Cremains of the day

Philadelphia Magazine

The mailman rings the bell so I can sign for the package. While he prepares the certified-mail forms, he says 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 catalogues 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.

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 of Pennsylvania. Postage paid: $9.25.

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

With a fresh coat of Sally Hansen on my nails, I find a letter opener. The cardboard carton opens 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.

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 at the university? Could it have sent a messenger in a scarlet frock-coat and white gloves, riding a horse-drawn carriage? Maybe Boy Scouts playing Taps could 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 explained that we should donate her body to science – not to just any medical school, but to the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, her alma mater and that of 32 other members of the family (no kidding).

So the day after she died, her body returned to Penn – which warned every faculty member not to let Mom 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 simply can’t find a place to put it. Her. I’m spending more time with Mom than ever. It’s weird. She was never so quiet.

Now what? Now I have to put Mom to rest. I’ve always been anti-cemetery. Graveyards place an obligation – of visitation – upon the living without giving anything back. If you want to be close to someone after death, it makes sense to visit a place she liked while she was alive. Not a graveyard, where crying people tarry to place plastic roses.

My father died and was cremated more than 30 years ago, his ashes scattered (by someone else) in Fairmount Park. Fifteen years ago, I donated a bench in his memory. When I feel bad – or when I feel good – I sit on the bench and imagine I’m on his lap, little Susie, soothed and comforted by Daddy’s proximity. It’s a place in the park that always touches me and where I can always be with Daddy. I must find an apt domicile for Mom.

I consider sprinkling Mom around Daddy’s bench. But she remarried, so that’s out. I decide to scatter her ashes in the ocean off the New Jersey shore, one of her favorite places. She met Daddy in Atlantic City, she spent lots of time in Margate and Longport. The shore it is. Just hope the sea breeze isn’t too strong.

When the time comes to deliver Mom unto the Atlantic Ocean, I invite one of my mother’s closest friends, Helen, now 91; and my mother’s favorite cousin and mine, Selma, 74. I’m the baby.

They are delighted to participate. All my life, they’ve been part of my life. They have always made me feel cherished, wanting to know what I was up to. Now they’re surrogate mothers.

The box is hermetically sealed. The department of cell and development biology doesn’t know how to open the box, but the crematorium does. “Turn the box on its end,” says the woman at the crematorium, “and stick a knife in under the flap.” Voila! Cremains!

Omigod. 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 fire 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.)

I contemplate making an audiotape of music Mom liked. A friend once went to a wake where the organist played “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Nah.

The day of Mom’s burial at sea is sunny. We three women drive to the Shore in companionable conversation.

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 Point in Longport, 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 ashes. Sorry. 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 stop for fresh Jersey melons, peaches and tomatoes and drive home, again, in congenial gossip. Mom’s name pops into the conversation.

If there’s any way to describe such a mission as satisfying, this is a 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.)