EVERY TIME THE holidays come around I am reminded that one of these days I simply have to do something with my mother’s ashes. It’s been more than twenty years since she died. This length of stay out of the grave, or water or air, is not that startling. My father’s ashes have been in a closet at my sister’s house for more than 30 years, and though I tell myself that the right ritual will present itself, even the turn of the century came and went without inspiring an interment.
My mother was in her 40s when she displayed the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. She was carefully monitored in life and autopsied at death. The autopsy was pre-arranged, as was the transfer of the body to a crematorium in Manhattan, about three hours from where I live. I think the name of the place was Sal’s.
My mother died the day after Thanksgiving. Despite the holiday I called the crematorium and was put right through to Sal, the owner, who said all the right things: He was sorry for my loss, there was no reason to attend the cremation and that he took checks.
After the check cleared, he said, he’d send them.
“Send what?” I asked.
“In the mail,” he said. Federal Express, it seems, does not take human remains.
Sal was very convincing. More so, 10 days later, when my check bounced.
For whatever the subliminal and not-so-subliminal reasons a woman might have for bouncing a check to Sal’s Lower East Side Crematorium, it did–or rather, I should say, I did bounce it. And while I’d like to say that my bookkeeping got undone in the planning of a funeral and burial, we know that’s not true.
I overnighted a money order and apologized profusely to Sal on the phone and in writing. I said I was sorry again, over the phone, 10 days later, when the ashes still hadn’t shown up. And, in another two weeks’ time, when, still, the package hadn’t come.
Then, on Christmas Eve, the phone rang. It was the nice lady at my pint-size rural post office.
“I have a package for you,” she said cheerily.
It wasn’t surprising, considering the season. But I knew better.
“I’ll be right down,” I said.
The postmistress was wearing a Santa hat. That helped. There in her hands was a brown paper package that easily could have contained a large can of coffee. “It’s heavy,” she said, smiling.
She and I saw each other nearly every day, but she didn’t know about the death. The life my mother had wanted had been over years before and only my friends knew she had finally died.
So the postmistress stood there in her hat, displaying her best holiday cheer, a plate of cookies at her elbow, behind a counter cross-gartered with a ribbon like a big, wrapped gift. I started to sweat right about the time she put the package to her ear and started to shake it.
“I hope it’s not broken,” she said, as the contents sifted back and forth.
“Let’s see who it’s from,” I said, an octave higher than my usual speaking voice, as I gently lowered it from her ear to the counter.
Sal had been good enough to use his first and last name, and not that of his business. That was a gift.
“Ooh,” she said, “Someone in New York City. You know him?”
I eased the package from her hands into mine, and then, when it was securely against my heart, I was able to feel how to make the panic stop and allow the private cleanup work of grief to begin.
“It’s from Uncle Sal,” I said. “On my mother’s side.”
Does my mother live in New York City, too?
“No,” I said, not looking down at the box between us. “She died some time ago.”
“I’m sorry, “ she said. “What do you think it is?” she asked, beaming back at the box.
“Same thing he always sends.” I said. “Bulbs.” I gave the box a tender shake. “Packed in sand. Lovely flowers you start indoors in winter.” And I backed away from the counter, cradling the box in my arms, saying, “Happy holidays.”
From time to time I am running the copy from essays I’ve read on NPR’s All Things Considered. This is one of those.