A little Russian with your chanting?

My grandmother wanted a hymn, the Song of Simeon the God-Bearer, to be sung at her burial by an all-male choir. When she told my uncle of this wish a few years back, he pointed out that in the Russian Orthodox Christian tradition, we do not sing hymns next to the casket, something my grandmother was well aware of. That ended the conversation.

Until, last week, when my uncle saw that she put the request in her will. #LOL

If that isn’t the perfect example of a pragmatic Russian Baboushka, I dunno what is.

But wait, you say. Isn’t that a rather risky request? It can’t be that easy to find an all-male choir that is available on short-notice to sing a hymn they may or may not know on a Tuesday mid-afternoon at a funeral. What about the cost? What if it just can’t be done. What a burden to impose on her children, the risk an unfulfilled request. How could she?!

Because she was Russian. Music is in our blood. All it takes at any Russian gathering is a few shots of vodka and copious amounts of wine, and heyooooo the singing starts. And that’s exactly what happened here. The night before the funeral, my father and my uncle and their cousin practiced the hymn a handful of times. No sweat.

It was a beautiful moment, the next day, at the funeral.

My father (left), my uncle (right), their cousin (middle). It’s a 4 part melody, so they adlibbed and improvised à trois. #nailedit.


My grandmother died on June 30th, 2018. She was 97.

It’s rather incredible, when you think about it. She was born 4 years after the Russian revolution, part of the massive exodus of Russians who fled and found security in France. She lived through WWII in Occupied France. She met my grandfather in Paris right after the war. The first time he saw her at a party, he told his cousin, “that’s the woman I am going to marry” and a few weeks later, he did. They had 3 boys together in 4 years, and in 1952, moved to North America, first to Long Island, NY and then after my grandfather retired, back to Ottawa, Canada.

  • She lived through the Kennedy years, and his assassination;
  • She lived through MLK; she saw the civil rights movement live;
  • She was in the USA when birth control was approved and feminism was born;
  • She lived through the Vietnam war, and the social turmoil it caused;
  • She was in the States when NASA put a man on the moon.
  • She was in Canada during the years when the first Trudeau was in power;
  • She maintained correspondence with her family in Russia throughout the Cold War;
  • She lived and visited Europe before it was the EU;
  • She lived most of her life in a world where internet did not yet exist – she wrote hand-written letters her whole life;
  • She never owned a cell-phone;
  • She never drove a car;
  • She could knit the most fantastic intricate outfits, masterpieces really;
  • Her husband was a proto-deacon, and her son, my father, became a priest, but her knowledge of liturgy and canon law was extensive without being academic;
  • She buried her brother, sister-in-law, husband and two of her daughters-in-law;
  • She met her great-grandchildren.

That’s a life.


I love this video so much. I’ve watched it possibly a hundred times. I’m so happy my uncle’s wife recognized the value of those moments and filmed them with her ipad.

Is it perfect? No.

Are they the best vocalists out there? No.

Is it sleek and professional and high def? No.

But is it it’s own form of beautiful and good? Yes. I posted it on my personal Facebook page. 89 likes. 5 shares. 1.4K views. 44 comments. People responded to this video. Friends and coworkers that are not of Russian descent, have never met my family, have no personal bias whatsoever that could cause them to react more favorably than warranted, wrote to me to say how lovely they found it.

It made me realize. Sometimes, I take certain aspects of my family and myself for granted. It is not everyone that can whip up on such short notice a nice rendition of a hymn to be performed publicly. This capacity to be the music is a talent and should be appreciated, even if the only form of expression it ever takes is in songs sung at family gatherings. It is not the size and scope of its impact that determines it’s goodness. It is that it is.

This made me question how I view myself. I often believe that because my blog has not achieved success or widespread readership, my writing is nothing special. But that is not true – I have a voice, and my voice does matter; it is better that I speak it than I remain silent. I definitely believe that because my dancing is not as good as so many others that I see around me and on the web, that it is worthless. But that is also not true. When I dance, truly, for myself, I radiate joy, and joy makes the world a happier place. It doesn’t matter that the rays of my joy only impact my partner at the moment and whoever happens to notice us on the dancefloor. What matters is that there was a moment of joy.

Joy is a form of beauty.

And beauty can save the world.

I think it is time I start searching for the little beauties in this world, in myself and those around me.


I wonder if my grandmother realized what the legacy of her will would be. #wisdom

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2 comments

  1. Oh, this is so beautiful! There’s a special place in my heart for slavonic sacred music given that my university choir director was of Ukrainian descent and loved teaching us the sacred choral music of Bortniansky and Rachmaninoff (go listen to his All-Night Vigil from beginning to end if you haven’t already https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2NSfTXjEPI). But, you are right, there is something even more special about music sung in this intimate moments, outside the concert hall or church, sung with heart and really *for* each other. I am glad your grandmother insisted on having this piece sung by her casket. Thank you for sharing… and yes, so much ^^THIS^^ to what you say about how it matters less how many people are exposed to your art… but what matters is how much it can potentially even touch one of those people (and that person can be yourself!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. She had a purpose in life – to make sure that sacred and traditional knowledge was not lost or forgotten… I think she can say: “job done!”. And even if these things do not play such an important role in the world today…well, they are not forgotten and every life she touched carries this embedded knowledge that erupts when the conditions are fertile. Her legacy? You and your generation cannot but be moved by what she upheld. And such is the way Russians have always survived every upheaval that ever beset them from prehistory to you…. More power to you…

    Like

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