Ashes to Ashes to Brooklyn


The phone rang in my NYC classroom, and the vice principal said, “There’s a package for you downstairs in the main office.”  I thanked her, grabbed my bag, and headed out for the day.  Nobody was there at that hour, and I headed directly to the drawer that was the not-so-secret hiding place for the incoming package storage closet.  Before I got to the key, I saw the box on the counter.  My first thought was, “Hey!  What if someone stole my box?”  My next thought was, “Maybe I should bake cookies for the person who had to sign for this box, which nobody would ever want to steal.”

Before I go on, let me introduce you to my mother.  Ethel was an anti-immigration immigrant with borderline personality disorder, uncontrolled diabetes and a hoard that dwarfs the ones you may have seen on the TV-shows.  I was born long after her sane years ended, and I knew my mother as my responsibility all my life.  I grieved for her in my early twenties, along with my childhood and the choice of the Universe to saddle me with this burden.  Then I spent the better part of two decades looking after her and reminding myself that she was my grandfather’s precious baby.  I front-loaded my sadness for her tragic life long before her demise.  This means that her actual passing felt more like a to-do list than a throw-myself-on-the-pyre grieving process.  There was not a wet eye at her memorial.

My mother’s obsession with the mail began around the time thank-you notes went out of style.  She would begrudgingly accept a thank-you phone call, but never ventured into email or text messages to receive gratitude for her care packages.  This made her focus more and more on the time it took for packages to reach their destination and be embarrassingly over-appreciated (or under-appreciated).  Whichever was the case, she would find fault and spread the word about the gluttony or offensive lack of enthusiasm of the receiver.

Whether or not the response was a call or a letter, her missives generally went straight into the trash can.  Any comestible material was produced in her unsanitary kitchen, and any non-perishable goods had been in a house with 5 generations of rabbit spray on the walls and ceiling.  (Male bunnies don’t just spray.  They jump, turn, and spray simultaneously.)  Needless to say, all contents of care packages (stuffed animals, stationery, etc.) were inventoried for the sake of recognition and sent straight away on their journey to a landfill.  It was, in short, icky.

Sometimes my mother would feel the need to berate me while she was giving me the silent treatment.  She knew it would do no good to call me and pick a fight, because she could never get me to yell at her.  It took the wind out of her sails and denied her the feeling of righteous indignation.  Instead, she’d cut out a newspaper article and seal it in an envelope with a post-it note bearing a caustic message.  Perhaps the messages on the “hate stickies” related to the articles, but it made my head hurt to try to connect a recipe for pulled-pork empanadas with a message of “you are a mean, callous, b%$#@” emblazoned on a cute bunny post-it.

She knew I wouldn’t call her to confront her about the post-its and open the door for her to yell at me some more.  Since she wanted the satisfaction of knowing I read and was potentially fuming over the content of her post-it notes, she started sending them certified mail.  This means I’d have to wake up early after a long night of Tango to get to the post office on Saturday morning and wait an hour in line at the second-worst post office in the country just to sign the dang proof of receipt and read her insults on incongruously cute paper.  That annoyed me, but not enough for me to take any action.

Between her certified mail escapades with “hate stickies” and the frequent care packages, she was always badgering the post office and UPS office about delivery times and details.  When I would call to thank her for a package, she interrogated me about exact date and time the package arrived, its condition, and the weather patterns that were in play between the time of its send-off and receipt.  I would make these details up from time to time to cover the fact that I received a package several days before opening it.  I left boxes unopened when I didn’t have time to spend an hour on the phone hearing about the deal she got at the Big Lots store or the clearance rack at TJ Maxx.

When she passed, I spent two weeks in Michigan with friends and cousins, spelunking in the hoard for potentially valuable items and any clues about my mother’s financial situation.  By the time I left, I had to decide what to do with her ashes.  I could carry them on the plane home to Brooklyn, or I could mail them.  I thought, “Why not give her one last hurrah with the postal service?”  I sent her ashes (also known as cremains, which is possibly the funniest word I have ever encountered) to my school, because it was more secure than having them sent to my apartment.  The law required that I send the cremains by registered mail so they would be more carefully handled and so that the postal workers would be less likely to spill her contents in transit.

When I saw the box in the school’s office, I realized why nobody would steal it.  The clerk at the post office had written “HUMAN REMAINS” in huge, red letters on each side of the box (not “cremains”, as I’d prefer).  The box was also completely covered in stamps with the time and date the cremains reached each postal handling center.  I realized I had made the right decision.  This box gave my mother’s first post-mortem voyage exactly the kind of treatment she always sought in life for her precious packages.

My mother’s cremains currently wait in my closet for me to decide what to do next.  She still rests in the box with hundreds of time/date/location stamps.  On the first Mother’s Day after her death, I issued the first of a series of “love stickies”.  I followed up my “Happy Mother’s Day” post-it with a “Happy Birthday” post it, and then kept going.  It is true that my mother could not experience joy and love.  It’s true that her mental illness caused a tornado of destruction through dozens of lives.  In the end, though, nobody would choose to have a personality disorder.  Maybe I could do her memory or her soul some good by remembering to be kind to her – even in a slightly-twisted, ironic sort of way.


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