Ashes, Ashes (a short story)
August 12, 2013 § 2 Comments
“Mikey, I want you to write me a story about Grandma’s ashes.”
I sighed at the demand. As someone who enjoys capturing the random, unrehearsed oddities of everyday life through the written word, I don’t really know how to handle requests.
The request in particular was a shocker, given that it had come from my mother. After all, this was the same woman who stopped talking to me for a full month after I let her read one of my stories that was based on our family. Something to do with how my childhood observations of my parents’ styles of parenting were false representations of reality…
“What about her ashes?” I asked.
“We’re going to scatter them into the lake.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, rubbing at my chin. “She’s only been dead for ten years.”
My mom struck down my sarcasm with a scoff.
“Well you’re home now and it feels like it’s the right time.”
I gently reminded my mother that I had in fact been home ten years earlier. My grandmother died about two months after I graduated from high school. My grandma had been there, watching proudly with her black Chihuahua tucked in her tote bag as I gave the class salutatorian speech. I recall attempting to be philosophical while summarizing the high school experience using nothing but movie titles. That August, my family and I went on vacation to Bermuda, and while there I bought a castle for my castle-loving grandmother made out of Bermuda’s famous pink sand. When I returned home, there was no one to give the castle to, since my grandmother had died in the interim. After days of hearing nothing from my grandma, my mom, older brother, and uncle decided to visit her house in Parsippany. The doors were locked and the keys my mom had been given years ago no longer worked. They called the police, who broke down the door and found my grandma’s body on the floor, naked and already decomposing.
After my grandmother’s wake and cremation, her ashes found an unpoetic home. Not the mountains surrounding Seattle, a city she often reflected upon with wonder. Not Lake Hopatcong, where she would spend many a Sunday with my family on her pontoon, Whiplash Willy. Not in the woods of New Jersey, the state she lived in for the entirety of her 69 years of life. No – instead, my mom stashed away the ashes in the corner of our garage, which smelled perpetually of soot and spilled gasoline. And there they remained for an entire decade.
It wasn’t until I returned home from Latin America for an annual summer visit that my mom finally decided it was time to do the deed and scatter the ashes. It hadn’t been my first summertime visit during those ten years by any means, but my mom operated on the same sort of mom logic that only ever made sense to her.
Though the spreading of my grandmother’s ashes was long overdue, it was obvious that my mother had given a great deal of thought into how it was going to be done. She had been talking about scattering them on Lake Parsippany, where she grew up, at different points throughout the decade. But words had never manifested into action. We should never became we did, and we remained with my grandmother’s ashes at arm’s length. With each day that passed, the ashes grew more distanced in the undusted warehouse of our collective memories.
My mom never got along with my grandmother, who was a difficult person by any measure of the word. Grandma June, as we called her, had named my mom Leah Rose after the ugly sister of the beautiful Rachel in the Bible, a fact she was happy to remind my mother of throughout her childhood. Leah spent her early years thinking she was the least attractive creature in all existence.
June was no caregiver, feeding my mom and her brother a homemade recipe of canned tuna mixed with canned cream of mushroom soup, which she would then pour over white bread. That was if they were lucky enough to receive food at all. To this day, the fishy smell of canned tuna still causes my mom to retch.
When no one else would clean the house, my mother tried to little avail. My grandmother was a hoarder who refused to hang clothes or put objects in their proper places. My mom sought asylum in the homes of her aunts, who felt bad for the poor, dirty, and hungry Leah and would offer her food more out of the kind of pity one might offer a homeless child than love.
As Leah grew up, she blossomed into a gorgeous young woman. Voted best eyes (green), best smile (never wore braces), and most beautiful (bell bottoms, long hair parted at the center), she was the object of desire for many of her male peers. Grandma June resented the fact that her daughter, who was supposed to be the epitome of ugly, ended up turning out to be the opposite. Her disdain was rivaled, if not surpassed, by Leah’s, and the two were destined to never resolve their differences. Soon after she graduated high school, my mother took off from New Jersey to live out her twenties in Hawaii. There she worked in tourism, modeling, and hula dancing, a skill she thrived at with her thin figure and long-brown hair, the tips of which tickled at her thighs.
My grandparents traveled to Hawaii once to see my mom. My grandmother would occasionally reflect on the visit with me, telling me how a crazy artist had started stalking my mom with the hopes of painting her nude. Instead of serving as his muse, my mother had rejected the artist, which only fed his creepy obsession.
My grandma would tell the story with a hint of pride in her voice. Whether she secretly admired my mother’s beauty or was delighted with herself for having given birth to someone of muse-like attractiveness, I’m not sure. What I do know is that my grandmother never shared that story in my mom’s presence. She never said anything nice to my mom, in fact. An “I love you” was never exchanged between the two as far as I knew, perhaps because there was truly no love to be shared. My brothers and I found that odd, as we were expected to say those words on a daily basis to our parents. Our expressions of love never made it to the elder generation, however, since we were never taught to use those words with my mom’s parents. By the time my brothers and I realized what it was we were failing to say, time had made it impossible for us to utter the three simple words without inspiring incredible awkwardness.
Despite what we said or didn’t say, my brothers and I did love our grandmother. We’d see both grandparents every Sunday without fail. They’d drop by the house, normally to take us on day trips to rodeos, flea markets, museums, boat shows, and parks. Every weekend was a different adventure, and every weekend my brothers and I would do something to mess it up. Once we broke the windows of my grandma’s Lincoln Towncar by pressing the buttons too many times. On another occasion, we embarrassed my grandmother when the three of us pestered a cashier at the supermarket to tell us why she was so fat.
Our fighting was relentless, and there was rarely, if ever, a time that my brothers and I were happy to be in each other’s presence. Sometimes my grandparents would drop us off at our home exhausted and angered, my grandmother yelling things like, “I’m never doing that again!” or “They were monsters!” But sure enough, my grandparents would come around the following Sunday to do it all over again.
My brothers and I tamed with age, which made us slightly more pleasant to be around when we weren’t busy being surly or angsty. Before my grandfather died of emphysema, my grandparents would accompany us to most of our sporting events. Even after my grandfather died, Grandma June remained our number one supporter. She was a ferocious fan whose trucker mouth was beyond her or anyone else’s control. Frequent were the times when umpires would threaten to kick the screaming and cussing old lady off of the field. Unwilling to back down from a fight, my grandmother would tear down any opponent with words until she got her way.
Grandma June spent the majority of her nights as a widow tracking my brothers and me. One night she’d be at my older brother Matt’s football game. Then she’d be at my marching band competition (God help her). Then she’d be at my younger brother Mark’s football game. She’d watch me at a jazz concert. Matt wrestling. Mark playing baseball. Me attempting (and failing utterly) to play tennis. By day she was an engineer and by night she was an uber-grandma, keeping tally of our victories and cursing out the opponents who contributed to our losses. One of her favorite pastimes was collecting local newspaper articles that featured us, sharing any news of our successes with her friends, colleagues, and sometimes perfect strangers.
Talking about our achievements, particularly my brothers’ athletic ones, would inspire my grandmother to reflect on her glory days as her school’s softball star. As an old lady, my stout grandma wasn’t the healthiest person in all the land, and she treated exercise as a foreign concept. Her idea of eating healthy was French fries (as potatoes contained an enzyme that no other food did, she’d often remind us) and coleslaw (given the numerous health benefits of cabbage, which may or may not have been negated by excessive globs of Mayonnaise). My grandma suffered from Type II diabetes and was in and out of the hospital a few times, once after having acquired a flesh eating disease. After she survived that ordeal, we were all certain that she’d find a way to outlive breast cancer once she had been diagnosed.
I was often amazed by how my grandma would find ways to use her various illnesses to her benefit. Each time she saw an opportunity to purchase, utilize, and show off a whole new set of hoardable items. After hip surgery, which left my grandmother’s hip feeling as good as new, she refused to take down the handicapped parking permit from her rearview window. For her, handicapped parking was an indefatigable right, even more precious than voting. Regardless of the circumstances, she refused to get out of the car unless she could park it over the image of a stick-figured man in a wheelchair. To further ease her walking, she purchased a series of canes with handles that were formed in the shapes of different animal heads. Her favorite was the whippet since few, if any, people knew what a whippet was. The motor scooter was the climax of my grandmother’s efforts to stop walking altogether, which she would assemble upon exiting her new, and massive, Lincoln Navigator. Once finished, she would sit in the scooter, Chihuahua in one hand, whippet stick in the other. It was her mobile throne.
My grandma’s fascination for things didn’t stop there. She was absolutely obsessed with computers, instruction manuals, and technological gadgets of all sorts. Somehow this fascination skipped a generation. My mom was one of the most computer illiterate people I knew, deliberately avoiding anything technological since she associated it all with my grandmother. My mother would never be caught dead with a clunky camera in her hand or an enormous leather pocket book on her arm, and she walked almost daily to make sure she would never acquire her mother’s heavy figure. If she was destined to be anything, it was not her mother.
Sometimes I didn’t understand why it was that my mother could remain so angry with Grandma June. My grandma went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to grandparenting, which my mom said was the complete opposite of her parenting style. Take gift-giving, for instance. Getting gifts for any of her grandchildren was a well-thought task for my grandma that involved finding what was absolutely perfect for each one of us. She never wasted her time buying me things like football jerseys or autographs of famous athletes. Instead, she’d get me things like art supplies, calligraphy pens, and Native American bead-making sets, always making me promise that I would create something for her with whatever I received.
Grandma June didn’t seek out gifts for her daughter the way she did for her grandchildren. If my grandmother ever splurged on a gift for my mom, she would do so with the singular goal of generating conflict. One example was the costly birthday gift of amethyst earrings – my mom’s birthstone. To any outside observer, the gift was an extremely generous offering from mother to daughter. But anyone who knew my mom, my grandmother included, was aware of how much she hated amethyst in all of its forms. My father had learned long ago that if he was ever going to buy my mother jewelry, amethyst was to be avoided at all costs.
My grandma, on the other hand, claimed to have never gotten the memo.
“I guess I won’t be buying you jewelry ever again,” was my grandmother’s response to the very ungratefulness she helped provoke.
Then there was the time that my parents painted the family room brownish peach. At the time I had no idea why they had chosen the color. It was undoubtedly ugly, so much so that I figured it must have been the only paint they had left at the store. But I wasn’t prepared to vocalize my opinion the way my grandmother did the moment she stepped into the room.
“WHO PICKED THAT DISGUSTING COLOR?”
My mom stood her ground, defending the “earthy peach” that she sacrificed a day painting onto the walls of the room that served as the center of our family activity. It took the intervention of my father and his thunderous wrestler’s voice to quell the ensuing dispute. He answered my grandma the way he might to Macho Man or the Undertaker, booming that the color, ugly or not, was there to stay.
Another silent feud initiated the day my grandma found out that she would have to pay for her wash, haircut, and blow dry at my mom’s new hair salon business. Naturally, she assumed that the procedures would come as a courtesy to the woman who had brought her daughter into the world.
“No,” my mother told her. “You have to pay full price.”
Grandma June remained an occasional customer, albeit an embittered one. That was until the day her stylist left to work at another salon about an hour’s drive away. Instead of switching to someone else, my grandmother followed the old stylist, preferring the out-of-the-way drive to letting my mother think that she had been loyal to the business the entire time.
Of course the stories go deeper. My mother never detailed all of them, but I always imagined theirs being a sort of Cinderella and evil stepmother type relationship. Leah do this! Leah to that! Leah, you can’t go to the ball – you’re too ugly! You’ll never become anything, Leah, because you’re absolutely worthless!
But, like Cinderella, Leah eventually did become something. She was a hard-worker, beautiful, and an adventurer. Plus, she met her Prince Charming – in this case a WWF professional wrestler. She became wealthier than she had ever imagined. She had three children, two dogs, a large mountain home in northern New Jersey, another home in Pennsylvania, and lots of shoes (though none of them glass, to my disappointment). Eventually, she opened her own business, despite the odds and never having gone to college.
In this tale, however, the evil stepmother decided to hang around, condemning Cinderella to weekly Sunday visits just to make sure that the beautiful princess still knew who was in control. My mom never shut the door in my grandmother’s face, even though we had never been invited once to my grandmother’s house, which was just a thirty-five minute drive away. We were fine with that. Our door was always open. In fact, my grandma had her own key and would come and go whenever she pleased.
I don’t think my mom was as sad when my grandmother died as overwhelmed and frustrated by my grandmother’s parting gift – the home that we had never been allowed to enter. The house was no longer a home, per se, but a shelter of junk where the layers of trash were stacked by generation. Newspapers, articles, magazines, correspondence, clippings, technology, and photos from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s could be found piled on top of each other in chronological heaps. The collective piles reached the ceiling. There was only a narrow trail that ran from the front door to the kitchen and another that led to the bedroom. Buried in the mass of waste were insulin needles, books, antiques, relics, 1950s Barbie dolls, coin collections, clothes, bags, papers, instruments, and so much more.
My mom was in charge of clearing the house and selling it, which was necessary to pay off what we discovered to be an assortment of unpaid credit card bills. My mom did this by renting a gigantic dumpster and organizing a cleaning committee with family members. The dumpster had to be filled to the brim at least twenty times before the home could be deemed clean. Then she had to worry about clearing out the smells, ripping out the carpets, and scrubbing down the surfaces several times over. Miraculously, my mother was able to sell the home within a few weeks. The money covered the remaining debt and left a few thousand dollars to spare.
Though the process of cleaning the house was smelly and repulsive in almost every way, it was somehow cathartic for my mom. That last task meant that she’d finally be rid of it all – the pain, the turmoil, the stagnating emotions. Some of the discoveries reminded her of her youth. She stumbled upon an old bulletin board that she hadn’t seen since high school. On it were photos of her and her friends, as well as several magazine cut outs of Joe Namath. Apparently she had a thing for burly athletes even then.
My mom would drive me to Parsippany every now and then during my visits back home. We’d pass my grandmother’s house, newly repainted and with fresh landscaping. It’s one of those non-descript homes that one tends to drive by without realizing it. I always have trouble identifying it, but not my mom. I can’t help but wonder what she thinks when we do. Each time she seems shocked by the idea that the structure is still standing.
More of a home to my mother than that house was Lake Parsippany. My mother’s version of the Ganges, the lake was a holy place where she went to get away from it all. It was where she screamed and laughed as a young girl, playing unsupervised with the neighborhood kids. It was where her skin would bronze during the summer months, by happenstance as a child but with intent during her teenage years. In high school, she and her friends would drive around the lake, drinking beers. They’d get stopped by the police, who never gave tickets but would tell them to go home. Over the years, the lake was the oasis that distanced my mother from her reality. Her father’s alcoholism. Her mother’s illnesses. Her future uncertainty.
But she eventually left it, and my grandmother remained. Perhaps that was why it took my mom so long to return to sacrifice her mother’s ashes. Doing so would mean confronting the past in a way that she wasn’t ready to do, while forever connecting her mother to a once sacred place.
The day it came to deposit the ashes, my mother and I found ourselves on the doorstep of Albert Fernini, one of her childhood friends. My mom had bumped into Albert, who still lives on Lake Parsippany, at a car show in Roxbury. When the deceased Grandma June came up in conversation, my mom told Albert that she was thinking about dropping the ashes in the lake. Albert offered his rowboat faster than he could blink.
“Just call me whenever you want, Leah,” he had said. “I’ll have it ready.”
I had heard Albert’s name mentioned on a few occasions over the years. A son of the wrestler Angelo Savoldi (real name: Mario Ferinini), Albert also knew what it like to grow up with a father who beat up other people for a living and who went by two names. It was in the Fernini household that my parents had their first dinner date, since the Ferninis also happened to be friends of my dad. Had it not been for the Ferininis’ approval, my mom might have never married my father, and I might have never ended up on the Albert’s doorstep.
“Poor Albert,” my mother told me as we waited. “I’ve heard he’s not doing well. He’s in a lot of pain.”
Albert’s wife Lynn was the first to welcome us. She was a gentle-seeming woman with thin glasses, a blondish-gray bob, and a golden, New Jersey tan. She and my mother embraced, each one complimenting the other’s appearance with a “You look so good.” The statements, while genuine, translated into something subtler for these women of middle age. “Time has let you off well,” they seemed to be saying.
The same was not true for Albert. Albert was a gray-haired man with a hunching spine and leathery skin who appeared to be at least fifteen years older than my mom. I was shocked when my mother told me later on that he was actually a few years younger. While time had taken its toll on Albert’s appearance, the way something like a World War or several years stranded at sea might, what affected him most was what we couldn’t see. All of Albert’s joints had been infiltrated by unrelenting arthritis. A gas station owner who was used to doing things on his own, he was no longer able to use his hands or fingers for much of anything. Each step he took was an excruciating attack to his ankles, knees, hips, and spine, which was why he now spent most of his days bedridden. Despite the pain, he wanted to see Leah in person.
They talked about old memories and friends. Who was alive and who was dead. The list of the dead seemed to be longer than my mother had imagined. If her life were The Hunger Games, she’d be nearing victory, given all of the childhood friends who had fallen. Victims of cancers, accidents, overdoses, and other diseases.
Cindy, the jovial blonde and one of my mom’s closest childhood friends, arrived to lighten the mood. My mom had wanted Cindy there for strength, and Cindy was more than up for the challenge.
Albert pointed us to the boat. Unable to help us move it, he instructed me on how to ready it so that my mom and Cindy could enter. Apparently I was also expected to row and steer, a task that proved impossible with the two gabbing women who were reminiscing over childhood memories. After a few seconds of spinning in circles, Cindy finally decided to grab one of the oars. With her steering, we were able to make progress. My mom sat at the end of the boat in her shades and silky floral Talbots shirt, looking like a princess who was absolutely unaccustomed to physical exertion of any sort.
Laughing, Cindy and Leah reflected on the times they’d swim out to the raft after a few late-night beers. Most nights would end with food at a local diner or a party at someone’s house. My mom admitted with a coy grin that she and Cindy shared boyfriends.
“Remember Donny Bell, Leah?” Cindy asked.
My mom and Cindy exchanged a playful glance.
“Leah ended up winning him, if I remember correctly,” Cindy said with a laugh. “Not that it matters any more…he’s dead now.”
“Everyone’s dying, aren’t they?” my mom asked.
Leah and Cindy continued laughing. Not at Donny Bell or the fact that they had once fought over the same boy, but at the idea that Donny’s fate would one day be theirs.
Cindy and my mom didn’t go into too much detail about their adolescent memories, thinking that my twenty seven-year-old ears weren’t ready for such knowledge. They went down the roster of those who were alive, those who were ill, and those who had ended life’s bizarre cycle. That transitioned into what they were doing to try to stay in shape.
Once we were in the middle of the lake, the time seemed right to lay down our oars and begin the ritual. Cindy started us off with a prayer, words that encouraged us to think about the loved one we were sending off. A person whose life had brushed against ours, impacting us in a profound way, however we chose to define the nature of the effect.
My mom handed me the heavy paper bag that held my grandmother’s ashes. She had adorned it with three roses that were the color of Belle’s yellow gown on Beauty and the Beast.
“You do it, Michael,” she said.
“Me?” I asked. “Are you sure?”
My mom nodded. “Grandma was the one who cut your umbilical chord. I think it’s only right.”
“She did?” Cindy asked with a gasp. “Oh my God – how appropriate!”
I couldn’t help but visualize my grandmother, who with the slight squeeze of her thumb and forefinger set me free of my mother’s womb and into the world. In comparison, allowing the remains of that very person to sink to the bottom of a large body of water isn’t nearly as rewarding of an act. Instead of being the one who gets to initiate an existence, you are the one who puts it all to an end. You tie the bow on the gift and send it off. You press the stamp on the corner of the envelope and deposit the last letter. You wipe your hands clean after a job well done and sigh, thinking, “Well wasn’t that nice?”
It had been ten years, but I still didn’t feel ready to make it end. My grandmother’s memory persists actively in my mind, and she has the odd habit of appearing in my dreams on a fairly frequent occasion. I’d love to talk to her now, after college, grad school, and over five years of having lived abroad. But talk as I might like to her ashes, they’ll never respond. If anything, they’ll just sit there, collecting dust in the corner of a garage in the least symbolic way possible.
It was time.
I lifted the paper bag onto the side of the boat. The three yellow roses were freshly picked, fully blossomed, and at the peak of their beauty. It didn’t take too much thought to understand what they represented. The imagery reminded me of what one of my grandmother’s closest friends had told my brothers and me at her funeral.
“You boys were the lights of her life.”
We knew it was true. My grandmother had spent so many years in misery, unhappy with herself, unhappy with her marriage, and unhappy with her family. Aside from work, her Chihuahua, and perhaps her motor scooter, the only happiness she ever seemed to find was with us.
I lifted the bag over the boat. The ashes felt like a lead weight, as though they were pressing to go under. I set the bag into the water. It sunk quickly with a few gurgles. I watched as the yellow flowers disappeared into the dark green depths of the lake, accompanying my grandmother’s remains to the bottom.
“Bye, June,” my mother said.
Her face didn’t go pink the way it did whenever she was sad, like it did at our high school graduations or each and every time one of my brothers or I had to leave home to get back to the real world. My mom was glowing beneath the sunlight in a way I had never seen. She had finally given her story to the lake, relieving herself of its weight and allowing the water to do what it had always done. Cure and restore.
“What a voice that June had,” Cindy said. “LEAH! LEAH!”
My mom laughed as Cindy imitated my grandmother’s Roseanne-like shriek. Even after a decade, I remembered it well. A century could pass and it would still be embedded in my memory. The idea, tragic and comical, was also reassuring.
It took me months to sit down and fulfill my mother’s request of writing this story. Despite Grandma June’s death, my burying her, and my day with my mom at Lake Parsippany, I still didn’t feel like I had enough material to tell the tale. My mother never asked me about my progress or how the draft was coming. She probably figured I had forgotten about it or just didn’t care or was too busy with my new job in Nicaragua to think about it.
The last time I visited home over Christmas, my mom brought up Grandma June in conversation – not as a reminder of what I owed her but to add one more element to the story that I had never known.
“She only ever gave me one compliment in my entire life,” my mom told me.
“What was it?” I asked.
“That I was a good mother.”
My mom said the comment as if it meant nothing. To me, it spoke everything. What my grandmother saw and admired in my mother was something that she was incapable of being. She could try to compensate for it by being the kind of super-grandmother who would curse out our nemeses or punch out umpires for the sake of her grandkids. But she could never go back in time and be the mother that my mom and her brother needed. The kind of mother who makes everything from scratch, just so her kids don’t have to dine on tuna, white bread, and preservatives. The kind of mother who refuses to bring you down with words and who tells you she loves you because she knows what it feels like to be unloved. The kind of mother who ties three roses to her mother’s memory despite it all, hoping that, somehow, a spirit will find peace in the presence of the only things that ever seemed to offer solace.
Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down