I head home for a break from my vigil. My mother is in hospice and unresponsive. It is only a matter of time. Putting my key in the door the phone rings. It’s Joe. He just says my name, and I know, and I turn around and get back on the train. Forty minutes to, forty fro and in that time nothing dramatic, nothing anyone can see. Just a pebble dropped in the ocean making ripples in the waves. The earth suddenly different.
I stand at the foot of my mother’s bed. The angle of sun sets the tangle of bed sheets aglow. She lies dead still, mouth agape, waxen, all the cliches that describes a corpse. I snap her picture and put it on Facebook and later take slack for having posted it. Maybe the picture was too raw.
Five days later, on Halloween, I retrieve her ashes. She is in a box heavier than I’d imagined. The box is in a bag slung over my shoulder. It looks like any other bag except for the crematorium’s logo which is printed tastefully in gold. The streets crawl with ghosts and ghouls ready to parade, Instead of crying I am laughing at my secret package, walking to the subway carrying bones through the crowds.
Joe tells me when his time comes he wants his ashes mingled with my mother’s and sprinkled in the water near the base of the Statue of Liberty. I’ll honor his request though dumping bones in a public place without a permit is against the law. I’ll treat it as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. I’ll charter a boat and pray the skipper doesn’t mind.
Joe doesn’t consider what I might want to mark my mother’s passing. Now she has been on my bookshelf for nearly two years. She sits in her green plastic box like she sat parked in her wheelchair, wishing to be free. I think of her while cooking and writing these stories, but forget she is tucked among my books. When I remember I feel how I felt after I left home when I forgot to call on her birthday, thoughtless and rotten and for a day or two I talk to the recriminating ashes.
It took seven years before my brother-in-law was ready to relinquish my sister’s ashes. He too didn’t ask what I might want to mark her death, as if we weren’t blood, as if my voice were of no concern. I know now—holding bones too long is wrong.
The day before my mother’s memorial gathering, a month after her death, my niece and nephew and my kids were in town, and because I pushed, Paul and his second wife who was my sister’s best friend, and the rest of us trekked to the Rockaways to put my sister in the ocean. My nephew wailed as the ashes drifted through his fingers. I watched him, hoping to learn by example. I haven’t yet let myself cry.
The sun was shinning white gold and silver cold. Wind whistled and sand flew on its breath, stinging our skin. Ashes gone, we walked to my sister’s favorite bar.
When my sister was already quite sick she wanted to visit our father’s grave. We hadn’t been since we’d buried him in 1977. My half sister Lisa insisted she remembered where the headstone was but all the paths looked the same. We found the office and asked for help. The man opened a wooden drawer and pulled out a yellowed index card with my father's coordinates written in ballpoint pen. He unfolded a map with faded, illegible lines that showed us where to walk. Graveside Karen and Lisa cried. I kept my distance but then took a pencil and scrap of paper and made a rubbing of his name.
Thoughts of one death stir memories of the rest. I’m reading a stack of mourning memoirs; everyone’s grief different. One author had her mother exhumed, had the corpse cremated and flown across the country. In the last chapter she carries the ashes into the ocean. Reading her words I decide to split my mother. I’ll take half and give Joe the rest. I’ll put my half in the ocean with my sister, or maybe half my half and put the rest in my garden come spring.
On the night of my mother’s second yahrzeit I slit the golden sticker that seals the box and find I need a tool to pry off the lid. I’m burying my head in the toolbox looking for a screwdriver, praying no one catches me. I’m squirreling back to my bedroom and closing my door. I’m pouring ash into a brown paper bag, a little spills on my duvet.
On that day on the jetty in the Rockaways, I’d grabbed a handful of my sister’s bones. The feel of her stayed on my hand a long, long time. No amount of washing would take away the feeling, so I am tiptoeing down the stairs and up again with the dust broom so I don’t have to touch the ash I’ve spilled on my bed, sweeping my mother into the dustpan like so many crumbs.
I empty the pan out the window. Her tiny spilled particles are flying towards the old Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, by whose clock in the 40s she’d gauge her rush to be on time for Shabbos candle lighting. By whose clock in the 90s I’d mark time between nighttime nursings. Tonight too, the clock’s illuminated hands tick by.
On this day the air is brisk. It is Halloween. Mom is packed inside my bag next to a towel and we are grabbing coffee on our way to the 8:05 to Bay Shore and from there, a taxi to the Fire Island ferry to Ocean Beach. On the smooth crossing I’m filled with the joy I felt riding that ferry as a girl. The deck hands would leap to the dock before the boat stopped moving and tie the ropes around posts to secure us. We’d disembark and load our bags on a wagon and I was lucky and would climb atop and my mother would pull me along.
On this off season day the shops on Bayview Walk are closed, but the swings where we licked Fudgsicles at sunset on the bay are right where we left them. I am carrying my mother and we wend our way to Midway Walk, then one more block to Oceanview where wooden steps climb the dunes.
Wisps of silver cloud startle against cerulean sky. The sunshine is cold and pale. Jeep tracks furrow sand as far as one can see. At shoreline, seagulls stand on one leg facing the wind while sandpipers scurry, pecking. Shedding shoes, rolling pants cuffs, and wading mid-calf, the water is warmer than the air.
Crashing fast at random interval, gunmetal waves roar. Beached sea foam deposits pulse like beating hearts. Wind tears apart the heart and quivering pieces fly. I bend to capture this up close and a gust blows my bag, which knocks my arm, which fumbles my phone, which sinks under an incoming wave. “Fuck” I say. Maybe this is a sign to be present in these fleeting moments instead of posturing for social media. But maybe it is another sign. When I find my phone the underwater blur has been miraculously captured. Maybe my mother has rescued my phone. The phone now baptized and still working, is ready to immortalize her ashes as they wash out to sea.
With a pocketful of polished purple shells and sand between my toes I am rushing to catch the ferry; buoyant, rejuvenated, relieved. I have done the right thing. I know my mother would be happy. She was not happy for so long. She would be happy now.
My head rests against the window on the train, I am watching low warehouses speed by. The window is overlaid with reflections from inside the car; ghosts and goblins hunching over phones. My eyes drift shut.
Now I am in the station swimming against the stream of commuters dashing for rush hour trains. Now I am on the subway. Now, again, I am putting my key in the door.
The tin of Barton’s Almond Kisses forgotten on my pantry shelf jumps into focus. Of course I would see these now, my mother’s favorite special occasion chocolate and almond caramels.
I was so uncomfortable at her memorial, put off by everyone for their unconflicted testimonial. I was tongue-tied and wrestling with emotions I couldn’t name. I busied myself in the kitchen filling platters until the crowd thinned. I missed out on the Kisses. I’d taken such care to have them there. They’d been an effort to find. I had to go downtown to buy them. Weeks later after the memorial, I went downtown again and bought another tin but the proper occasion to open them never arrived.
Now I am greedily opening these stale caramels. Now I am tasting the candy and realizing it isn’t special, that it’s disappointing, that I could make these better. I can do many things my mother never did, including master caramel.
It is a crazy tiny margin of a few degrees between soft and hard that makes the candy right. Clipped to the pot the candy thermometer is difficult to read. Its numbers clouded by steam, and only a particular angle reveals the mercury rising. Maybe the thermometer isn’t accurate. Maybe you need to learn by intuition. Sugar boils furiously careening towards burnt. Added cream splatters and threatens to boil over. It is inevitable you’ll be burned, and sticky, so sticky, and that is a joy.