Mother arrived by mail today. The box was less than twelve by twelve and heavier than I’d imagined. There were little knobs and hard things in it.
I called my sister. “She’s here,” I said.
“Did you open the box?”
“Did you OPEN it?”
“It’s her? You’re sure? She’s definitely dead?”
“You’ll have to see for yourself.”
She’d be home in twenty minutes. I went to the kitchen to make tea. Helen likes Earl Gray with cream and sugar. I like lemon.
Mother died on vacation in Florida. The Dade County Sheriff’s Office suggested cremations and the US Mail.
Helen arrived as I carried the tea tray to the table in the living room. She sat next to me on the couch, reached out and fingered the corrugated edges of the cardboard box. “Do you think it’s really her?”
I poured the tea. “There’s no way to tell,” I said. “But Dade County wouldn’t make a mistake like that, would they?” I added two lumps and cream to Helen’s tea. She stirred and set the cup next to mother’s box, opened the lid and peered inside. “It’s gray,” she said.
“She’s quite heavy,” I said and sipped.
“I expected more.”
Helen took her spoon and stirred the ashes. I leaned back into the couch. She lifted her spoon and soft gray talc clung to the bowl. She stirred her tea and took a sip. “Needs more sugar,” she said.
I handed her a cube and waited. She drank again.”I like her better this way,” she said.
Helen looked at me over the edge of her tea cup. “We have to decide where to put her,” she said.
“The railroad crossing at Harmon Avenue,” I said. “Where the trucks go to the dump.”
“Not bad,” Helen said.
“Fertilizer for my ficus tree,” I said.
Helen looked into the box. “There’s nothing life-giving in there. How about the river below the electric plant where the water’s warm and the fish float year round.”
“The LeBrea Tarpits,” I said.
“Isn’t that in California?” she asked.
“It might be worth the trip.”
“The Dumpster behind Chung King’s Chinese Dynasty?”
Helen smiled and said, “Lolly Poker’s bed.”
I offered Helen a cookie. She took a bite and shook crumbs into mother’s box. There was a twinkle in her eye.
Helen almost got married once to Ott Galle. He was old and she was only twenty. She had the twinkle then, but mother scared him off by saying he had to marry the oldest, if he meant to have one of her girls. Helen never blamed me.
“The privet hedge beside the Do Duck Inn where the drunks pee,” I said.
Helen popped the rest of the cookie in her mouth.
“Three Mile Island,” I said.
“I read in Time Magazine it’s been reclaimed. People are living there again.”
“Okay. How about Chernobyl?”
We sat thinking for a moment, then Helen took the box and dumped it on the carpet. “Why rush?” she said. She ground the ash in with her blue slingbacks and went to the closet for the vacuum. When she sucked the ashes off the floor we could hear the knobs and hard things pinging against the beater bar.
“That’s good enough,” I finally said. Helen’s eyes met mine. She turned off the vacuum and put it away in the closet. We finished our tea and cookies. Helen dropped mother’s obituary at the newspaper office on her way back to work. It appeared in the newspaper the following morning.
Freida ELizabeth Johnson, 78,
died in FLorida on June 14.
Survived by daughters Helen
and Grace, at home.
Private services were held.
Helen read it to me over breakfast. “We still have to empty the vacuum bag,” I said.
“Yes,” Helen said. “But now we have time to think about it.”