Local Lifestyle

Monday, Feb 10 2014 10:00 AM

HERB BENHAM: Funeral spills over, much like its guest of honor

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

In the end, she played to a full house. The small chapel at Temple Emanu-El was standing-room only, so the rabbi moved the service to the bigger, sunnier room to accommodate everyone.

Priscilla would have liked that and perhaps raised her hands over her head and clapped as she typically did to praise a performance.

Priscilla Kern Joffe, my sister-in-law Rachel's mother, died two weeks ago in San Francisco at age 86. We attended the funeral a week ago.

You go to funerals because it's San Francisco, the day is crisp and clear, you have a chance to see your family and then go to lunch in the Ferry Building and have pizza with a sweet, spicy ground-lamb topping.

You go because funerals, weddings and reunions are where families meet, talk and laugh.

You go because Priscilla's personality could fill a room but leave space for yours too. She had sparkle. Every moment was a party, and in her presence, it was party central.

Her obit could have gone long and stayed interesting. Artist, businesswoman, mother, wife, dancer, actor, tennis player and someone who never got the hang of cooking salmon.

"Born Priscilla Yvonne Kern in Clem Scott, Okla., she and her family migrated to the East Texas oilfields and settled in New London, where her father, Jack, operated his own oil exploration and drilling business."

Nineteen years ago, Priscilla attended our daughter's History Day performance in Sacramento. She hardly knew what History Day was but she supported Katie and she embraced the group's topic, "The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising."

Priscilla showed up. If she could, then we could on the day where family and friends would crowd the Congregation Emanu-El and laugh and shed tears at her life's theatrics.

"She graduated from University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Fine Arts. Priscilla was a principal performer there, and studied alongside future Broadway Hall of Famers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, who co-wrote the musical, 'The Fantasticks,' with their close friend in mind. Priscilla could "hold court" and dazzle a crowd, one of whom was her future husband to be, Gerardo."

You go because Rabbi Jonathan Singer says: "She was a wild and brave artist."

Priscilla had scores of brightly colored flat boards -- each about 10 feet long and two inches wide and a quarter inch thick -- held to her dining room wall with push pins. The boards bumped up against the ceiling and floor and were totally unstable and fell down every time you looked at them wrong.

Not infrequently, the feather-light boards would come loose and rain down on an unsuspecting dinner guest.

Derek, her son-in-law, spoke about his first meeting with her 34 years ago.

"Dad suggested I meet the woman who might become my future mother-in-law," Derek said. "When she opened the door, she looked like this (pointing to a picture on the dais of Priscilla dressed in short dancer's attire).

"If that's what Rachel was going to look like 34 years from now, I was in."A good funeral has stories, many of which you've never heard.

Her son, Joseph, told the story of the research and development for Rodell-7, a birth control device and one of the prospective products for Haverhills, the pioneering mail-order company the Joffes founded. Gerardo had a hand in creating the device. As always, they tested all of their products. Shortly thereafter, Joseph, their third child, was born and the R-7 quietly vanished from their catalog.

You go because Gerardo, her husband of 62 years, said this:

"We never fought. We kissed each other before we went to sleep at night and first thing in the morning and we slept with our arms around each other."

Not one fight in 62 years? Even if it isn't 100 percent true, it's true enough and something for the living to strive for.

You go because the obit dared to be funny and true.

"In addition, Priscilla loved to play tennis and was a longtime member of the San Francisco Tennis Club. Members will miss the weekly thrashing she gave her husband on Court Two."

You go because your brother and his wife thank you and your wife five times, saying, "You always show up for events."

You go because you want to set this example for your own children about showing up.

You go to Priscilla's house afterward and walk under her colorful boards soaring upwards, downwards and toward the Golden Gate Bridge. This was her art, her life and she dared you to enjoy it.

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