“Details” by Mary Higbee

13 December 2019 on Nonfiction   Tags: , , ,

 “What do you mean illegal?” I ask.

The only sound is the metallic ring of the spoon on the china cup as my dad stirs sugar into his coffee. It takes several seconds before he looks at me across the table and answers, “It’s illegal to scatter ashes on a public site.”

“Did Mom know that?” I ask.

“Probably not.”

I take a measured breath to give myself time to take in this new information. “So, how are we going to do it?”

“We’ll go just as its turning dark. No one will be there. We will do it then.”

Already feeling conflicted about scattering my mother’s ashes without my sisters, the news about breaking the law adds to the anxiety, making itself known by a band of tightness across my forehead. My sisters should be a part of this, but Carol is in the throes of chemo for breast cancer, and Nancy is a twelve-hour drive away. Some things never change, I think, such as the unorthodox way my father has for doing things.

The drizzling rain of the last three days begins to let up. My dad goes outside and tries to get the riding mower started. The finicky mower and the washing machine that has to be turned on with a pair of pliers are metaphors for the general state of things. For the last five months, my dad has coped with losing his marriage partner of sixty-three years. The calendar on the kitchen wall is still on November and “gone” is the single word on the square for November fourteenth.

I spend the morning making vegetable soup in the same pot my mother used for as long as I can remember. My fingers encircle the wooden handle of a knife worn with dents and grooves from decades of use and my mother’s efficient grip. Some of the soup is for tonight’s supper, and the rest I will freeze in single portions for my dad to eat after I leave. Ziploc packets of food fill the freezer like stacked firewood, each labeled and all without salt per the doctor’s orders. I depart Arkansas in four days to return to California, and I wonder what will happen when my dad eats all the packets I have made for him. Will he go back to his salty hot dogs?

At four o’clock, my dad and I settle down to watch Judge Judy, something we have done every day of my visit. I give him a glass of the sweet wine he likes in one my mother’s crystal goblets and a small bowl of cheese crackers. The wine is cheating on his diet, and my dad relishes the forbidden treat by taking small sips and eating one cheese cracker at a time. “Can you believe some people make such a complicated mess of things?” my dad asks me as the two adversaries before Judge Judy tell their stories. How easy it is for Judge Judy to solve a problem on a thirty-minute television program, but what would her solution be for the independent, World War II marine with congestive heart failure sitting beside me? Three weeks of conversations with my dad has not yielded any definitive answers for how he is going to manage his future without my mother.

We eat at five o’clock and then sit in the living room waiting for it to be time to go. I perch on the edge of the chair, poised to jump up when my dad is ready. When the chiming clock signals six, my dad gathers up his wallet and car keys, and I pick up the box of my mother’s ashes and follow him out. He does not get into the Dodge sedan, but instead climbs into his big pickup truck. I think it would be best to drive the sedan because if he gets upset, I could drive us home. I have never driven the big pickup and do not want my first time to be on the curvy roads of the Ozarks in the dark. He looks grim, so I climb in without comment. 

The box sits in my lap, and I steady it with both hands. It is a square cardboard box with a glossy white finish. A full moon is rising and shines directly through the window of the truck. The white, bright moonlight makes the box appear to have a light source of its own. I look at my dad to see how he is doing, but his side of the truck is in shadows and his profile a dark silhouette. We ride in silence.

It doesn’t seem possible that the glowing box on my lap contains my mother’s ashes--the mother who rolled out tender, delicious noodles and created prom dresses for me that were the envy of my friends. I close my eyes, and the hazy image I tease into focus is of a Sunday afternoon in my childhood. My mother and I sit on the living room floor with the Sunday paper between us. At age six, I am awed by the precise way she guides the scissors around the curves of the paper doll found on the last page of the comics. My mother gently places the newsprint paper doll on a piece of plain paper. I lean closer because I want to see the lines that seem to flow like magic from the end of her pencil. The first thing my mother sketches for the paper doll is a pleated, full skirt, and a blouse with a frilly collar. I run to get my crayons, the new box I save for special coloring, and I am back beside her by the time she looks up from the other dresses she has drawn. The memory is sweet and uncomplicated, and I don’t want to relinquish it in favor of the task before my father and me.

Driving through the evening landscape to scatter her ashes on the grounds of the church as she had requested feels like a crazy, mixed-up mission. It seems we should have prayers prepared to mark this as a solemn occasion, but I know doing something like that would upset my dad. 

I recall a story a friend told me about scattering her father’s ashes. She had described how the whole family had gone to their father’s favorite fishing lake, and at sunset, they spread the ashes on the water. As the last of the ashes drifted away in the current, a flock of Canada geese took flight, and one lone goose parted from the rest and flew off in another direction. The family believed it was a sign to reassure them that all was well, and they could move forward with their lives. My friend’s mystical moment was in sharp contrast to my dad and me illegally scattering ashes in a dark churchyard.

My dad slows the truck as we come into town. A few turns and we are in front of Mountain Home Presbyterian Church. “What the hell…” my dad says as we pull up to the lighted church with many cars parked outside. He had expected a dark church with no one around.

I think for a moment. “Dad, we have lost track of the days. It is Maundy Thursday and there are church services tonight. Easter is only two days away.”

My dad drives by the church and makes a turn into the parking lot of a supermarket. He turns off the engine, and we sit and wait. I study the hand-lettered, butcher paper sign advertising a special on potatoes. The market is closing and lights turn off one by one, leaving the parking lot in darkness. “Let’s try it again,” my dad announces and backs out.

The church is vacant, and all the cars are gone. We get out and walk the few steps to where the tall grass begins among a grove of trees. The grass is wet from the rain, and the dampness soaks the pant legs of my jeans. “You do it, Mary.” I open the box for the first time. A plastic bag with the ashes is inside. It is awkward to hold the box in one hand, reach into it for the ashes, and then scatter them. There are more ashes than I expected, and they are gritty and dense. Any prayers I had planned to say to myself flee in the night.

“Mary, give it to me. I’ll do it,” my dad says gently. He takes the box, and I step aside. By the light of the moon, I see him reach into the box and draw his hand out, scattering the ashes in a wide arc. I watch him move as if he didn’t have an aching hip or arthritis in this back. Like a dancer, he turns round and round until the box is empty. He hands me the box, and I follow him to the truck.

He sits in the driver’s seat and pounds the steering wheel with his fists. It feels like his grief is absorbing all the air, and there is none left for me. I want to say I understand, but I stop myself because I don’t know what it is like to have your spouse die. In a few minutes, my dad starts the truck, and we return home. I sit in silence and wonder where my tears are.

We enter the house, which seems stuffy and over warm after the damp night air. Everywhere I look, there is something of my mother’s. There are vases and dishes and the curtains she made, and no corner is without a reminder of her. We go into the living room, and my dad sits in his recliner and falls asleep within minutes.  

I worry about the days ahead and how my dad will deal with his grief.  I have years of practice being Henry’s daughter, but now I am his advisor, as well, and I tread this new ground with care. I remember the feeling of security to be a little girl who thought her father was wise and strong.  When my sisters and I were young, and one of us had a mishap with an ice cream cone or a scraped knee, our dad would hug the one who was upset and dramatically ask her not to get tears on him.  It did not take long before giggling replaced crying as he protested that his shirt was getting wet.  If all tears were so easy to dry up, I think.

I lean back in my mother’s recliner and watch my dad sleeping.  His head is forward on his chest, and his eyeglasses are crooked. A single damp curl has formed just behind his ear. Seeing the curl kindles the memory of watching my youngest son, Mark, asleep in his crib and noticing the same curl in his otherwise straight hair. How can such a tiny trait be passed from my father through me to his grandson? Textbooks represent DNA as fragile-looking twisted ropes, but the strands of DNA belie their delicate appearance because they are strong enough to tether one generation to the next. Memories must work like strands of DNA because each shared event contains the minute details that link us unequivocally to one another.

My eyes travel the length of my dad to his feet in the sturdy shoes that help him keep his balance. I freeze in surprise, because ashes, my mother’s ashes, cling to his shoes. In an instant, I decide the ashes will be too much for him to discover. Before I can think any more about it, I am out of my chair and kneeling at his feet to untie his shoes. He will not find it unusual to awake to my taking off his shoes since I have been helping him get his shoes on and off these last three weeks together. 

“Mary, what time is it?” my dad asks, awakening from his nap.

“Dad, I am taking off your shoes. It is late, and we are both tired.  Go on to bed. I will lock up.” With a minimum of movement, I slip his shoes off and put them behind me. I hold my breath as I sit perfectly still on the floor and watch my dad head towards the hall. I wait until I hear his bedroom door close.

I bring the shoes around and look at them. Gray ashes the color of pewter cover every part of the shoes. I know the ashes are for me. I pick up the corner of my shirt and carefully wipe the shoes clean. The tears I did not have earlier, soundlessly slip down my cheeks. 


Mary Higbee is a retired middle school teacher living in northern California. For the last decade, She has worked in South Sudan, Kenya, and Tanzania in the area of education. Mary has self-published a book, Lessons from Afar, which is a memoir about opening a secondary school in South Sudan. Her blog can be found on her website.

"The Shoulder" is an acrylic painting on paper by French Painter Dominique Dève. Dominique was born in 1959 and he specializes in portraits. His expressionist and figurative style allows him to take part in exhibitions in Paris, London, Los Angeles, and New Delhi. His work is available at his website and on Instagram at @eventuraportrait.

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