Cremains of the day

The mailman rings the bell so I can sign for the package. While he prepares the certified-mail forms for my John Hancock, he admits he is delighted to stop carrying this reasonably heavy, though small, packet, and that I am lucky he’s on duty, because the mailing address is wrong. Having delivered my bills and catalogs for 20 years, Jackie is my amigo. We discuss kids, cars and politics. A day without Jackie is a day when the mail arrives after 4.

Jackie and I discuss the possible contents of the package. The box is the size of a fruitcake, but heavier. The label indicates the sender was the department of cell and development biology at the university. Postage paid: $9.25. No clues there.

Does Jackie think it’s a bomb? No, he says, but please wait until he leaves before opening it.

Since I have a fresh coat of Sally Hansen on my nails, I find a letter opener. The cardboard carton unfastens easily, revealing an unimaginative, black plastic box. A sticker says it contains the remains of E.A., age 81, cremation number 20549. My mother’s ashes. Omigod. 

Needing to talk to someone, I run down the street to catch Jackie, who hasn’t passed the Cunninghams’. I tell him what he was been carrying. Omigod is his reaction, too. 

I phone my husband, two sons and two friends, all of whom express shock at the delivery system. More shock than I permit myself to feel. Their dismay nearly brings on tears, but not quite. Astonishment overtakes disbelief, which trumps sorrow. Eventually a perverse amusement triumphs over this implausible situation. 

A few weeks ago, I completed a questionnaire from the euphemistically named Humanity Gifts Registry, asking if I want the ashes back. I checked YES, not picturing how Mom might arrive.

Should the registry have asked me to pick her up? Could it have sent a messenger in a scarlet frock-coat and white gloves, riding a horse-drawn carriage? Maybe Boy Scouts playing Taps should have escorted her to my door.

But no. Just your average-run-of-the-mill mail carrier, stymied by neither rain nor snow nor Mom. According to the letter in the five-pound package, ashes are not just ashes any more. They’re called cremains. Like Craisins. Like Croissanwich. 

My mother controlled her universe in life and in death. She explicitly instructed us to donate her body to science. So the day after she died, her body returned to the U – with the stipulation that Mom’s elbows and knees not appear in the anatomy lab where my son was then a medical student. After science had its way with her, she became cremains. 

I have the box. Even though it’s a black cube of plastic, not an urn, it sits for weeks on the mantel in my home office. Not because it’s a thing of beauty, but because I can’t imagine where she belongs. I'm spending more time with Mom than ever. She was never so quiet. 

Now I have to put Mom to rest. I decide to scatter her ashes in the ocean off the New Jersey shore, one of her favorite places. Just hope the sea breeze isn’t too strong. I invite two women to join me: one of my mother’s closest friends, Helen, 91, and our favorite cousin, Selma, 74. I’m the baby. 

Although the box is hermetically sealed, I wonder what cremains look like. The department of cell and development biology doesn’t know how to open the box, but the crematorium does: “Turn it on its end and stick a knife under the flap.” Voilà! Cremains! 

The cremains are white. Bone white. Nearly as fine as the sand on the beach, with a few bigger bits. I never thought about the color or texture of cremains. If anything, I pictured the gray ash that settles on the hearth after an evening’s blaze in the fireplace. Dust to dust, right? 

“First remove the small card with your mother’s name on it,” the cremating woman says. “Put the ashes in a Zip-Loc bag. When you dump them in the ocean, dump the ashes out of the plastic bag. They’ll sink quickly.” Does that mean Mom will drown? 

“If you leave them in the bag, they won’t sink, they’ll wash up on shore. And you don’t want that.” No, I don’t. (Note to self: Buy Zip-Loc bags.)

The day of Mom’s burial at sea is sunny. We three women drive to the Shore in companionable conversation, talking about trips, menus, people. I contemplate recording appropriate music. A friend once went to a wake where the organist played “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Nah.

More than twice, Helen and Selma thank me for including them, while I am of the opinion that it is I who should thank them. They’re two little, old ladies in tennis shoes, wonderful, wise women who are helping me keep my wits. My gratitude weighs five pounds, too.

We park illegally in a handicapped spot at the end of the island, where a jetty juts out to separate the ocean from the bay, one of Mom’s favorite spots. We open the box and withdraw the plastic bag of cremains. 

We have no prayers, no poems. No tears. Just quiet memories. And a togetherness that feels right. 

While Helen waits on the sand, Selma and I lift our long skirts high and walk into the sea. I dump half the ashes into the water, Selma the other half, and somehow, holding our skirts and the plastic bag, we manage to hold hands most of the time. Because the tide is rising and we are distracted, all three of us get our feet and shoes wet.

Hugs. We sit on boulders to dry our feet. No rush. The deed is done. We drop the ashless box and bag in a trash bin, then drive to a restaurant on the bay for lunch. It’s a busy summer bar, but it’s midweek quiet. Nice. We drive home in congenial gossip. Mom’s name pops in and out of the conversation. 

If there’s any way to describe such a mission as satisfying, this is satisfying. Closure, it’s called, and it feels clean. Tidy. Positive. Mom is now where she was happiest, and I enjoyed a sunny summer day with two wonderful women who have always loved me. (Note to self: Spend more time with Helen and Selma.) 

This article appeared in Philadelphia magazine.