My mother-in-law came over for dinner the other night, even though she died two years ago. Her oldest son brought her in a small heavy box and put her on the mantel between the chess set and the wine rack. He also brought the old blue cookie jar in which she had asked that her ashes be buried, when the time came, and during dinner her children sat under the mantel talking about their mother and occasionally staring up at the box and the jar.
For a while they talked about how to divvy up their mother, if she should be divvied up at all—perhaps all the ashes should go in the jar and the jar should be buried in her husband’s grave in a thicket of fir trees near the mountain? Or should some of the ashes go in the jar, and the rest be given to each child or even grandchild? Should some of the ashes be given to an artist who makes glass vases incorporating the ashes of loved ones? If so, where would the vase stand, in the family cabin at the beach or in the house of the oldest son or in the houses of each child on a rotating basis?
I sat quietly listening to them laughing and shouting and occasionally waxing silly or suddenly not talking at all for a minute and gazing down at their wineglasses. I felt it wasn’t my place to offer an opinion, as she was not my mother, although I did object strongly to the idea that they move their mother from the box into the jar right there at the table, using an ice-cream scoop. I had no problem with using the ice-cream scoop, although we do have a whopping serving spoon that would have done the job better, but I did think there would be spillage and that perhaps the actual transfer from one vessel to another might be accomplished elsewhere, like at the cemetery in the fir trees near the mountain, for example, or at the cabin at the beach. For one thing our vacuum does not work well, and for another the dog scours the floor meticulously, and for all that my mother-in-law really liked the dog—she would feed him savories under the table in violation of all rules and regulations, and one time let him lick her wineglass when she was done—this didn’t seem like a good idea.
In the end they decided not to decide anything, and eventually they trickled away from the table one by one and went home. I did the dishes and turned the heat down and told the dog not to wake us before seven in the morning no matter what, and I went to bed. My lovely bride, her mother’s final and most glorious child, stayed up late doing I know not what. The next morning, when I shuffled into the dining room, the box and the jar were still on the mantel, but atop the box now was a lovely little wooden sculpture of a mother and child—a small gesture that made me want to cry. I liked and admired my mother-in-law for many reasons, but she was not my mother and I did not feel about her like I do about my mom, who is small and tough and wry and tender and hilarious and tart-tongued and gentle and wise and who I cannot imagine as ashes in a box. As soon as I could, I called my mom to say hey, and she told me a funny story about my dad working on his tomatoes out back that morning and discovering later that a tiny green lizard had jumped from the plants into his shirt pocket, which he discovered when he reached in there for a pen to do the crossword puzzle and out came a lizard, startled.
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