From what I could gather at age 8, the cause of my grandfather’s death was sleep. As people gathered at our home to remember him, everyone who offered condolences emphasized that he had died “in his sleep.” They said it with a reassuring smile and often in a whisper as if to avoid waking anyone up. I know now their intentions were good, designed to frame his last moments as calm and peaceful as opposed to whatever horror I might conjure up on my own. But for a kid whose nightly prayers included the line, “If I should die before I wake,” it added a terrifying dimension to saying goodnight and turning out the lights.
After several months of sleeping with the closet light on, I told my grandmother, Tessa, that I was scared of dying in my sleep.
“Don’t be absurd.” She said. “Do you ever worry about where you came from?”
I told her I didn’t.
“Then don’t worry about where you are going.” And with that, she turned out the closet light.
Eighteen years later, I sat in a sparsely attended chapel for her memorial service. I eyed the altar and the silver cup that held her ashes and thought about what she had said, trying my best to quell my resurrected worries about where we all end up.
Prayers, hymns and pontifications all in, Tessa’s service couldn’t have lasted more than 30 minutes, which in hindsight seems short shrift for a life that spanned almost 91 years. Then again, given her age, there were just over a dozen of us, which made the small chapel seem cavernous and the 30 minutes expansive. Few words were actually spoken, as Tessa had outlived all her friends and siblings. Mom was too emotional to speak, our aunt and my brother were out of town, and dad, whose relationship with his mother-in-law was to familial harmony what the Hatfields were to the McCoys, would, had he been given the chance, probably only have shouted “Hallelujah” and then sat down.
The priest read some thoughts mom had written, we sang a final hymn, our handful of voices essentially muted by the bellowing of the pipe organ, and then in the startling silence that followed, the priest raised one hand toward us and placed his other on the receptacle holding my grandmother’s ashes. He closed his eyes and recited a final prayer. “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God Tessa Alicia Dent McGuire; where we will commit her ashes to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Those words triggered a burst of emotional outpouring that reverberated in the empty chapel with the suddenness of gun shot. In unison, Mom’s tears had peaked, a young Chilean woman let out a loud wail, I erupted into what mom thought was a coughing fit, and dad had made a sound that landed somewhere between a stifled sneeze and an aborted shout for a cab. The combination had startled the priest who jerked his hand off the container as if the ashes had suddenly become hot.
Tessa had lived past her 90th birthday with no significant physical or mental ailments until two days before her death, only one of which she spent in the hospital, proving her lifelong hypothesis that “hospitals will more likely kill you than help you.” Outside of the “walking stick” she used, which was more show than necessity, and the reading glasses she wore to track civilization’s demise through the lens of the obituary section of the San Francisco Chronicle, she was as my father often said, “Goddamn bulletproof.”
Despite the gift of her health, however, Tessa deeply resented the “ravages of aging,” which she rebelled against by clinging tightly to her sanitized versions of an earlier and “more orderly” time. As she saw it, she was as one of the last pillars of the Victorian Age, superior to everyone except for the royal family, with whom she considered herself on equal footing. With every new wrinkle since the passing of our grandfather, her pride and prejudice had intensified as did her obsessions with the cleanliness of dinnerware, toilets and kitchen counters. Her eye for sanitary surpassed a blood hound’s sense of smell, and she crusaded tirelessly against wrinkles in both fabric and skin. Above all else, she would never permit anyone to see her unless she was meticulously “put together.”
Tessa may not have worried about where she was going, but even as she walked through the valley of the shadow of death, she fixated about how she looked getting there. My last memory of her was at the threshold of her hospital room December 21, 1984, three weeks before her memorial. She had been admitted that morning with heart palpitations and dizziness. She had arrived sans blush, sans quaff, sans her favorite perfume, sans everything. The indignity of wearing a backless hospital gown would have been enough on its own to kill her. As I rushed in, she nearly threw her arm out waving me away and turning her head toward the far wall. Tessa died that evening, sight unseen.
The last friend Tessa made was Antonia, a woman who cleaned both my parent’s home and Tessa’s apartment. She and my grandmother bonded over their love for Jesus, cleanliness, and, of course, Tessa. Tessa regaled her with her evolving tales of her family lineage, and her views of the deteriorating state of our once civilized world. Antonia listened, brought my grandmother fresh fruit, and given her unquestioning respect for the elderly and poor command of English, seemed not to notice Tessa’s occasional condescending views of her Mexican heritage. Antonia was from Chile.
“Tu abuela is wonderful, like a queen,” she would report.
A week after Tessa passed away, I stopped by my parents’ place just as Antonia was leaving. She was livid. Mom and dad were out, so she vented her frustration at me, complaining how someone had cleaned the fireplace in the living room and dumped the debris into a big silver cup.
“What cup?” I asked.
She pointed to the one sitting over the fireplace. My mother had been a professional tennis player, and the big silver cup was a doubles trophy she had won in France in the 1950’s. The contents of the cup weren’t from the fireplace.
“Antonia,” I explained. “Those are my grandmother’s ashes.”
“Eh-ward. You always making jokes.” Through her smile, she warned me not to joke about “los muertos,” and crossed herself. Then she pointed to the bag of apples she had left for my mother and mentioned how much she missed my grandmother, the queen.
“When Tessa died, we cremated her.” She stared at me quietly. Cremate wasn’t in her lexicon.
“After my grandmother died, we burned her,” I explained. “We put her ashes in the trophy until the service.”
I was amazed at the volume of sound that could erupt from such a petit woman. She shrieked and then cut herself off by placing her hand over her mouth.
“Antonia?” I asked. “Where did you put Tessa?”
She kept her hand over her mouth and slowly shook her head from side to side.
“It’s OK.” I reassured her. “But you need to tell me where my abulea is. Donde esta the queen?”
Then in a very rapid movement, she released her hand, whispered the single word “baacuuum,” and then slapped her hand back over her mouth as if she had witnessed a murder.
“Vacuum?” I asked.
She answered by crying and turning several shades of white. She had vacuumed the ashes and then given the trophy a thorough washing and polish.
I guided Antonia to the kitchen table and retrieved the vacuum cleaner. As she covered her face and unleashed a torrent of Spanish, I spread the morning’s San Francisco Chronicle over the dining room table and emptied the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag on top of it.
For the record, ashes from a crematorium are not a fine powder. They are a mix of ash and charred bone chips ranging in size and shape from a nail clipping to small chunk of burnt toast, objects not foreign to a vacuum cleaner. As we studied the debris on the kitchen table, I noted that the fine powder of ash had rendered all of the contents the same grey color, which made sorting more difficult than anticipated. Paper clip, rubber band, ashened Cheerio back into the bag. When in doubt, we assumed any unidentifiable object was Tessa, and with a plunk, a “dios mio” and a genuflect, we dropped her back into the brightly polished trophy. We sorted solids until we were left with a combination of ashes, crumbs and dust, all of which we poured back into the trophy, the last of Tessa sliding across the headlines, sports news and obituaries 5 minutes before my mother walked into the house.
I told dad. Mom never knew.
After the priest said, “ashes to ashes,” Dad had whispered to me, “paper clip to paper clip and Cheerios to Cheerios.” As Antonia’s wail ricocheted across the cavernous ceiling, and I choked back my “cough,” Mom snapped toward dad and me with an expression teetering at the crossroads of quizzical and livid.
Dad lowered his head as if overcome by the full weight of Tessa’s passing, and in a somber tone of the truly bereaved said, “Amen.”
I went back to worrying about where we all eventually end up.
————————– The End ————————–
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
― Mark Twain