My father’s ashes

Talking to his remains allowed my mother the time to think about their lives and say goodbye.

By Colleen Gillard
February 28, 2010

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When my father died and was cremated, my mother received his ashes in a box slapped with a label listing his name and date and place of death. My Uncle Rolf scrutinized the surprisingly heavy carton, ran a palm across its top, and declared it “packed full, too full.” Hoisting it, he looked at us. “Know what that means?”

We couldn’t imagine.

“They didn’t get all of him.”

Coming from a guy whose paranoid suspicions were often depressing, this was hilarious. I hazarded that boxes like these might not come in sizes.

When I asked Mom where she’d like to scatter the ashes, she said she’d think about it and picked up the box, heading down the hall to the bedroom. I asked if I should look for an urn. She shook her head “nope,” sliding the box onto a high shelf in the closet.

He’d collapsed. By the time she’d dressed, followed the paramedics to the hospital, and was finally allowed into the room, he was dead. She sat beside him and smoothed the curls she called “his horns” against his head a final time. As she slid her hand under his, his fingers, not yet cold, slumped over hers.

Mom used to like to complain about him: how she’d never had input on the choosing of flatware or furniture; how her lush garden suffered every time he watered, full blast. As she said, every time she hit her thumb with a hammer, she’d curse his name.

But after his death, she remembered the young man who had showed up when life had abandoned her. It was 1951, and they’d gone on dates in Richland, Washington, where he was working on nuclear physics and she had moved to take a library job and escape a painful divorce. When another date raped her, leaving her pregnant, she lied, telling Dad she was returning to Seattle to be married. He bought her an expensive set of albums, Beethoven’s Ninth, and said losing her had made him throw up.

Her mother sent her to live with a midwife on a quiet street. During the last trimester, she was told the neighbors mustn’t see her. It was then that Dad, hearing about her from mutual friends, showed up on her porch. He offered to marry her and adopt the baby. But she said she wouldn’t start a marriage “under a cloud.” She gave birth in a back bedroom and saw her newborn for a moment before he was taken away. A few months later, on Christmas Eve 1952, she married my dad. At her request, she was pregnant a month after that with my older sister.

This was the husband she remembered and was soon talking to. At first with rhetorical comments, like her disgust at the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision: “What do you think of that?” Silence, and then an amused glance at the closet: “Oh, I know, and I’m glad you’re not here to tell me about it.”

Soon the conversations were more extensive, like the day she spent sorting photos on the bed. “Look at this!” she said. “Weren’t we beautiful?” She chided him for how he’d scared her that day running along the cliff on Mount Rainier. She exclaimed over the baby pictures of my two sisters, my brother, and me, and from the den I overheard trivial details: that the photo of us in pajamas catching grasshoppers was taken the day we were all home with the mumps. These memories were of a happier time, before the chaos of my brilliant brother’s descent into schizophrenia brought them unbearable pain.

When I asked why she talked to Dad’s ashes, she said to pay it no mind: She was like an old horse on a well-known milk route. It made her happy.

She acknowledged she was growing forgetful, probably no longer a reliable driver. I heard her debating selling the house aloud as she made her bed. My sisters and I set aside a difficult week to sort through 40 years of memories and hold a garage sale. Musing over every relic became a luxury of time we couldn’t afford. We watched their lives disappear in a weekend down the driveway in other people’s arms.

It was then she decided the boy from Southern California should be by the sea. So we drove to Santa Cruz and stood on a rocky outcrop to watch the contents of the box slip into the roiling slosh below. Only they didn’t slip: A gust of wind covered us with ash, and then suddenly there were the bone chips, falling winking into the sea.

Colleen Gillard is a freelance writer in Cambridge. Send comments to

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