Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ashes in a Jewelry Box

My stepfather died May 6, 1990. His body was cremated. The funeral parlor gave us his ashes in a plastic zip-lock bag, safely protected by a brown paper lunch bag.

My mother put the zip-lock into a large, porcelain jewelry box she had hand painted. It was white with a gold band that clasped the lid to the base. The lid would not close tightly because the zip-lock just fit into the box, so my mother taped it closed with scotch tape, which always humored me. I never could stand it. On the lid was painted a Boucher cupid tiptoeing on one leg upon a soft, white cloud. In its outstretched hand, it gripped a burning torch, and a pale blue ribbon that wrapped round its thigh and belly, floated into the peaceful blue of the sky.

My mother never imaged that this jewelry box would one day be used for this purpose. It had been sitting on a shelf in the cedar room on the third floor with all her other porcelain waiting to be painted or used.

Standing next to my mother, my sister and I watched quietly as she slowly placed the box on the top of the baby grand. "Now when you girls practice piano, your father can enjoy you." Agh. The Little Women aspect of this sickened me a bit. To me, it was sugar coated morbidity.

It's funny, we never called him Father while he was alive. In fact we called him Doctor since we first met him, mostly because that's what he was. But even after he married my mother, the name stuck with him. It was our way of calling him Daddy and he seemed to like it. Now if any of us call him Doctor, everything grows silent. Yet what had his death changed? It was like walking around in a crazy play.

My mother wiped her hand over the top of the box as if brushing off stubborn dust. "You know, I wasn't sure, when I was painting this, if I wanted to paint the cupid's ribbon pink and make it a girl cupid, or if I should paint it blue and make it a boy cupid. But something was telling me, paint the ribbon blue, so that's what I did and now it's perfect." My sister and I smiled at my mother then looked back at the box. I did my best not to set my mother off.

"And the torch is perfect, too," my sister said, and put her hand on the edge of the piano just in front of the box. She meant this. She truly meant this. She meant the smiles. She meant all the Jesus sweet things she did and said. She had a naive pureness that I never possessed. And I played along, lest I be cast as the ungrateful, selfish one. I could not fathom the two against one, they in cahoots, I the freak show.

"Yes. Isn't this something," my mother agreed. She always told us that we shouldn't be afraid of death and that heaven was a wonderful place. "Wen you die," she said, "you don't need your body anymore. So all the problems your body had, all the pain, you are freed from. And you don't need your eyes anymore because you see in a different way." Would there still be a heaven if she weren't left with millions?

The three of us looked down at the cupid on the box for a while as if in silent prayer.

My mother let out a sigh, walked over to the opposite corner of the room, and sat down in my stepfather's chair. It was a large, tall backed, armchair, one you would find in a study, and had an Aztec pattern with deep browns, reds and greens. It had never matched with anything, but he wouldn't part with it and refused to let my mother get it reupholstered, as often times reupholstering meant the feeling and comfort of the chair changed.

She touched the pipes in the wooden pipe carousel stand that sat on one of the wooden shelves that lined the wall on both sides of the fireplace. The shelves on the left by my stepfather's chair were lined with his collection of records, most of them jazz. He had tapes, too, in open boxes on the bottom shelf next to the stereo and the record and tape players. Most of the cassettes where white with braille writing on them. They were his cassettes from the Free Matters for the Blind he received every month or so in the mail. When he was done listening to them, he would tape jazz shows onto them from the radio.

The first Thursday night of every month was family Jazz night. We'd all go into the living room after dinner and my mother would bring in my step-father's demi-tasse and sit at his feet. He would then turn on the radio or put on a record or tape. My sister and I would dance and pretend like we were the performers. This would go on and on for hours, all of us laughing, until we grew tired and called it a night.

Now my mother straightened out one of the pipes and repositioned the stand. A smile lit up her face. "Okay. Who's going to play first? Victoria? Play the piece your father liked so much."

Victoria bit her bottom lip and gave my mother a weak smile.

"Come on. Sit down."

She sat on the piano stool and swirled around a couple of times until it was the right height. I sat on the pink silk couch beside the piano and leaned on its large, rounded arm. She looked at me and smiled. I smiled back, sorry for her but trying not to show it. It seemed to me, for a brief moment, that maybe she felt the uncomfortable strangeness of it all, yet I never could be sure. Even if she did, she would have cast that feeling aside with a shiver, as though a stranger had just offered her an oily palm.

As for me, I just wanted to pick at those damnable pieces of tape that kept the box closed, maneuver its contents, and shut it with a snap. Once and for all.


Bill Zuback said...

Frieda, I really like this piece a lot. So reflective of the past but honest. I often find that with my mom, she often remembers the past so different than I since my father past away. I loved my father but I tend to see the past with the good and the bad and she only see's and hears the laughter and good times?

J A S said...

Wonderful piece- I especially love the ashes in the painted box. When next I am in York Minster, I'll take some snaps of the cherubs there for you- they are weeping. Cold, weeping, marble cherubs.

G A R R Y- a picture on my site is made from his ashes. Amazing what one can do with some paper, glue and death. :0)

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