The world is bursting with life.
She turns her big, brown eyes to the ground and composes herself.
Death is not an easy subject to talk about.
“You need to show sympathy and compassion to the families,” she says in a somber voice.
Her grave garments — black slacks, white pleated blouse, black tie and black stilettoes – are accented with a serious smile.
The bright red soles of her shoes, barely visible when she walks, offer the only relief to her sartorial grief.
Effie, young, beautiful and bubbly, is the owner of Monuments by Effie, the only retail headstone purveyor in Astoria.
It is she who helps heartbroken families tell the stories of their dearly departed in the immortal granite of the gravestone.
“Yes, it’s sad,” she says, “but I feel like I’m doing good also.”
Effie is the first to admit that she’s the last person she ever expected to work in the funeral industry.
“I had a big fear of death growing up,” she says. “But I have kind of come to ease with it being around it so much. You’re here today and gone tomorrow; I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles.”
Born and raised in the Bronx, Effie earned a degree in education at Mercy College and eagerly embarked upon a teaching career at a private Greek school in Corona.
It was the passing of her paternal grandmother and collaborating with a friend who worked for a monument maker that changed her course in life.
“When I was 17, I had a job in retail and I loved it,” she says. “I always loved working with people, and after some sales work with my friend, I started Effie.”
The first shop, which opened in 2009, is in Manhattan.
“My mother cried when I quit teaching,” she says. “My family was not excited when I started, but now I’m the go-to person they refer people to about the procedures of death.”
Effie married in 2012 (they met when she was 18, re-met when she was 32 and wed six weeks later) and as her own life changed, it shed a new light on death and dying.
The Astoria shop followed in 2014, shortly after the birth of her daughter, Valentina.
“I had been looking for the perfect spot in Astoria, where my husband is from and where I spent a lot of time with the Greek community when I was growing up,” she says. “My father-in-law encouraged me. His funeral was at Farenga, which is right across the street, and the day of his viewing the curtains were open and I saw the for-rent sign.”
The tomb-size shop is appointed with two desks, a mini-cemetery of sample headstones, and an angel who spreads his benevolent wings in welcome at the front door.
The walls are lined with blown-up photos of Effie-made monuments.
The only personal effect is the small framed wedding photo Effie has on her desk. Her husband placed it there. She keeps it turned toward her.
The stories and sobbing that she hears are laced with undying love.
Babies die shortly after birth; little boys riding bikes get run over by cars; middle-aged husbands and wives succumb suddenly to heart attacks; and seniors pass away with generations of mourners at their bedside.
Dogs and cats, eternally faithful, leave their owners alone all too soon.
“We individually design each monument,” Effie says, adding that the stones are sand-blasted in a factory in Woodside. “We work with the family to create a connection with the deceased.”
She points out a monument that memorializes a car lover; it depicts a sporty Cobra with the deceased’s first name on the license plate.
For a boxer’s grave, the headstone includes a pair of gloves, and a woman who loved Halloween is remembered with a holiday slogan on her stone.
The granite monuments, which weigh 400 to 600 pounds and rise 3 to 4 feet, sell for about $2,200. Flat stones start at $900.
“I want to offer this service at an affordable price,” she says.
Working with grieved families has made Effie, who is 36, more aware of her own mortality.
When her father-in-law died, she talked her husband into buying the in-ground crypt next to his in the St. Nicholas section of St. Michael’s cemetery.
“We have set up a headstone there,” she says. “I wanted to put our names on it and leave the dates blank, but my husband said no.”
As for her own funeral, Effie hasn’t made definite arrangements yet.
“As long as I know where I’m going to be buried, everything else they can surprise me with,” she says.
Effie, who gets orders from as far away as Pennsylvania, hopes to add a third location soon. She’s considering the Bronx, where she makes her earthly home.
She could accomplish this in a couple of years. Or a couple of decades.
Like death, it is inevitable. Only the timing is uncertain.
Nancy A. Ruhling can be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.