Irving Brecher, Radio, Stage, Screen Comedy Writer, 94

Irving Brecher, a comedy writer whose career in radio, television and film included writing two Marx Brothers comedies and co-writing the Judy Garland musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” has died. He was 94.

Brecher died of age-related causes on Nov. 17 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said his wife, Norma.

Born Jan. 17, 1914, in Bronx, N.Y., Brecher was 19 years old when he sold his first joke to Milton Berle. Brecher is the only writer to have gotten solo credit on two Marx Brothers movies, “At the Circus” and “Go West.”

In a 2005 interview with Hank Rosenfeld for The Journal, Brecher talked about how he first saw Groucho Marx — on screen and then later in person:

“I had been a passionate Groucho Marx worshipper since I was a kid,” he recalled. “When I was a teenager [in 1930], the night editor of the Yonkers Herald-Statesman, where I worked, gave me a movie pass — worth 25 cents! — to see ‘Animal Crackers,’ and I was on the floor. I stayed in the theater and watched it a second time. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I started doing my own version of Groucho Marx.”

In 1937, Brecher was working at MGM, he recalled, “helping spike, or punch-up, ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ The great Oz producer, Mervyn Leroy, told me I was going to write a Marx Brothers picture. I couldn’t believe it. I was excited, but scared, and when he introduced me to Groucho, I’m sure that my knees were shaking and my voice, too. ‘Hello Mister Marx,’ I said, extending my hand. Groucho says, ‘Hello?’ This is the writer you’re gonna put on the picture, a guy who ad-libs hello? That’s some ad-lib.’ Groucho took me to lunch, and from then on, we became friends.”

After his two features for the Marx Brothers, Brecher co-wrote “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He wrote seven other musicals at MGM, including the 1963 hit, “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Brecher wrote and produced the long-running radio show, “The Life of Riley.” He wrote the film of the same name, which starred William Bendix and was released in 1949 — the same year “Riley” debuted as what is widely considered to have been the first sitcom on American television.

In addition to his screen and TV work, Brecher wrote vaudeville and radio shows for Milton Berle. He also wrote for and forged friendships with Hollywood funnymen Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Ernie Kovacs and George Burns.

Groucho Marx dubbed Brecher “The Wicked Wit of the West,” a moniker Brecher later used as the title of his autobiography, due to be published in February by Ben Yehuda Press.

Brecher is survived by his wife of 25 years, Norma; stepson, Michael Waxenberg; and stepdaughters, Jane Ulman and Ellen Zoschak. Services were held Nov. 20 at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

Stanley Abrams died Nov. 14 at 78. He is survived by his wife, Vera; daughters, Anne (David) Steirman and Linda Feinholz; sons, Gene (Michele), Paul (Debbie Lauterbach) and Steven (Lori) Feinholz; and nine grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Rose Aminoff died Nov. 9 at 82. She is survived by her brother, Lee Mael; and sister, Hilda Jepsen. Hillside

Charles Barenfeld died Nov. 18 at 92. He is survived by his sons, Marc and Michael. Hillside

Harold Barnett died Nov. 14 at 90. He is survived by his son, Stuart; daughters, Robin Waller and Leslie; and sister, Sylvia Taylor. Hillside

Leonard Beller died Nov. 15 at 76. He is survived by his wife, Sheila; son, Mark (Rachel); daughters, Marla (Jim) Gilb and Ylana (Carmine); eight grandchildren; sister, Enid (Seymour) Zimbler; and brother, Gary (Carole). Mount Sinai

Rene Brand died Nov. 11 at 79. She is survived by her daughter, Ellen; and son-in-law, Arnold Levitt. Hillside

Moriyah Singh Chahal died Nov. 17 at 60. She is survived by her husband, Jasbir. Hillside

Jane Chevron died Nov. 9 at 82. She is survived by her husband, Dan; daughter, Debra Peters; and sisters, Ilene Peters and Ann Phillips. Hillside

Charles Chuckrow died Nov. 10 at 82. He is survived by his daughters, Peggy Shepard and Carol Shepard; son, George (Loretta); and one grandchild. Malinow and Silverman

David Comsky died Nov. 12 at 80. He is survived by his wife, Cynthia; and daughters, Beth Raanan and Jill. Hillside

Doris Sally Fradkin died Nov. 11 at 82. She is survived by her daughter, Marla (Dale) Stuntz; and sons, Alan and Neil (Judy). Hillside

Donald Friedman died Nov. 16 at 87. He is survived by his daughter, Hannah Gold; sons, Michael and Brian; sister, Margaret Preiser; niece, Adeline (Mark) Preiser; nephews, Randall (Sheris) Preiser and Douglas (Babs) Presier; and two great-nephews. Mount Sinai

Lorraine Hudson died Nov. 13 at 88. She is survived by her daughters, Sandra Drummond and Roberta Dunlop; and son, Larry. Hillside

Sidney William Kash died Nov. 14 at 86. He is survived by his sons, Jeffrey and Richard; and daughters, Judith Dinges and Paula Mendel. Hillside

Sue Lee Leff died Nov. 5 at 75. She is survived by her sons, Fred and Daniel; and sister, Marilyn (Sam) Benton. Hillside

Robert Lench died Nov. 7 at 84. He is survived by his brother, Jerome; sister, Freda Laine; and niece, Lisa. Hillside

Max Linson died Sept. 16 at 91. He is survived by his wife, Helen; daughters, Denise Renee (Henry) Grodzienski and Sherry Jo (Larry) Lerner; and two grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Jamie Pitkovski died Nov. 16 at 83. He is survived by his sister, Elena (Arthur) Magat; nephew, David (Rhonda) Magat; and nieces, Elizabeth (David) Gaynes and Michelle (Wayne) Levin. Mount Sinai

Majer Pulvermacher died Nov. 19 at 88. He is survived by his wife, Estera; daughter, Corrine (Lenny) Sands; son, Gerald (Mary-Belle); six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Pauline Saslow died Nov. 11 at 87. She is survived by her sons, Eric and Warren (Rebecca); sister, Regina Cheshes; and five grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Irwin Schwartz died Nov.17 at 80. He is survived by his wife, Rita; daughters, Francine (James) Travers and Lauu (Larry) Turkheimer; son, Richard (Robin); and ten grandchildren. Mount Sinai.

Bruce Michael Shapiro died Nov. 14 at 68. He is survived by his sons, Marc and Brad (Tricia); daughter-in-law, Susan; and sister, Leslie Wybinow. Hillside

Helen Silverman died Nov. 9 at 83. She is survived by her sister, Emily Masters; niece, Barbara Masters; and nephew, Matthew Masters. Hillside

Minnie Spezman died Nov. 19 at 90. She is survived by her nieces, Joyce Margolin and Sharon Croskery. Mount Sinai

Frances Weiss died Nov. 18 at 99. She is survived by her niece, Marjorie Brachman; nephew, Bennet Brachman; and sister, Isabelle Gordon. Hillside

Rudolf Winkler died Nov. 15 at 92. He is survived by his wife, Carmel; son, Jonathan; and daughters, Sharon Bruce and Susan Schiff. Hillside


Gabriel Almond died Oct. 12 at 97. He is survived by his wife, Hilda; sons, Laurence and Paul; and brother, Nathan. Chevra Kadisha

Gerald Bemel died Oct. 23 at 76. He is survived by his son, Kevin (Melanie); daughters, Melissa and Marla; and two grandchildren. Sholom Chapels

Lee Berman died Oct. 26 at 95. She is survived by her daughters, Barbara Orkin and Judy Fisher; grandchildren; and great-grandchildren. Sholom Chapels

Albert Blaisch died Oct. 27 at 90. He is survived by his wife, Sylvia; son, Robert; daughters, Ilene (Jay Namson) and Lois (Robert McNabb); and six grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Frances Brezner died Oct. 30 at 91. She is survived by her sons, Larry (Dominique) and Jeffrey (Sandra). Hillside

Frances Brody died Nov. 1 at 98. She is survived by her nephew, Raymond (Barbara) Alpert; and niece, Janet (Jake) Farber. Mount Sinai

Rochelle Chaplin died Oct. 25 at 66. She is survived by her brother, Sheldon (Joyce); niece, Michelle; and nephews, Max and Ben. Mount Sinai

Frank Cohen died Oct. 27 at 88. He is survived by his wife, Martha; son, Robert (Christine); and brother, Bernard. Mount Sinai

Muriel Cohen died Oct. 31 at 89. She is survived by her daughter, Judy; and son, Robert. Hillside

Laura Cohen died Oct. 26 at 91. She is survived by her daughter, Dolly (David) Goodman; son, Isaac (Mayola); four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Steven Dashowitz died Sept. 28 at 72. He is survived by his wife, Phyllis; sons, Jeffrey and Michael Dash; and grandchildren. Sholom Chapels.

Abe Englander died Oct. 12 at 91. He is survived by his son, David (Ann); daughters, Caryn (John) Bitler and Meryl Pierce; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Sholom Chapels

Hilda Flate died Oct. 19 at 99. She is survived by her son, Ronald; daughter, Marlene; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Groman

David Freeman died Oct. 30 at 92. He is survived by his wife, Esther; and daughter, Julie (Fred) Crandall. Hillside

Sidney I. Glass died Nov. 1 at 91. He is survived by his wife, Ethel; and son, Jerry. Mount Sinai

Sharen Glincher died Oct. 13 at 78. She is survived by her daughters, Debby Leve and Betsy (Mark) Lunt; and grandchildren. Hillside

Clara Goldberg died Oct. 29 at 82. She is survived by her son, Joshua (Sharon); daughter, Sima Conrad; sisters, Sarah Kam and Jenny (David) Kilberg; sisters-in-law, Rena Seffer and Roza Nass. Mount Sinai

Leon Golombek died Oct. 28 at 93. He is survived by his wife, Ruth; daughter, Sarah Feldman; and son, Hank. Hillside

Arthur Jay Goodman died Oct. 2 at 83. He is survived by his wife, Paula; and daughter, Annie. Chevra Kadisha.

Elaine Brenda Goren-Hill died Oct. 1 at 65. She is survived by her husband, Gabriel; son, Omri; daughters Danielle, Naomi and Adie; five grandchildren; and sister, Sharon. Groman

Marilyn Greenbaum died Oct. 26 at 73. She is survived by her daughter, Janet (Lew) Greenbaum-Kamanski. Hillside

Sidney H. Hechtman died Nov. 1 at 92. He is survived by his daughter, Sheri (Noel) Anenberg; son, Richard (Setsu); three grandchildren; sister, Ruth Smith; and brothers, Eddie (Serkie) and Bobby (Betty). Mount Sinai

Estelle Katz died Oct. 26 at 88. She is survived by her sons, Howard and Barry; and daughter, Linda Schwartz. Hillside

Joseph D. Kesselman died Oct. 25 at 93. He is survived by his brother, Martin. Mount Sinai

Melvin A. Kogan died Oct. 31 at 74. He is survived by his wife, Evelyn; son, Steven (Tena); daughters, Kerri (Mitch) Gilliand and Stacie (Allan) Tucker; stepdaughter, Melanie (Matt) Levin; stepson, Marc Roth; and five grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Rande Laiderman died Oct. 22 at 54. She is survived by her mother, Phyllis; and sister, Jane Kirschbaum. Malinow and Silverman

Simon Mayer Levi died Oct. 29 at 89. He is survived by his wife, Florence; son, Russell; and daughter, Maggy Diamond. Hillside

Sidney Leviton died Nov. 1 at 90. He is survived by his daughters, Myrna (Lester) Aaron, Sandra (Sherman) Waldman and Brenda (Stanley) Cleaves; and brother, Bernie. Hillside

Lillian Levy died Oct. 30 at 92. She is survived by her daughters, Marsha (Charles Gore) Kapr-Gore and Shelley (Mo) Newaz; two grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and sister, Pearl Shear. Mount Sinai

Maurice Lieberman died Oct.18 at 90. He is survived by his wife, Rose; daughters, Myra (Les) Graubard and Arlene Mahru; and four grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Paulaann H. Lyons died Nov. 1 at 68. She is survived by her husband, Robert; son, Mark (Jennifer); daughters, Elizabeth (Wayne) Shapiro and Jennifer; one grandchild; and sister, June Harvey. Mount Sinai

Samuel Magid died Oct. 27 at 96. He is survived by his son, Marc; and daughter, Barbara Berkowitz. Hillside

Rachel Meller died Oct. 31 at 86. She is survived by her sons, Sol (Susan) and Eric (Susan). Hillside

Sally Ann Mellon died Oct.24 at 83. She is survived by her husband, Larry; son, Vic (Chavee); daughters, Pam (Eliot) Bieda and Jody (Charles) Levy; and grandchildren. Sholom Chapels

Celia Michiel died Oct. 23 at 92. She is survived by her daughter, Arlene Stone; two grandchildren; and brother, Ed Preston. Malinow and Silverman

Blossom Katzman Miller died Nov. 2 at 93. She is survived by her husband, Harry; sons, Peter (Melna) Katz, Barry; daughter, Sue (Frank) Marxen; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Ava Moreb died Sept. 22 at 49. She is survived by her mother, Irene Oueis; and brothers, Robert Zoulin and Philip. Sholom Chapels

Elizabeth Anne Morgan died Sept. 2 at 40. She is survived by her husband, Jack; daughter, Tabitha; son, Brett; parents, Joni and Monte Gordon; and brother, John Gordon. Hillside

Kurt Mueller died Oct. 30 at 88. He is survived by his son, Jan. Mount Sinai

Seymour Myers died Oct. 28 at 86. He is survived by his wife, Charlotte; daughter Rhonda (Klaus) Rosebrock; sons, Richard (Roberta), Russell (Della) and Robert (Lynn); eight grandchildren; brother, Sam; and sister, Marylin Barash. Sholom Chapels

Howard Oringel died Oct. 24 at 91. He is survived by his daughters, Pamela (Larry) Szabo, Bonnie (George) Chelwick and Nadine (Owen) Rogers; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Malinow and Silverman

Michael Steven Pinsky died Oct. 26 at 52. He is survived by his father, Leo; and mother, Sheila. Hillside

Shirley Rothstein died Oct. 26 at 90. She is survived by her daughter, Robyn; and brother, Louis Pagter. Mount Sinai

Harry Schatz died Oct.13 at 88. He is survived by his sons, Jack and Jerry; daughter, Janet; and grandchildren. Sholom Chapels

Herman Scherr died Oct. 30 at 89. He is survived by his wife, Frances; daughters, Marilyn (Martin) Kirschen, Carolyn (Louis) Friedkin and Annette; and five grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Helen Mae Schwimmer died Oct. 30 at 104. She is survived by her nieces, Saramae Taylor and Thelma Rosenblum. Hillside

Robert Sherman died Oct. 25 at 85. He is survived by his wife, Amelia; sons, Brad, Richard, Randall and Bryan; daughter, Deborah Day; and brothers, Howard and Donald. Hillside

Irving Smigel died Oct. 12 at 75. He is survived by his wife, Irma; and son, Mark. Sholom Chapels

Allan Solomon died Oct. 27 at 54. He is survived by wife, Julia May; father, Philip; mother, Marcella; and brother, Barry. Hillside

Myron Stein died Nov. 1 at 73. He is survived by his wife, Renee; daughter, Diane; sons, Gary and Richard; four grandchildren; and sister, Charlene Litwack. Mount Sinai

Tracy Stone died Oct. 23 at 39. She is survived by her father, Gilbert; mother, Karen; brother, Eric; and uncle, Fred Miller. Hillside

Herbert Tobman died Oct. 28 at 85. He is survived by his wife, Ann; son, David (Madelyn); daughter, Gail (Stephen) Shapiro; and four grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Rose Pomerantz Tunis died Oct. 11 at 96. She is survived by her sons, Norman and Fred; daughter, Shirley Talbot; grandchildren; and great-grandchildren. Sholom Chapels


Rhonda Lee Abrams, Community Advocate, Dies at 56

Rhonda Abrams never made a friend she didn’t keep. She was a devoted wife, mother, community advocate and confidante who served as a bridge to bring people together from various facets of her life. More than 400 of these friends and family members turned out to honor her at a memorial service at Hillside Memorial Park on Aug. 26.

Killed in an automobile accident on Interstate 5 in west Fresno County on Aug. 21, Abrams, 56, would not want to be remembered for the tragedy, her husband, Greg, 53, told the overflow crowd, but rather for the large and small joys she brought to people.

Family was the center of Abrams’ life, including sons Zachary, 22, and Jeffrey, 18. So was the Jewish community. A Woodland Hills resident, Abrams had been an active member of Jewish Federation’s Valley Alliance since 1985 and was slated to serve on the Women’s Department Campaign Board for 2009. She was also a Lion of Judah member since 2002.

“She was a great presence and will be sorely missed,” said Rhonda Seaton, Valley Alliance spokesperson.

Abrams’ commitment to the Jewish community can be traced back to the late 1970s, when, as a young woman living in Buffalo, N.Y., an early first marriage began unraveling. Feeling isolated, and having little money, she reached out to Jewish Family Service for professional help.

“The Jewish community was there for her,” her husband said. “It helped her regain her sense of self and sense of adventure.”

That sense of adventure led to California, which she had once visited and which remained a childhood dream. Without telling her parents, she drove across the country on her own in 1980. When she reached Los Angeles, she headed straight for the beach where she picked up a handful of sand and shouted in celebration.

Rhonda and Greg met in September 1981, at a social hosted by Beverly Hills residents Janet and Max Salter, providing opportunities for young Jewish professionals to meet and marry. The couple, who wed on April 28, 1983, were their first successful match. The Salters subsequently became godparents of the Abrams’ sons.

Rhonda Abrams grew up in Milton, Mass., and trained as a dental assistant. She later moved into marketing, working at Hospital Satellite Network in Los Angeles, but she always regretted not receiving a formal education. Believing that she would make an effective therapist, she participated in the Wagner Program at American Jewish University, a two-year course to train people to work as volunteers in social service capacities. She later studied hynotherapy at the Hypnosis Motivational Institute.

In addition to Valley Alliance, she was active at Temple Judea in Tarzana and Heschel Day School in Northridge.

“She touched the community,” Rabbi Don Goor said. “I never saw Rhonda when she wasn’t smiling.”

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions in Rhonda Abrams’ memory be sent to the Howard Rubenstein Memorial Trust of the Julia Ann Singer Center, an outpatient service of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, or to the Alzheimer’s Association, in honor of Rhonda’s mother.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Rhonda Abrams died Aug. 21 at 56. She is survived by her husband, Gregory; sons, Zachary and Jeffrey; brother, Steve Karoul; aunt, Marilyn Mohr; and cousin, Jeffrey Mohr. Hillside

Sara Aryeh died Aug. 18 at 87. She is survived by her son, Jamshid; daughters, Sima and Roza; and seven grandchildren. Chevra Kadisha

Nancy Brodsky died Aug. 20 at 54.She is survived by her husband, Robert; and sons, Mickey and Jake. Mount Sinai

Donald Dubin died Aug. 18 at 81. He is survived by his wife, Judith; daughter Deidre (Alan) Waxman; son, James (Rose); stepsons, Henry (Jessica) and Randy Steingieser; and three grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Judith Shirley Feld died Aug. 21 at 84. She is survived by her daughters, Dale Sills, Robin Feld, Georgiana Nygaard and Blythe Smiley. Hillside

Nelly Fiss died Aug. 19 at 79. She is survived by her husband, Maurice; sons, Andre (Wilhemina) and Sylvan; and four grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Dora Franen died Aug. 15 at 81. She is survived by her husband, Samuel; son, Henry (Valerie) Poltorak; daughter, Rachel (Barry) Steingard; four grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and sister, Regina Bendler. Mount Sinai

Florence Freedman died Aug. 21 at 92. She is survived by her husband, Raymond; daughters, Kate Levy, Marcia Weinberger, Judith (Allan) Whitman, and Randi; seven grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and sister, Zelda Vogel Silver . Groman

Leon Goldberg died Aug. 20 at 83.He is survived by his wife, Bertha; sons, Mark (Molly) and Bruce (Joy); daughters, Ronnie (Craig) Robbins and Vicki (Richard) Moorigian; eight grandchildren; brother, Martin (Harlee); and niece, Laurie. Mount Sinai

Marion Alexandra Golenternek died Aug. 22 at 92. She is survived by her sons, Martin (Rebecca) and Richard (Susan) Cohn. Hillside

Howard Green died Aug. 21 at 76. He is survived by his wife, Georgette; and sons, Marc and Lawrence. Groman

Lillian Isaacson died Aug. 22 at 91. She is survived by her daughter, Natalie (Paul) Reich; and three grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Annalee Rose Kaplan died Aug. 15 at 73. She is survived by her husband, Jack ; son, Mark (Lorelie Beth); granddaughter, Jennifer; and sister, Miriam (Elias) Liberman. Mount Sinai

Dorothy Heller Kory died Aug. 13 at 89. She is survived by her daughters, Maureen and Patricia. Home of Peace

Alice Leonstini died Aug. 21 at 90. She is survived by her daughters, Marcella Mitilneos and Stella. Hillside

Gerald Lushing died Aug. 17 at 78. He is survived by his wife, Gloria; daughters, Nancy (Robert) Dean and Linda (Howie) Greller; sons, Glenn (Carin) Freeman and Michael; and 12 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Alex Marcus died Aug. 19 at 89. He is survived by his wife, Ida; son, Paul (Joy); three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Eleanor Mendel died Aug. 19 at 93. She is survived by her son, Jerry; daughter, Elaine; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Groman

Ed Meripol died Aug. 20 at 94. He is survived by his sons, Anthony (Stephanie) and Ronald (Martha); brother, Robert; and sister, Ethel Rothstein. Hillside

Diane Mintz died Aug. 20 at 93. She is survived by her sons, Melvyn and Sidney; four grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and sisters, Betty and Mildred.

Harry Naiman died Aug. 21 at the age of 94. He is survived by his daughters, Joan (Jerry) Browner, Sandra (Kent) Sullivan and Ellen (Robert) Tye; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Amy Roberts Padwa died Aug. 15 at 99. She is survived by her daughters, Sandy (Dr. Robert) Small and Rheda (Robert) Harris; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Philip Saffman died Aug. 17 at 77. He is survived by his wife, Ruth; daughters, Louise (Michael Burns) Wannier and Emma (Wayne Sossin); son, Mark (Darya); brother, Simeon (Hilary); and eight grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Gertrude Sladnick died Aug. 17 at 95. She is survived by her husband, George; daughters, Terrie and Carolyne; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Groman

May Rose Taylor died Aug. 18 at 88. She is survived by her husband, Sam; son, Barry; daughter, Cheryl; and grandson, David. Hillside

Albert Valensi died Aug. 18 at 72. He is survived by his wife, Penina; and sons, Joshua and Adam. Hillside

Doris Wecker died Aug. 16 at 74. She is survived by her son, Mark (Lauren); and brother, Saul Yellin. Eden Memorial

Martha Zins died Aug. 15 at 87. She is survived by her daughters, Helene (Michael) Miller and Shelley Middleton; and four grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Mom’s final resting places — a cremation story

If you are offended either by the idea of cremation or humor about the dead, you may want to stop reading. It's OK.

Maybe you weren't raised (as I was) by a woman who had no short-term memory for several years before she died, but retained a sharp and sick sense of humor — including about her death.

Mom passed away June 13, 2006.

Over the years, Mom made sure my sister Sue and I knew that she didn't want to be kept alive by artificial means or buried in a casket.

“Make sure I'm cremated,” she'd say.

And then the three of us would brainstorm about where to scatter her ashes. We'd get silly and think of ridiculous places and we'd laugh together, not completely accepting the reality of Mom someday being gone.

Mom was, indeed, cremated, and the company that did so divided her ashes into two urns, so that Sue could have Mom there, in North Carolina, and I could have Mom here.

I was going to visit Sue in a few months, so I just took her share of the ashes with me. Although the plane was delayed and the suitcase with Mom's urn almost didn't make it, I finally handed my sister her share of our mother's remains. I think the container is still in Sue's closet, along with the ashes of five beloved dogs.

Back home, I thought about scattering Mom's ashes along a trail where I hike regularly, thinking that she would have loved the trees. My hiking friends and I laughed about attaching bags of the ashes inside our pants' legs and slowly letting the dust pour out while we hiked, hoping not to be caught performing this illegal act.

Although I always thought it was odd when people selected a cemetery plot, saying, “Oh, Grandma will love the view from here,” once my mother died, I understood the idea of finding a place she would enjoy. None of my ideas for Mom's ashes seemed quite right, and they remained in the plastic urn for a year.

The following June, I was swimming laps in our pool and I thought about Mom, who was a great swimmer. I missed her. And I suddenly had an urge to talk with her.

How to start?

I just dove in, so to speak: “Mom, are you there?”

There was a pause and then I heard that familiar voice. “Ellie-bell, I've been waiting to hear from you! How are you, darling?”

Although I was definitely astonished, it also seemed completely natural to talk with my invisible mother — almost like the many years of long-distance phone calls between Ohio and California.

I kept swimming, and my mother asked her usual questions — “How's Ben?” “How are the dogs?” and “How's that lovely man of yours?”

Mom offered her consistently sound, albeit unsolicited, advice: “Don't you think Ben should….?” “Why don't you try….?” “You're not working too hard, are you?”

We laughed about her worrying.

We were silent for a few moments, and then I heard myself asking, “Where exactly are you, Mom?”

She answered immediately: “Oh, I'm every place I've ever loved!”

It's hard to describe how I felt hearing this: Relieved. Elated. Hopeful.

She apparently had something else to do, because she said we'd talk again and was gone. I felt a mixture of sadness and contentment.

That afternoon, I finally opened the urn, took out some of Mom's ashes and scattered them in my garden. Mom, who was quite the gardener, would have loved it among the pansies and geraniums, her favorite flowers.

A few months later, I was going to Ohio to visit my father with my 16-year-old son, Ben, and my boyfriend, Vince. I poured half of Mom's remaining ashes into several Ziplock bags to take with me, since Cleveland was Mom's birthplace.

My father was delighted to accompany us on our expedition to visit all of Mom's homes and leave some of her ashes at each. Dad served as tour guide, reminiscing about his family and growing up in Cleveland.

Mom's favorite home was the house where Sue and I had spent many happy hours and nights, visiting my grandparents. The home sat on a tiny lake where my mother skated in the winter and canoed in the summer. I recalled Mom's favorite story about canoeing there with a boyfriend when she was 16: the canoe suddenly tipped over, the young man swam for his life to the shore, and Mom stood up in knee-deep water and pulled the canoe in. Mom couldn't get through the story, even in later years, without laughing hysterically.

Dad showed us where, in 1943, he and my mother had their first home — a tiny shack in the woods. Dad barely had time to build a shower, before leaving to serve in the army.

Our last stop was the house where I'd lived until I was 9, when my parents divorced. In that driveway, Mom had used a shovel to remove snow piled on top of her Chevy convertible. We couldn't use the car for the rest of the winter because of the rip she made in the soft-top roof.

The day was wonderful — showing Ben where I grew up, recalling my own childhood and listening to Dad's stories. It was also another chance to remember and celebrate my mother as I left her ashes in gardens and curbside lawns.

My mother's favorite place in the world was Italy. After her first visit there in 1964, she surrounded herself with all things Italian — playing the operas over and over, taking Italian lessons and arranging for an Italian exchange student.

As it happened, last October, Vince and I went to Italy. And Mom went with us.

We stayed in Rome for five days, and at the Forum, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, I had a little conversation with Mom about the sights and deposited some of her ashes.

We rented a car and drove to Assisi, one of Mom's favorite Italian cities. She always had a statue of Saint Francis in her garden, to protect the birds and squirrels — and now Saint Francis has Mom's ashes in the garden outside his church.

Our last stop was Venice, which Mom adored. Near the apartment we rented, I sat on a tiny dock overlooking the Grand Canal. I thought about my mother, about her singing — loudly and off-key– “La Donna e Mobile” from “Rigoletto.” I watched the gondolas go by, and thought also about our very complex relationship — the love, the challenges, the laughter, and the years when our roles were reversed, as she became more dependent and less aware of the world around her. She still remembered me, thank goodness, and still loved Italian operas.

Then I took out the last bag of my mother's remains, turned it upside down between the wooden planks, and let the ashes fall to the water below. I sat for a moment, just breathing, listening to the birds, and looking out over the water, thinking about Mom.

Suddenly, from under the dock, came a large gray film of ash, floating on top of the water, out into the canal, alarmingly visible against the dark water.

I held my breath, waiting for someone to notice how I'd polluted the Grand Canal with the last of my dear mother.

Then a gondola approached the gray film, and the singing gondolier, eyes focused on his passengers and vice versa, scattered my mother's ashes to the fish below.

And my mother was, indeed, in all of the places she most loved.

Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, founder of Living Legacies, at, and president of the nonprofit Living Legacies Historical Foundation. She can be reached at