I was shocked. I scrolled down the page and realized that the town was something like 45 minutes from the town my mother and father had lived in in 1960 when he was doing an “Artist’s years abroad” stint.  In my still heightened state, it felt like a loving omen of sorts.  The places looked ideal to rent….owned by a writer artist and built right into the caves and rock of this old Arabic strong hold town which at first glance is stunning with its white house-encrusted hills and millions of olive trees for as far as the eye could see. It was 45 minutes to the North West of Granada city.  I had this voice in my head saying, this is where you are going to take your mother’s ashes, Ellen.  I had sort of planned loosely something right after the arrival of the ashes with a very liberal Sefardi Rabbi from Uruguay, who was going to have accompanied me up to the cliffs in Northern part of Catalunya to do the ceremony, but it just didn’t seem right.  My mother hated the idea of organized religion, least of all something that reminded her of our own Sefardi culture which she had tried to deny for so many years.  This, however, felt so right.  It was right in the region my mother had always felt happiest.  It’s the region where our family on that side, the Ventura’s originate. It was astounding and beautiful and so “off the cuff” as my mother used to say.  No religious people around, just the people of the area who opened their homes and their hearts to us to welcome a ‘native’ daughter to their lands.

I’m not sure if I ever told you this story about the trek we took finally to do the ceremony.  That summer, we rented a car to drive down to Montefrio with the ashes.  The car rental agency was going thru a legal battle with contracts of its workers that summer and we lucked out totally. The guy at the desk asked us for the equivalent of about 80 Euros in cash for the 10 days, including insurance. They were staging a protest against management.  We were fully insured and everything, but we never got billed for the car. Normally in that time of the year, cars like this cost about 600 or 700 Euros. So again, we received a little gift from nowhere.

We ended up there and did a triptych of ceremonies.  Nothing planned, just invented.  We began the first part in the Megalithic Necropolis, called Peña de los Gitanos (cliff of the gypsies).  It’s the beginning of the rock range where many people still have their homes buried, deep inside the rock, satellite dishes, Madonna’s, cathedrals and all.  My then 10 year old son, Kalil, opened the box first as I was having real trouble opening it up. So he sunk his hands inside. He said, “its okay mummy. Don’t be scared. There are no eye balls. It feels fine inside.”  Needless to say I laughed through my tears at his advice.  So I thrust my hands inside the box and we began the process of spreading her ashes onto the walls of this ancient burial ground and also, had been someone’s home at one point inside the crevice of the caves.  There was light coming from within the cave, as way up above, there was a hole in the top of the cliffs, which invited the sunlight from up high to light everyone’s way.  A very mystical experience.  It was all that was necessary.  No pomp and circumstance.  Just the earth and heat and plant life around us.

We then a few days later went up to the olive groves on a high plateau just above the village of Montefrio.  They were owned by the family of Gerardo Cano Cuestas, a man who had managed the houses we stayed in (from the website mentioned earlier).  He bestowed us his family’s olive groves to form the second part of our ceremony which overlooked the village and the Arabic strong hold at the top some distance away.  The two children and I grabbed some more ashes and began washing the roots of the olive trees with them, as we had done with the walls of the caves just before.  The first tree I saw was the one closed to the edge of the plateau before a vast drop to the bottom of the plañís below the town. I stepped into her branches.  Just then a very uncustomary wind blew. My hair caught in the branches, forcing me into the bosom of the tree.  I couldn’t get away for a few minutes.  I was being embraced by this fruit baring wood creature. Or maybe she was giving me a stern talking to.  I was unsure.  However, it certainly felt like I was being taken in somehow by something.  We continued our trek across the thousands of olive trees (which are now being beaten and worked for their olives to make oil for the coming year for Gerardo and his family).  I sang a short prayer to my mother and we continued.  My feelings were not so strange anymore about my mother and her ashes. In fact, I felt very contented, safe and at every phase of the ceremony, progressively more relieved. Serafina dove into the box of ashes with her tiny 2-year old hands and became familiar with her maternal grandmother, saying her name into the air as she spread the ashes onto the trunk of the first tree…laughing and feeling so much a part of this important moment.  Kalil was more reserved this time, did his part and then watched with the children who had come up the hill with us.  My mother was all over us, finally.  A very beautiful process.

The next part was perhaps the hardest, as it meant the end of the ashes. We had decided at that point not to keep anything at home. We drove down to the tropical coast of Granada territory. A place called Salobreña, on the road to Nerja where my mother had originally never wanted to go back to Canada again. (Now it’s been vastly over-developed).  However, slightly down coast, in Salobreña, it’s easy to see why she originally wanted to live there forever.  We found a black cove of porous rocks and clear, clear waters and a small stony beach.  Kalil and I began to turn the rest of the ashes into the sea at the mouth of the cove and into the rocks that seemed to suck the ashes into their crevices, washing them with sea water and taking them in forever.  The rest went out to sea and she was finally, well, released.  It was a beautiful time of closure for me.  And one that has marked my life in such a profound way to take her back to her place of origin.  We were back there this year again, having fallen deeply in love with the region years before and also again from this emotionally important experience.  I had lived near there, briefly with my mother and sister in 1971 when my parents had separated during the dictatorship.  Despite our sadness, and the rocky political environment there at the time, I distinctly remember having a similar feeling about the land at the time.  It gave me a feeling of calm love.  The red warm earth and the warmth of the people.
 

Ellen Gould-Ventura is a vocalist, teacher, actor, librettist, and band leader residing in Barcelona, Spain.  Ellen moved to Spain from Toronto, Canada in 1998 to explore her Jewish Sephardi roots, and fell in love with the culture and the music.  She then formed her band Mashala, who perform Sefardi Mizrahi and World Groove Music.  Ellen is the mother of two children, Kalil and Serafina, and wife of photographer Mario Scattoloni.  To learn more about Ellen and her music, please visit her website:  www.Mashala.org

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