My mother’s ashes were carefully poured into several small popcorn paper bags. The bags were evenly divided into two mom-made Christmas stockings. One with the name “Mom” and a small jingle bell dangling and the other with the name “Russ” with a small jingle bell dangling. Russ was her second husband who preceded her in death. The two stockings were placed inside a cloth bag with giraffe skin material and a print of a giraffe on one side. My niece mentioned that mom would have done the same thing. Mom would triple bag the fragile stuff when she worked as a cashier.
One hundred years from now someone might dig up two jingle bells.
Right underneath the sycamore tree that my mother loved sat a three to four foot hole sixteen inches in diameter. My brother-in-law Mike prepared it earlier in the day and next to it was piled moist orange earth. The bonfire was a couple of yards away and the wind lightly sprinkled ash on us with a scent of carbon dated air. We gathered around and Margie held the weighted sack. There were eleven people circled, but I felt a much larger crowd, like when we took the “Big Picture” at family reunions.
One hundred years from now a reunion might take place around a celestial mountain lake.
I read a poem about the tree that stood over us. The sycamore stood over one hundred feet tall. My mother would often ask my sister Marge to take pictures of it. Mom requested to be placed under its shadow and embraced by its roots. I had come earlier in the day to sit under it, walk around it, and look at it from a distance. Its grandeur and uniqueness was breathtaking. Maybe in an odd sense it took my mother’s breath away. At its base there were ridges, grooves, and gray/black terrain that gives way to smooth ivory skin as it reached to the sky.My wife said to me that my mother’s skin was beautiful, even after her death.
One hundred years from now many branches will have fallen and maybe this monument of God’s artistry will be gone. Maybe this memorial will fall away from all memory.
She was in a thick Tupperware like container. Black. The black box. I thought of the NTSB. Was this the size of the unit found after an accident? If I were to plug it in would it give the reasons surrounding her death?
I reached to pull her out of the funeral home gift bag. There was no crinkly paper sticking out of the top. How heavy are ashes? The box was heavier than I imagined. The thought must have been the influence of too many movies. I remember scenes where ashes were dusted on gardens, into oceans, and over cliffs where particles spread in the breeze. It took both my hands to lift her.
In the end a full hug embrace helped her stand. I felt bones under her skin. Now she was contained. Were these the remnants of the skeletal frame which was once upon in time?
Marge asked me how I was “doing.”
The black box sat between us like a punctuation mark.
I asked Marge how she was “doing.”
She showed me the giraffe material. It was the spotty skin of a giraffe like the spots I counted on my mother’s arm. Her ashes would be poured into cloth skin. No Tupperware.
I thought of all the tears. It was a small room that couldn’t contain them. Now, a month later, I regret not sealing those drops in Tupperware. They have since evaporated. Oh, to pour them in over top of my mother’s remains. All our salt water sprinkled to help preserve her memory a bit longer.
“You have seen me tossing and turning through the night. You have collected all my tears and preserved them in your bottle! You have recorded every one in your book.” Psalm 56:8 The Living Bible.
“Sorrow, like the river, must be given vent lest it erode its bank.” Earl A. Grollman
That is all I saw in the message from my sister Marge. For a millisecond the recent events were suspended above me. My hypothalamus wrinkled. Beads of sweat started stringing together in the crease around my neck. My hormones told each other it was a false alarm before my brain kicked in. Mom is dead.
The full message read: “I picked up Mom today at Langeland Funeral Home and she is safely nestled in the living room pending her burial.” “She is” was what Marge wrote. Her remains were in an urn nestled in a “living” room. Had Marge lost it? Did she forget that mom went bye-bye to the sweet bye and bye? We all had sent my mother off with respect and honor and tears and mourning. Did she not know that my mother was not contained in a little box? Mom was outside of it. “Margie, get a grip.”
Seriously, not one of my siblings questioned her sanity. Neither did I. We all entered in to what appeared to be a delusional conversation. It was not weird, because we had a grief clause. Grief is lawless and is no respecter of persons. So my mother’s ashes were her to us. If anyone would tell us differently we would pull out our grief clause. We would either wave it in their face of insensitivity or hand it gently to their sincere concern. Those who have been under this lawless dominion would never question our break from reality. Contrary wise, they would enter in with grace and comfort. They certainly did.
If ashes had DNA, my mom’s were in a box in Marge’s living room, nestled. What an appropriate word. Nestled. It is a transitive and intransitive verb.
Transitive: comfortable position; to settle into a position that feels comfortable, warm, and safe, or to lay a part of the body in such a position.
Intransitive: be secluded; be in a sheltered or secluded place.
Thank God her ashes were not in a tray. Presumably, they were nestled near the sofa. I wondered how it would go if I had been the one to pick her up and nestle her? She would not last long. Buford the bloodhound would knock her clean off the coffee table with his bull whip tail. The kids might mistake the urn for a fish food container and feed the guppies. Someone might lift her up to dust underneath and her ashes to ashes would all fall down.
Mom and Marge, I mean neither of you any disrespect. I beg you in urn-est to forgive my adolescent imagination. Did I just write that? Sheesh!
Now I feel terrible. Terrible because I know one recent morning my sister walked past the living room to make some coffee and stopped short. She saw my mom sitting there and emotions gushed from her ducts. She thought she could keep mom in a box. Mom’s ashes might as well have been rubbed on her forehead on a Wednesday. Our Lenten grief pasted on her until Easter morning. Resurrection then is her one hope of reunion. He is risen. Marge will rise.
It is a quiet mourning. Even the words stopped their breathing. The hospice nurse kept checking her fingers. They were bluing. The fever, that was making a last ditch effort to rescue her body, broke. When I laid my hand on hers it was cooling.
My baby sister held that hand a few days ago. She and her mom agreed it was comforting and then tears. She was my mom too, but at that moment she and her were they.
“We are the you and I who were they whom we remember.” Wendell Berry
Ellen, my older sister read that aloud. It is a sentence which requires more than one reading. Its truth applies not just to Wendell’s decades love for his wife, but it applies to any long term relationship. I witnessed this truth over and over again. My siblings would all rotate around my mother’s bed and it would echo a book from younger years. “Just Me and My Mom.”
It was grace upon grace. We knew when to let another into the country chair with the cushion. We took turns to sit close enough to count the freckles on her arm. There was no positioning, no “saving a seat”, no arguing over whose turn it was to ride “shotgun”. It was grace on grace. Our mom became my mom to each of us.
Our Mom moments are tucked into the breast pocket of our hearts. No longer is there a seat close enough to catch her breath. We will “sit still” as she so often sternly said. We will sit still with each other now.
For my siblings as we process the next days, weeks, and months.