My sister and I rode along in nervous chit-chat and pull into the lot at the Deep River Congregational Church. We followed signs to the church office and met the secretary.
“There it is.” The soft-spoken woman gestured to the cardboard box sitting on the table.
I stared at the light brown package with the many cancelled stamps. If you didn’t know, it could be just about anything.
“Do you want to open it here or at the cemetery?” she asked. “The urn is inside.”
“I guess here would be easier, thank you,” I said. She handed me a pair of scissors.
I worked at the parcel, tearing off the envelope on the front. My sister read it.
“It’s a proof of purchase of the burial plot,” she said.
The inner box was wrapped tightly in cellophane and I peeled the sides away. Finally, I got to the white ceramic square. It was smooth and plain. I lifted it out of the debris.
“Hi, Grandma,” Brenda said.
We got directions to the cemetery down the road.
“Is there a place nearby that we can get some flowers?” I asked. The secretary gave us directions to a nearby flower shop. We thanked her and Brenda carried the urn to the van pretending once to drop it.
“Should we put her in the back seat with a seatbelt?” she giggled.
The flower shop was closed. We wound up finding slightly-aged, off-white roses at the nearby supermarket. On the way to the cemetery, we passed Grandmother’s old apartment complex where our father would take us to visit her in the late 70s — and where she ignored my sister. “There’s were you used to live,” Brenda said as if she was talking to one of her preschoolers. “Should I hold her up to look out of the window?”
What a bizarre caper this was, my sister and I retrieving and now preparing to bury our grandmother’s ashes! My father’s side of the family wasn’t close— in fact only three of Grandmother’s five children bothered to attend her memorial service in Florida. We adult grandkids didn’t go. Yet when my father called from somewhere on the road again, and told me that his mother’s ashes were being sent to be interned by some church sexton, something inside me winced. She was blood, after all, and my sister and I lived only twenty minutes away. I had called Aunt Carol to ask permission to intern them. “That would be very sweet, Dolly,” she replied.
“Can this be the one?” I parked my mini-van on side of the road at the sparsely-filled cemetery. Two women were photographing a child playing with a Golden Retriever rolling in the clumps of daffodils. It seemed an unlikely final resting place for such a cold, meticulous woman.
“This has to be it. There are no other graveyards on this street,” Brenda said, checking the hand-drawn map the one the church secretary had given us.
We waded through shin-high grass to a single granite structure in corner of the yard with the yellow roses from the local grocery store and Grandmother’s white ceramic urn. Brenda compared the names on the sheet of paper with those on the brass plate affixed to the side of the monument. “I guess this is it. But there is no third ex-husband listed here, like Aunt Carol thought. Grandmother’s name is here, but only as a single plot.”
“Look,” I pointed with my foot towards the dingy plywood square a few feet away from the monument. I lifted the board and inhaled the fresh dirt. I surveyed the shallow hole and then spread the roses on their plastic wrapper beside it.
We stood solemnly for a moment. Brenda recited some of the 23rd Psalm and I joined in. We trailed off in a murmur because we didn’t know the rest of it.
“I’d like to pray,” I said. We bowed our heads.
“Holy Spirit, our grandmother’s life was one shrouded in mystery and in pain. Please use us to understand and find compassion for the sadness in her life and that of our extended family. We are asking that grandmother’s soul receive your healing.”
I reached for the urn and paused with it over the opening. It dropped into the hole and it hit the bottom with a thunk. I picked up a rose and dropped it in. The stem planted itself upright in the soil next to the urn.
“We also ask for healing and for comfort for our father, Anthony,” I said, dropping in another rose. It too, stood on end.
Brenda took my lead, “We ask for healing for her daughter Carol.”
“For daughter Jane.” I dropped another rose.
“For son Gerald.”
“For daughter Louise.”
“Spirit, I ask for healing for myself,” I said, dropping my rose into the hole.
“For me, and my children,” Brenda whispered as she dropped hers.
“Yes, for our entire family.”
We paused and looked into the grave. A ring of roses encircled the white square beneath.
We each took a final rose.
“To new life,” I said, laying it on the grass beside the hole.
“To new life,” Brenda echoed.
We walked across the grass and got into my van in silence. “That’s one for the books!” I said, putting the key in the ignition.
“Wait a sec,” Brenda said, “I want to show you something.” She pulled out an envelope from her pocketbook. “Dad sent it to me from wherever he is in Florida. I got it in yesterday’s mail.”
I glanced over and saw photocopies of news clippings on a sheet of paper with Dad’s scrawl around it. “Those Grandma’s obits?”
“Uh-huh. You will not believe this, but there are two different ones and one totally lies!”
“What? What do they say?”
“Check it out.” She handed it to me and I scanned the two and quickly noticed fake. “Marion and her husband Edward? moved to this area (Florida) in 1989 from Deep River, Connecticut.’ What the—-? Grandpa and Grandma were divorced in 1961 and he died in 1974, for Pete’s sake! Why the crazy lie?”
“I knew you’d freak out over this,” Brenda laughed. “I did a little investigating and I called Aunt Carol yesterday. She said that she and her sister were actually going to make up three separate obits, besides the real one.”
“She said each write up would have Grandma in different scenarios to be sent to three different newspapers. The last one was for the Riverton papers saying that Grandma had lived in Deep River with her third husband until he died, and then moved to Florida. That did happen, but why would any of her ex-in-laws in Riverton give a rat’s ass?”
“Who would even care about the many faces of Marion?” I sat stunned.
“The many husbands, the many last names,” Brenda laughed. “Mary Day, B-, Van Zant, again Van Zant, and then final, O’Neal…”
“God, so much dysfunction! So much pain! I just want to know why and what happened! Don’t you?”
Brenda nodded. “But how? It’s all so messed up, how would we find out?”
My reporter instincts were shifting into overdrive. “There’s got to be a way to find out. Why was Grandmother allegedly like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest? What happened to Grandpa if what Uncle Gerry said in his letter is true—-that he beat Dad to a point of psychological damage?”
“Why didn’t any of their kids take over the family business?” Brenda asked. “We’d be a lot better off if Dad did. We at least deserve to know what happened since we have had to deal with all the fallout bullshit now,” she said, twisting a bulbous zirconium ring.
We sat quietly for a minute. “I’m on it!” I said, pulling the van onto the highway heading toward home. “I’m going to find some answers.”