Ashes to Dust Bunnies

So, this entry might be a tad sad-inducing, if you’ve recently lost a loved one. I do my best to approach death, a messy fact of life, with some good humour, but it’s still sad, so here goes!

I’m able to have much more “normal” conversations with my (dead) mother, now that some time has passed. I think this is because I’m feeling so much better, I’m gradually putting myself back together, physically and emotionally. It feels good to heal.

I’ve been spending some brain time on looking back on the worst moments of my grief, and examining what sparked it. Admiring how something random can blind-side you, in a very weird way. Grief, like I’ve said, is the ultimate shape-shifter, and will sneak up on ya.

I want to tell you the story of Mom’s Jewlery box.

When my mother married my father (I think she was 19? They were young!) her father made her a beautiful jewelry box as a wedding present. It was oak, I believe, some heavy, hard, heirloom-quality wood. He’d burned or carved her initials into the lower right corner of the lid, and lined it with royal purple velvet. It had at one tray that sat on top, so you’d put the bulky or special items in the bottom, and the top tray held the rings, the necklaces, the pretty and delicate items you wanted close at hand.

I’d admired that jewelry box my whole life. Whenever my mother opened it, she had this pause of ritual. She loved her jewelry box too, and it was full of precious items that meant so much to her.

There was the pink gold antique monogrammed ring, with my great-grandmother’s initials. There was the sparkly shaved emerald and diamond ring from the shopping channel. Pretty and inexpensive.

There was the star sapphire ring set in white gold, that was one of my father’s first gifts to her. Other sapphires would follow, for anniversaries, birthdays, special occasions.

There was the small diamond yellow gold ring that was her first engagement ring, then later this was traded in for a larger diamond, on a significant anniversary. Finally, on another anniversary, the ring transformed again from yellow gold to pink gold, and to a setting she specifically requested (may even have been custom designed) so that it wouldn’t catch on gloves or other things, so she could wear it every day easily. It became a part of her hand.

Then there were the moments, forever tied to the scene of my mother opening the jewelry box before something wonderful happened. One day she opened it and gave me my great-grandmother’s pink gold ring. I wore it all through my teenage years, and I always get compliments.

For one of my special occasions, I think when I graduated from grade 8 and entered high school, she gave me the star sapphire. I would wear my great-grandmother’s ring on my right hand and the sapphire on my left hand. For a significant birthday, maybe my 16th or 18th, she gave me one of the earlier sapphire and diamond rings, set in yellow gold. I would wear this one occasionally in my 20s when I wanted to feel fancy, and many people would mistake it for an engagement ring.

Many times when my mother stood before her dresser and opened her jewelry box, she brought out something small. Maybe it was Cadbury crème eggs, and we’d eat one each while playing a board game on her bed. So many happy moments with my mother started with her opening that box. It wasn’t what she gave me out of the box, it was what she said to me as she gave me these things. I love you. I’m proud of you. You’re special to me.

So when I heard from my dad, in the month before my mother died, that she wanted her ashes to be buried in that jewelry box, my brain kind of cracked open. I couldn’t reconcile these happy moments that were tied into my most precious memories of my mom and her jewelry box, with this new fact that it would essentially become her coffin.

Ashes are such a funny thing. I always wondered why people would keep the ashes of their loved ones. Isn’t that weird? I’d think. It seems like the introduction of a bad sit-com, the urn on the mantle, a magnet for dust, the mother-in-law watching over the household still, just waiting for her jar to be accidentally toppled and spilled, resulting in her remains being sucked up with the dirt devil dust buster.

I see ashes and I always think, “that would be a bitch to clean out of carpet.”

Whenever I have had a pet pass away, I didn’t think for a moment about keeping their ashes. I worked at an animal hospital for years as a teenager, and I know what happens, how their bodies are processed. We always did it respectfully and carefully, but it’s such a weird thing. I experienced this again when Mocha died in my arms in 2012. She was there, her body was Mocha. Once she had died, her body didn’t even look like her anymore. It was suddenly this foreign object in the room, a problem to be solved.

We have a pet cemetery in Tofino, but there’s an issue with people not digging deep enough, and the wolves get in there to hurry up nature’s decomposition process. I didn’t want to risk that, Mocha was a big dog.

So I brought her to the vet, paid for cremation, and did not request the ashes back. I had her collar and her leash. I have them still.

When Leo died, I did the same thing. Without a car, I couldn’t even access the pet cemetery. The vet came into town and I handed him over, tearfully paid for the cremation and went home to change my screensaver to a picture of him in his prime. I missed Leo while he was gone (thank goodness for reincarnation, he’s back!) and ashes wouldn’t have helped me at all!

When my mother died, she was cremated and placed in her jewelry box, which was still on her dresser, right beside the bed. It horrified me. At first.

I didn’t *want* to see her ashes. Again my brain cracked open – how can we distill a human body down to something so perfunctory? Something that looks just like the ash from a wood stove? Something that sits in a plastic bag in my mother’s fucking jewelry box?

Something that could collect dust, that could be spilled, and sucked up with a hoover?

I didn’t voice any of these thoughts. My grief had become this roiling internal process that was dangerous to others. I was afraid that I’d say the wrong thing, say something hurtful unintentionally, or make myself vulnerable to unkindness.

And my dark humour was kicking in. My mother was ashes. She was dust. A really dark corner of my former-comedienne’s brain was wanting to play pranks with her ashes. Send some to a celebrity she had a crush on, by just lightly dusting a fan card with them. Sprinkle some on the seat of a chair to dust the pants of the next person to sit down. Put some in an ashtray and not tell anyone what they were. “Who here smokes?” “My mother did! Right at the end!”

I didn’t, of course, but I was pretty busy horrifying myself by spelunking into the ever-widening depths of my dark, inappropriate humour.

During the horrible, painful, awful funeral service, which I’m sure anyone else would’ve said was beautiful but I was in too much of a fog to think something nice about a ceremony that was being held because my mother had died, a service in a day that was supposed to somehow sum up an entire lifetime. A time when I just could not get over the inexplicable shock of my mother’s body fitting into that jewelry box that was not on her dresser where it belonged, but waaaaaay out of context, on a table at the front of the Church, next to fresh flowers and an 8 x 10 photo of her taken by my dad during their visit out here in Tofino.

I know I carried the box to the car, held it in my lap in the way to the grave site, and set it down on the wet grass, in the rain.

I know that after I left, that beautiful box tied to so many moments went into the ground.

I was glad of that, eventually. As my brain untwisted in the months that would follow, I realized that I’m really glad and grateful that part of my mother’s ashes are housed in a box her own father made for her to commemorate her marriage. It would’ve been too surreal to see some classic version of an urn go into the ground, or something someone else had made for a mother not their own.

I realize that part of the pain I experienced in this time was because the jewelry box was so exactly *right*. It wasn’t surreal at all. I never once worried about dropping her ashes while I carried them, or held them in my lap. There were no flashes of humorous accidents in the church or at the grave site.

Before the service, my Dad had bought three little heart-shaped boxes, engraved with my mother’s name, and had taken a small amount of my mother’s ashes for himself, for my sister and for me. His little silver box sits on the bedside dresser, where my mom’s jewelry box used to live, next to the 8 x 10 photo. It’s right.

Mine lived in my sock drawer for nine months after I came home. What do I do with these ashes? Where can I put them that my cat won’t get them, where can they go so they won’t end up in a hoover, someday down the road???

While my mother was sick, my Dad’s own mother passed away. He has had just a hell of a couple of years. His mom wanted to be cremated too, and she wanted her ashes scattered into this gorgeous but remotely-located canyon in Algonquin Park. The poor ashes had been sitting in the basement rumpus room for months, because no one was really up to the hike to the canyon, and because ashes are patient. Dust bunnies are harmless.

When I offered to do it I had a discussion with my dad about *how* I would get the ashes over the edge of a canyon. Those cliffs have updrafts and I didn’t want to pull a Big Lebowski! Dad thought about it and came up with a solution: he transferred all the dusty ash to a paper bag, double-bagged it, and tied it with twine. A couple of rains and the bags would dissolve, and the ashes would be free to move around the canyon. But for the moment of the launch, they’d stay together with enough heft and weight that I could huck them far enough over the edge of the cliff that they would have some chance of making it down to the bottom.

I have some photos from this day, and it was gorgeous. I realized what a gift my Oma had given to me, this beautiful sunny hike, to a place I never would have seen if she hadn’t stipulated her wishes for her ashes.

It’s good, I thought, that ashes create a human inconvenience. Maybe I could get really crazy with my ashes! Demand some be scattered in Scotland, in Germany, in Ucluelet, and in all of those places I mean to visit in my lifetime and hope I do. It’s one last thing you can do to share something special with someone who cares enough to carry out your wishes! Like a morbid, reverse geocaching!

After a long time, I moved my mother’s ashes from my sock drawer to my office. It’s perfect actually. It’s next to a duplicate 8 x 10 photo of my mother, and a family photograph collage I’d created while I was keeping my Dad company in the week after the service. The little silver box sparkles when the sun hits it, and I can see it when I’m sitting in my reading chair, on the phone doing session.

Behind that photo is a jar that used to contain cat treats, and now contains Sunshine. Something about having my mother’s ashes made me want to keep Sunshine’s. I mainly wanted them back because I could actually afford to get the “cremate my pet separately and return the ashes” service, where that wasn’t an option before, but I had no idea at the time what I would do with them! It turns out, I just left them in the trunk of my car and drove them around for a couple of months until finally, when I moved my Mother’s ashes to my office, I moved Sunny’s ashes in there beside her.

And so they sit together, (like they do in heaven, by the way) ashes collecting dust bunnies, which I carefully clean away. So there’s no need for a hoover.

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12 thoughts on “Ashes to Dust Bunnies

  1. You certainly have a gift for writing, Kate, you took me on the rollercosster ride of your emotional journey. The 3 heart shaped boxes really got to me because, believing in being prepared for anything in life (!), i have written a letter to my 3 daughters to be opened after my death (hopefully a loooong way in rhe distant future !) accompanied by – yep, you guessed it – 3 silver heart shapes boxes (each containing a heart shaped crystal of a different colour, my way of leaving a piece of my heart behind and a tangible link to me they can hold, together with some words of wisdom and love. Thanks for sharing your story

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    • that is so sweet. My dad sent me journals Mom kept while I was a little kid for christmas. I haven’t been able to unwrap them and look at them yet, but I will one day. I’m so grateful to have them. Your daughters, one day in the way distant future, will be grateful for your thoughtfulness too.

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  2. We still haven’t buried my parents’ ashes. I find myself not wanting to, not out of sentimentality but because I’d rather do something exactly as you wrote with them instead — leave bits of them in totally inappropriate (and maybe some appropriate) places.

    I went to a death cafe a couple of years ago and one of the other attendees talked about how she got some special little baggies (from a drug paraphernalia store, no less) and portioned out her son’s ashes and gave them to friends, family, and anyone who asked, to disperse how and where they wanted in their travels. So his ashes went to places he’d been, places he’d wanted to visit, places he’d never even imagined going to. Spread all around the world. It was a neat idea.

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  3. Hi Kate! I have to say, I still have Nathan’s ashes. They are in the “temporary” plastic urn/box that the funeral home gave me and it is tucked away up in the closet in his old room. I gave a small portion to his brother, who scattered them in the mountains during a trip. And I put a bit in a heart “cremains” pendant that I used to wear a lot. But the rest is just …. there.

    I’ve been having this ongoing debate with Erik and Nathan about the ashes. Part of me wants to do what others have done, and scatter Nathan everywhere when we embark on our traveling life. But the thought of handling and disposing of the last physical piece of Nathan in this world makes me unaccountably sad. So, I’ve left them tucked in the closet for the past 3 years. Nathan keeps telling me that he could care LESS what I do with them as long as it makes me happy. And then Erik popped up and said (in his Erik way) – “would you keep someone’s dump?” , Erik said that the ashes are just waste product, the leftover that is not needed anymore. And Nathan says, “Heck, just throw them in the garden for fertilizer. They will at least do some good there”.

    The fact is, I’m still attached to the ashes, as the last tangible bits of my Nathan. They are trying to loosen that attachment, to help me let that go. But, I’m just not ready yet. I guess I just need more time.

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    • Nah, not offended – that’s Erik’s style and we are all used to it by now ! I can understand your attachment to the ashes as representing the last physical link. As the boys told you, ultimately you should do what makes you happy and are comfortable with. It could be likened to someone frequently visiting a loved one’s grave, and then gradually spacing out the visits until one day you realise you dont need to go any more. No right or wrong ; just what feels right for YOU

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