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Memories on the Shelf

I’ve been moving ashes around again. This time I transferred the makeshift altar in the front closet because David wanted to rewire the sound system in the house. The shelf that held both my mother’s and sister’s ashes had to make way for some kind of blinking box that now allows David to blare the Grateful Dead in three different rooms.

So I moved the ashes and their accoutrements: a black and white photo of my sister taken at her office on her birthday, where she is dressed up and smiling, surrounded by flowers and cake on what was to be the last birthday she spent on this earth, my mother’s glasses with the parti-colored chain I’d given her so she could keep them around her neck and not lose them as often, and her little 10-bead rosary from Rome.


I shifted the small shrine onto a shelf in a closet in my office. That one I’ll have to open more frequently than I did the hall closet, which was rarely used. When I needed to get a seldom-worn jacket or a folding chair I’d open the door and say breezily, “Hi Mom.” I knew she wouldn’t mind the irreverence.

Sometimes I feel OK about having these ashes in the house, and sometimes I worry that maybe it’s not normal, but creepy and weird. I have them not because I’m attached to them in any way, but because I don’t know what else to do with them. I should take both sets of ashes and hike up to Glacier Point or some other exquisite spot in the Sierra where I could bury them together.  But the thought of it, the weight of them in my backpack, lifting the lids from the boxes, makes me start panting in anxiety.  So I leave them in the closet.

My mother’s ashes came to their resting place in the closet without drama, although with deep grief. She’d been ill for three-and-a-half years before she died, and had made it clear that she wanted to be cremated.  When I got the call from the mortuary that her “cremains,” a term she’d no doubt loathe, were ready to be picked up, I went and got them. They were already in a serviceable wooden box, evidently included in what my husband accurately but grimly called the disposal fee. I put them on the front seat of the car, strapped the box in with the seat belt, drove home shakily, and placed them on the shelf where they stayed from 2004 until they were ousted by the Grateful Dead.

When my sister died in 1988 only six weeks after being diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, I couldn’t deal with her ashes. She’d made no funeral arrangements—who does that at age 33? When the funeral home said I could pay $100 to have the ashes stored at Trinity Cemetery until I figured out what to do with them, I gladly agreed. “Do you think we should go and get them?” my mother would ask me from time to time. I’d say yes, we should, but then we’d talk about what to do with them and neither of us could bear to go any further. Once I’d arranged to pick them up, but lost courage and never went.

Several months after my mother died, I decided that I couldn’t leave Mary’s ashes alone in Manhattan, with no one on the East Coast anymore.  It didn’t seem right even though it wasn’t as if we’d been visiting the place where her ashes were stored—I’d never gone or even seen it.

But I called the funeral home again, and spoke to Charles, the same man who had evidently noted my defection of several years before.  “You never came,” he said, in a faintly accusing tone.  “I know, I’m sorry,” I said, wondering why I was apologizing. 

I hadn’t gone because I was terrified. Not of the ashes themselves, but of the reaction I feared I’d have if I picked them up.  I pictured myself carrying them through the streets of Washington Heights, howling. 

He told me again where to go at Trinity Cemetery. I was going to D.C. for a conference, so afterward I took the train to New York, and then the #1 to 157th Street. I walked slowly and with trepidation to the cemetery, a burial place that has been there since the 1600s.

Trinity Cemetery was quiet and leafy, a surprising haven in Manhattan. In a small room, I signed a paper and a young woman brought me what looked like a paint can. I had no idea what the ashes would be in—I didn’t expect that my $100 storage fee had bought any kind of ceremonial looking urn—but the sight of the paint can jolted me. I had planned ahead by bringing a shopping bag—Macy’s, to be precise, a touch that might have pleased my sister, the inveterate shopper.

My sister had been gone 16 years by that time. It wasn’t as if the pain of losing her was fresh, but my heart still pounded violently as I put the paint can in the bag and set out from the cemetery. Some of the streets in Washington Heights are still cobblestoned, and I picked my way carefully, ambling north, not knowing exactly where I was going.

My pace was slow, almost catatonic, as if I were afraid that if I moved too fast or suddenly, I’d start screaming and crying hysterically. Maybe I should have made a big terrible public scene and spectacle—after all, this was one horrible goddamned errand.

I spotted signs for the Morris Jumel Mansion, so I followed them, even though I had no idea what or where it was. The cobblestoned streets narrowed to a little alleyway that led to what turned out to be the oldest residence in Manhattan, George Washington’s headquarters for a time. It was Monday, so the museum was closed and no one was on the grounds, which perch high over the Hudson.

I sat on a park bench outside the mansion, which looked dingy and in need of paint, and looked out over the river, waiting to calm down, and after awhile, I did.  I shed no tears.

I buried the ashes deep in my suitcase for the flight home. I’d heard that you couldn’t just carry ashes around — that some kind of permit or bureaucratic process was required. I decided to chance it and hoped the TSA wouldn’t pick my suitcase as one they were going to grovel through. They didn’t.

There were still more steps before Mary’s ashes made it to the shelf. I found an “Urns Are Us” kind of place on the Internet and ordered a wooden box. It was surprisingly pretty, birds-eye maple, varnished to a bright gleam.  But I kept it and the paint can in the Macy’s bag hidden in a laundry basket for four more months. No one knew—I hadn’t told anyone that I retrieved the ashes.

On the anniversary of Mary’s death in February that year, I decided that I couldn’t delay transferring the ashes into the box any longer. I made a small ritual of it while David was at work and Christopher was at school, lighting a candle, listening to Telemann, and placing the black and white photo of Mary on the table. I spread newspapers under the paint can and opened it fearfully.

I’d also heard that sometimes ashes contain a bit of bone or tooth.  I prayed I wouldn’t see that, because I thought I’d freak out.  But the ashes were like coarse gray sand, dense and heavy.  I used a big soupspoon to dish them out of the paint can and ladle them into the box. 

Then I wrapped the soupspoon and the empty paint can in the newspaper and stuffed all of it deep into the trashcan outside. If either my mother or sister had been there, I would have said that no one should have to sip their vichyssoise with cutlery that has been used on dead people’s remains, even if it was a beloved sister, and we would have laughed, helplessly and guiltily.

The day after I put Mary’s ashes in the wooden box and on the shelf next to our mother’s, a raging headache, blazing fever, and severe body aches flattened me for two weeks. It took another two weeks before I felt strong again. Just a virus, and no connection to the sad sequence of events? Probably. In most cultures, Mary’s circuitous, 16-year journey to her final resting place wouldn’t be considered a proper delivery into the next life. Lengthy and unconventional, the ritual had its own sacredness. 



About treacycolbert

I make my living by writing about health care. I've always written about life's chastening effect, but just as a way of sorting it out for myself. After years of doing this and keeping these essays quiet, I decided to put some of these impressions out there on this blog. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think.

8 responses »

  1. I certainly have felt some of those same torn, uncertain feelings when it came to determining the resting places for beloved family members. We combined Mom and Dad’s and as a family sprinkled them (without consent) in a spot that they enjoyed visiting on vacation. Somehow this seemed right to all of us. Can’t imagine that we would all agree on many things as easily as we did on this. Phew! With Frank, it was different because he had determined that he wanted our ashes to be combined and planted underneath a specific sculpture of his. Since I am still here :-), I needed to keep his – case closed. But of course, the “where?” Since Art played such a large role in his life, I commissioned a glass sculpture for a memorial urn. It stands as a beautiful sculpture in the house and him safely inside with no one ever to know (well, I guess except for a few :-))
    Great story.

    • Linda, I remember your parents so fondly — very fitting that you and your siblings found a place for them to be together in eternity. And honoring Frank with the commissioned piece was just right. Thanks for reading. xxoo

  2. This is such a touching, painful, beautiful piece, Treacy, it almost leaves me speechless. I guess because it is so filled with grief and love. But humor too. Yes, I can imagine your mother and sister laughing. And also being very proud of you. You’ve had to be so brave. Here’s to you, dear friend.

    • Cynthia, If we had to sum up this whole wild ride we’re all on, your phrase “filled with grief and love” would be precise. Thanks as always for your kind words.

  3. I haven’t had experience with ashes but this piece brought back all the memories of where to bury my father. Eventually he ended up under the cherry trees next to a duck pond. The tortured days of trying to decide where oh where were both hilarious and heart wrenching. I so desperately wanted him to tell me what he preferred. Your work has a way of touching chords buried deep within us my friend. I, too, can see your sister and mum delighted and proud, of your courage and grace. Love you so!

  4. cm, I hope you will write about the days before you chose the cherry blossom/duckling site. Somehow he did tell you what he wanted, I think. xxoo

  5. Moving and beautiful writing on a difficult subject. I love the ending.


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