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Adele Elliott: Ashes to ashes


Adele Elliott



My sister called this week, a rare occurrence. She had received a package containing Mother''s ashes. 


"They''re in a plastic box," Victoria told me, "I remember seeing something like it at Pier 1, maybe 10 or so years ago." What a crude container for such a complicated woman. Mother would have hated it. Then she added, "The box has a sort of rattle." 


I wonder what I expected. Should the "cremains" have been wrapped in a soft shroud? Should the box be made of something more elegant than plastic? 


I imagine a pair of her clip-on earrings clattering against the plastic walls, the sound muted by the ash. For most of her life Mother never left the house without earrings and bracelets and cigarettes. Eventually, she gave up the cigarettes. But her face was deeply etched by the wisps of smoke that had coiled around her lips and eyes for 40 years. No hiding that with rouge and red lipstick. 


Almost two years gone, now, Mother gave her body to science. That was a peculiar choice for the end of a life spent avoiding, actually shunning, the medical profession. She kept herself alive with herbs and vitamins, coffee and a wicked tongue. (Her observations could be so painful that it was easy to wonder if you heard correctly, then check your body for bloody wounds.) Odd that she would donate her actual flesh to a school for would-be doctors. 


I wonder what they learned from the remains of 80 years of life? She left sinew and wrinkles, finely-creased skin, brittle bones. I suppose her lungs were dark, her heart shriveled. 


So now "science" returns her to us, a tidy package of detritus. What do you do with a box of dust and bits of bone? Should we divide it between the three children? Should we inter the box whole? 


A burial at sea seems somehow wrong. Mother had no strong connection to rivers or oceans, or even to the Louisiana bayou country where she grew up. 


After she died, I received a box of shattered glass. My bad-boy brother had packed 100-year-old goblets in a tangle of stained linens, terry cloth, and twill. Hankies and hand towels are poor padding for the trek from Portland to Columbus. Covered wagons traveling the Oregon Trail probably had an easier time than that journey via the U.S. Postal Service. 


I''m sure his intentions were good. But the splinters pierced. It was an inheritance of debris. 


So, my sister calls, inquiring, "What do we do with mother''s ashes?" 


"Where are they, now?" I ask. 


"On her buffet. I moved it to my dining room after she died." 


"You could bury them in your back yard." 


"Too creepy." 


"Really? Our house in Gretna had an entire cemetery of dead pets in the back yard." 


"Yeah. This is different." 


"I''ll think about it and call you in a few days," I tell her. 


I''m not sure why it is alright to have human ashes on a buffet in the dining room, but "too creepy" to bury them in the yard. 


I have thought about it, and plan to call her this week. The ashes mean nothing. I will tell her to wrap them in clean linen, or bury them, or keep them on the buffet that began its life, not with our mother, but with her mother, Momo. I still have a few shards of glass and piercing memories. 


Victoria, you really should call me more often.


Adele Elliott, a New Orleans native, moved to Columbus after Hurricane Katrina.


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