Paper Bags and Cardboard Boxes

The first box I opened the day after we moved, a banana box with a rectangular cutout in the top, was padded with a piece of blue flowered fabric immediately recognizable to me. It was one of my mom’s favorite dresses. I slid the lid up, scrunched the dress between the fingers of my left hand and pulled it aside to see what lay below, and there they were. Still tucked tightly inside their white boxes and white handle bags with typed nameplates on top of each, were the powdered and crumbly remains of my mother and grandmother. I’ve never quite known what to do with them. Friends and authors I love have talked about all the places they’ve scattered the ashes of their recently-departed loved ones. A friend and his mother took his brother all the way to Ireland. Cheryl Strayed and Anne Lamott have written of licking the burnt and powdered flesh of their kin off the fingers and palms of their own hands. I recoil each time I read these stories, feeling it morbid and strange to eat your own kin, but perhaps if and when I decide to release them again to the world, it will feel natural to me to.

November will be twelve years since my mom’s car mysteriously crossed a wide grassy interstate median, driving into oncoming traffic where it was smashed by the rolling metal of a semi on a rainy fall night. Twelve years since I felt the full, enormous weight of the world on my shoulders for the first time. Mom was fifty and I was twenty-three. I was newly graduated from college and trying to figure out how to save the world with my liberal arts degree.

This may sound strange to some of you who’ve never driven alone to a funeral home as a young adult to pick up one of your parents now transformed into lead weight in a white bag, but the thought of what to do with the remnants of two generations of my maternal line on my skin after I sprinkle them into the sea or from some mountaintop or into the earth of a garden, troubles me. It’s a strange thought but it’s a real one. I mean, I can’t very well just wash my hands when I’m done with soap and water or use a squirt of watermelon scented hand sanitizer, can I? Would that be disrespectful? Would they care? I suppose they’re not really there to care anyway. The scattering of ashes is an act the living perform, largely in order to soothe their own souls. “They always loved to be near the water, they would like it here.” I’m not the sort that believes they’re hanging over me invisibly, always watching. I don’t think they’d be there with me even in the moments I hold their flesh between my fingers.

Two years ago this summer, after thirty-two years in the most beautiful city I’ve ever known, I left Portland for the first time. I had fallen in love with someone in Boulder, sold my house, quit my job and packed up my dog, tent and whatever else would fit in my station wagon and drove towards the sunrise. Leaving Portland, the place that held all the happy memories of my life with mom, was the scariest and most exciting thing I’d ever done. Last week, I was finally able to get back to Portland to rescue the rest of my belongings from a friend’s garage and bring them back with me to Denver.

After months of anticipation of being reunited with things that felt like me and the knowledge that having some of my things here will help this place feel more like home, joyful is not the word I would use to describe the unpacking I’ve been doing. After the box of dead relatives, I unpacked my books. In a matter of days, I proceeded to organize them by color, accented by a white ceramic rabbit that used to live on my mom’s windowsill and the one thing she left me in her will, a small blue-and-white ceramic statue of a young girl crying over spilled milk. Did I love this piece as a child or did she leave it to me as a reminder to not sweat the small stuff? I’ll never know. Everywhere I turn — with each book I unpack and bowl I wipe down, each picture I see and drawing I remember — I’m reminded more not about the long-beloved things I now hold in my hands, but about what is still missing, what will always be missing. I can’t focus on the shapes in the foreground because my eyes keep getting stuck looking into the dark, empty spaces in between.

Today, I came across fifteen or twenty pen and ink sketches by Grandpa Ned, my mom’s dad who died suddenly in his sleep when I was twelve or thirteen. They are magnificent. I never knew he was so artistically talented and now I know where my mom got it. For not knowing much about my mom’s family, each of these little discoveries feels like a nugget of gold I can grip tightly inside my palm.

My art, most of it, died along with my mom. She was the greatest artist I ever knew. I’ve a drawered-Rubbermaid bin four feet tall full of black tip felt markers, graphite pencils, sketch notebooks and linoleum blocks waiting to be carved, rolled with Speedball ink and stamped onto cardstock. I drag it around in a moving van every few years from house to house with the rest of my belongings, but I never open it. Once my teacher was gone, it was like I didn’t know how to hold the X-Acto knife at the correct angle or choose the right color of ink to mix. Inspiration to recreate the world around me — in fine pen and ink sketches similar to those I discovered by Grandpa Ned — ceased. Quite often in the years since my mom died I’ve felt all but invisible in the world, alone in my grief. Perhaps some of this has been not only about desperately missing my mom, but also about missing myself and my identity as an artist. Without dyed fingertips, graphite smudged hands and my own rotating art hanging on the walls of my home, I’ve all but forgotten who I am at my core; the artist my mother’s blood made me.

At the beginning of this school year, the first of three in a Masters of Divinity program, I was required to take three tests about my talents and areas for growth in order to help me fine-tune my ministerial path. When a school psychologist articulated my results, what I heard went something like this: “All of these tests reveal a desire, connection, and talent for art, and not the written kind which you speak of partaking in but the visual kind. If you don’t start listening to what you need instead of what others suspect by directing some of your energies to this part of your calling, you will be successful here, graduate. You will become ordained and then find yourself sitting in a church wondering, ‘Is this all there is?’ and feeling grossly unsatisfied.” What’s a person supposed to do with that two weeks into a three-year theological graduate program?

If I had been smarter, perhaps I would have withdrawn when I could have still been refunded some of my money, went back to work full-time and taken every art class I could get my hands on. Instead I did the dutiful thing, the expected thing; I stayed and I got straight A’s and re-enrolled the next term and the next and the next.

What would my mom say about my life today? Would she be proud? Would she tell me to drop out and live on ramen noodles, go to art school, get my BFA and become an art teacher like she did? Sometimes your internal compass is steered toward your north star by somebody who knew you before you knew yourself. And sometimes these people are able to help you find your way back on course when you veer too far in the wrong direction. Almost everything I’ve kept over the years is tied to memories of my mom, and her parents and sister who died before I was born. For this reason, unpacking is more bittersweet than I expected. So many of the co-captains with whom I would like to consult about my course are now gone. All that remain of this side of my family, in fact, are my older brother and I.

In these short twelve years I have already lived two new lives: the one where you think you’ll never be able to be happy again and the one where you realize if you work your ass off you can be — and so after years of effort you do become happy, mostly. I’m sure as the days and weeks go on I won’t think of my mom every time I see the little blue ceramic bowl where she kept stones and glitter because she liked pretty things as much as I do. Soon enough, all of these things will blur into the background and my mind will become occupied again with work and school and relationships and getting my ass in the pool to swim some laps rather than swimming against the tide of memory which unexpectedly washed up the shore with more force than the weatherman predicted.

Someday I will take my mom and Grandma Flo out of their white paper bags in the closet. I will place the boxes in which they now live next to me in the passenger seat of my Subaru, buckle them in and drive up, up, up into the mountains or Westward towards the sea where I will dip my fingers into their crumbly remains, kiss the back of my hand and throw them, lovingly, into the wind.

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