"Hey Steve, what're you doing?" my boss inquired, as I pressed the cell phone to my ear with my shoulder as I opened another cardboard box.
"Nothing, just looking for my grandmother's ashes," I replied.
"Uhhh.....oooookay," was his response, along with a half chuckle in the event I was only kidding.
"Don't worry, you can laugh, it's a funny story," I reassured him. And, as I searched my mom's basement looking for Grandma's ashes (while in New Jersey last summer on vacation), answering what WAS an emergency work-related phone call (which my boss quickly forgot about, once he had something better to discuss), I told him the story:
It all started in February 1982. Or ended, I guess would be the better way to put it. My grandmother Elinor passed away. The cause of death was a foot race between lung cancer due to decades of smoking and liver disease due to decades of drinking. In fact, it was the drinking that ended her marriage with my grandfather, and was bad enough that my dad and his sister lived with my grandfather until they went off to college. Ultimately, the lung cancer won out, relieving her of a couple of years of pain. She was the first relative I ever had that died, and I remember being absolutely destroyed, despite the fact that I barely knew the woman. When you're ten, all death is a tragedy. As you age, you can pick and choose your tragedies as you see fit.
There was no funeral, as I recall. We lived in New Jersey, Elinor lived outside of Chicago near my dad's sister. Only my dad went out west to help my aunt handle the affairs. The rest of us followed 2 months later, at Spring Break, to help clean out her apartment and haul back to NJ the items we claimed. I knew nothing of how she was interred, or even if she was interred.
I remained blissfully ignorant to that part of the death process, until one day, several years later (for reasons still unknown), I was snooping in my parent's bedroom. My parents had two dressers in their room, one of which was opposite their bed and on which sat the TV in their room. They also had a video game system (possibly a Nintendo) in there. It was kept there so that we didn't tie up the main TV in the living room. Bored from playing one game for a while, I decided to do what boys often do. I started opening up drawers just to see what was inside. In the very bottom drawer of this dresser, there sat nothing except a brown cardboard box. The box was about the size of two tissue boxes stacked one on top of another. Growing more and more curious, I opened that box, and inside found a cylindrical metal canister, about half the width of one of the large coffee cans. On the top of the canister was a label that said something to the effect of "Cremated Remains of Elinor Z," along with the statement, "Temporary Container."
And this is when I realized my grandmother's cremated remains were sitting in the bottom drawer of my parent's dresser. I won't say this is the same kind of shocking as walking in on your parents having sex. It's a different sort of shocking, but still shocking.
Over the years, I talked to my dad about his mother's remains, and it was always the goal to one day send them to a cemetery in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania (about 90 miles NW of Pittsburgh), where Elinor was from and where her family had a family cemetery plot. There was already a plot bought and paid for, all we had to do was send the remains there and the cemetery would handle the rest. This was a project my dad was going to take on, but for some reason never got around to doing it. He was not close to his mother, but he still respected her enough that he wanted to personally make this trip and oversee her being laid to rest.
My mom, on the other hand, kind of had fun with the whole thing. She would ask girlfriends of my brothers and I if they had ever met Elinor. With a mixture of 2 parts black humor and 1 part insanity, she would then bring down the box in which my grandmother was stored, and sit there drinking coffee and chatting while the young woman sat there horrified. I have to say, my mom never liked Elinor, and I think she kind of paid her back a little.
In 1998, my wife and I moved to Atlanta, and at the time Elinor was still there. In the few years that followed, my dad and I would occasionally bring up his mother's remains in conversation, and I assured him that if he ever felt up to the trip, I would go with him, but he never got motivated enough to do it. And in 2001, he retired, and he and my mom purchased a house here in Georgia, about an hour northeast of us, making it more difficult to go to Western Pennsylvania. So, Elinor was packed up and moved to Georgia.
My parents' stay in Georgia did not last long. In 2003, my mom decided she absolutely hated the entire state, and so they sold the house and moved back north to New Jersey. Unfortunately, they sold the house I grew up in, so they rented a 2 story duplex not far from the Raritan Bay in NJ. Again, Elinor made the trip, never once complaining about the lack of dignity of being moved around the country along with dinette sets, books, throw rugs, etc. Her remains were packed in a box along with other articles my mom did not readily need, and they sat in the basement.
On Friday, January 26, my father passed away unexpectedly, and I have to admit, all thoughts of Elinor left my mind for several months. However, I remembered her that summer when we took a family vacation to NJ. In the laundry room, on a high shelf, sat a bag from the funeral home, and in that bag was a box, not dissimilar to Elinor's, in which sat my father's remains. And it brought to mind the travels my grandmother made. A month after, I visited my aunt just outside of Chicago, and she asked me if I knew if her mother's remains had ever been sent to Punxsutawney. I told her that I didn't think they did, but the next chance I got, I personally would find them and send them home. She seemed very relieved that I was willing to take on the project my father, her brother, never got to finish.
In June 2008, I told my mother that it was time to find Elinor and send her to her final resting place, and I asked her where she was. The blank stare I received did not fill me full of hope. She was able to give me one clue. "It's in a Lego box." OK, great. My grandmother's mortal remains are in a Lego box. I then went to work. Her house does not have central air conditioning (window units all over), so the basement was hot. I got to work opening each and every box in that basement. My guess is there are probably 100 cardboard boxes in that basement filled with everything from pool toys, to gardening tools, swatches of fabric (my mom does a lot of sewing), unused kitchen sets, and mementos from my parent's childhood (for example, an antique chronometer, a tool used for celestial navigation, which my dad very likely knew exactly how to use by the time he was in his teens). But box after box, nothing. I did, however, find plenty of examples that my mom's 2 cats did not always use the litter box, so stepping around down there was done with extreme care. And it was during this search that my boss called me on my cell phone with a work-related question, and it was then that I informed him about my mission.
Along one wall of the basement there were boxes stacked 3 or 4 high, 10 wide, and about 4 deep, so I had to wade through all of these, trying to find the one box that contained my grandmother. Some of the boxes were empty. Some contained decorations you would hang around a swimming pool (with a tropical theme). I even found a brass sink, like you'd put in a fancy bar. I was down to the last stack of boxes when I started to lose hope. As I opened each one, searched, and moved it aside, I put the ones I looked in behind me as I waded further into the pile. And then I finally reached the last box in that stack, and opened it to find drinking cups.
It was then that I noticed a small white box, about 12" wide, 18" long, and about 18" deep. The box was narrow enough that it was wedged in between a couple stacks of boxes and wasn't visible from where I started. I reached down and opened it, and immediately saw a tin can advertising instant mashed potatoes. Filled to the brim, and above, in this can were dozens of Lego pieces, held in place by packing tape that stretched over the can. It was then that I realized it. "Oh. Not a Lego box. A box of Legos!" My eyes drifted inches from the can full of Legos, and I saw a nondescript brown box with the markings of a funeral home in Illinois on it. I opened the box and in it was a cylindrical metal canister, about half the width of the mashed potatoes can inches away. On the top of the canister was a label that said something to the effect of "Cremated Remains of Elinor Z," along with the statement, "Temporary Container."
I had found my grandmother. I then sat down where I was, on top of a box I had just searched through, and I wept. I wept at the realization that I had just spent hours doing something my father was never able to do before he died, and due to his health problems, probably never could have done. I wept because this woman's remains were kept in a box, in a dark, damp basement for years and nobody had gone looking for her. And I wept because this search had become a mission, a hard mission, and I was successful. My grandmother was going home to Punxsutawney Pennsylvania.
I brought the entire box....ashes, Legos and all...upstairs. On the way up, I recalled that I had played with these very Legos as a kid, and I wanted to give my daughters an opportunity to play with them. As for my grandmother....I placed her in a temporary resting spot of honor....on a high shelf, in the laundry room, right next to my father. Her son. And there she sat until my mom, shortly after, put the box into a shipping box and took it to the post office, where it was sent to a funeral home that was simply waiting for her remains to arrive so that they could lay her to rest with the rest of her family, family that had settled western Pennsylvania for over 200 years. And until I received confirmation from my aunt that they made it, I lived in fear that the box would be pounded around in transit until it finally split open, sending my grandmother's remains all over in a puff of ash. Which, I have to admit, kind of made me chuckle out loud a few times.
This story is one giant version of the lesson, "don't put off tomorrow what you can do today." Between him and his sister, my father was the more motivated of the two to deliver Elinor to her grave, but obviously life got in the way, coupled with the fact that my really couldn't give a damn. Which of course leads to an even bigger lesson....mothers, don't piss off your daughters-in-law. Especially the ones to whom your mortal remains might one day be entrusted.
As for me....I'm happy knowing that I fulfilled a job that I know my dad always intended to complete, but didn't. As his oldest son, I know I carried on an important family job, so that when I next see him, I can hold my head up high knowing I finished what he started in 1982. I have to hold my head up high to see him, as he'll be in his place of honor, on a high shelf in a funeral home bag in my mother's laundry room.