By Sandy Gingras
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
When the funeral director hands my father’s ashes to my mother, she puts the little cardboard box into her pocketbook—the one with all the zippers and buckles. My mother says she’ll hold off on scattering the ashes until maybe the next time my brother comes down from his farm and we’re all together. Maybe we’ll scatter them in the ocean.
“But, for now,” I ask, “Where are you going to put him?”
“In my bedroom closet,” she says.
My parents never shared a bedroom. My father’s room was the converted attic, my mother’s, the converted garage. As far away as they could get from each other within the same house. Putting him in her bedroom closet seems, at once, too remote and too intimate, but I don’t say anything.
Two years pass.
My brother only visits on Christmas and Thanksgiving, which is not the right time to scatter the ashes. It’s never the right time to scatter the ashes.
It gets harder and harder for me to breathe when I think about my father being in my mother’s closet. I decide that I’m going to steal my father’s ashes, set him free. Go for it, I tell myself. So, when my mother tells me she’s going to the Acme one day, I drive to her house, let myself in. I go into her bedroom. There are all of her white button-down shirts hanging on plastic hangers. There are the pants that she still calls “dungarees.” Her dog, Duchess, pokes her nose into my mother’s lined-up shoes. I don’t see my father anywhere. “Where did she put him?” I ask Duchess. I look in the other closets, the attic, the little pantry near the laundry room, even the shed.
When my mother comes in the front door, I’m sitting at her kitchen table. She piles the plastic bags of groceries in front of me. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” she says.
“I thought it would be a good day to scatter dad’s ashes,” I say. I try to say it nonchalant. It’s a summer day, eighty degrees, sunny, the sky a little dreamy around the edges.
My mother bends to put the carton of milk in the refrigerator. “Oh,” she says, “I took care of that already.”
I watch her turn and put the box of rice into the cupboard, the bag of sunflower seeds into the snack drawer. The air is full of peaceful putting-away sounds.
“What do you mean?” I say carefully. I’m looking at a can of Le Sueur peas. I can’t stop looking at the can.
“I did it already.”
“You did it without me.” I don’t say it as a question.
“You weren’t around.”
I look out the window at Cohasset Road. This is the road that my mother drives every day, the one that twists at the end and turns into a different road.
“Where did you put him?” I say.
“That’s between your father and I,” she says, not looking at me.
That’s ridiculous, I want to tell her. There was nothing between the two of you. Nothing. I want to yell: Remember the nothingness?
Duchess wags her tail the way she does whenever my mother tenses up. Her tail whomps against my chair. She’s a big dog, a lab mix. She was my father’s dog. He was the one who walked her and threw the tennis ball for her. She still goes into my father’s room then comes back out a few times a day.
Two years ago, at my father’s funeral, my friend Robin played guitar and sang “Amazing Grace.” Robin has a voice like very soft leather. The minute she started singing, my mother, who hadn’t shown a moment of grief yet, clutched her knees and bent over and tucked herself into a ball. “Oh no,” she moaned. She hated that song. It stirred up emotion in her, and my mother liked to run her life like a cruise ship—not rocking or tipping or even swaying slightly in the chop of the sea.
Was that grief or something else? I couldn’t tell.
Robin kept strumming and singing in the Hastings Fire Department rec room where the volunteer firemen, Titty and his crew, had cooked us up trays of macaroni and cheese and chicken français, arranged the folding tables in a U, cleared off the bar and put glass vases of carnations on it. My mother stayed in a ball.
I want to be able to tell you that I reached out to my mother in that moment and touched her back or bent to her and whispered something comforting, but I didn’t. I just watched her like she was a movie—the kind of movie that you end up paying more attention to finding the kernels of popcorn that have the most butter on them than you do the movie itself.
Now, I sit in her kitchen and think of how she nursed my father through the three years after his brain operation, which went awry and left him incontinent and unable to chew food. Years where their house smelled like pee and strawberry jello. I know she was relieved when he finally died. I was too.
So, when I try to picture what she did with the ashes, the first thing I think of is, she threw him away. She put him in the garbage can under the sink with the coffee grounds, the stained paper towels, the apple cores. Then she took him out to the curb. Then, the next morning lying on her bed, she listened to the garbage truck pull up.
Forgive me, I imagine that.
But then I picture her walking to the beach on a wind-strewn fall day, her jacket hood zipped all the way up like a child. I imagine her fumbling with the cardboard box, the twist-tie baggie inside, trying to throw the ashes in an arc, but having them swirl around her instead. I picture her saying something of what she remembers from when she used to go to church. Then, “Amen.” Saying, maybe to herself, maybe to nobody, “I did the best that I could.” Then turning and walking back home.
Sometimes you’re only left with what you can imagine.
Sandy Gingras is the author and illustrator of twenty-five gift books. She designs stationery products for several companies and owns two retail stores. She lives with her husband and her golden retriever on an island six miles out to sea off the coast of New Jersey. She won the Crime Writer’s Association’s Debut Dagger Award for a mystery she wrote in 2012.
Originally appeared in NOR 17