Mom’s Last Ride

The house I grew up in backed up to a funeral home. As a kid, I had no idea what that meant, really. It was just normal for their parking lot to be filled up on weekends with people in church clothes, and periodically their chimneys would spew smelly smoke.

I still remember that smell. The smell of burning bodies.

Looking back, I realize it’s a little morbid, growing up being accustomed to the smell of weekly cremation. We just saw the parking lot as a great place to ride our bikes, and the snow plow made for great heaps of snow to play on. I only went inside the place once, when I was covering for a friend’s paper route. I set the paper on the table inside and ran home as fast as I could.

That was when I was older.

Mom had two dying requests. She didn’t want a depressing funeral, she wanted a memorial where people came together to celebrate her life, and she didn’t want her earthly body rotting in a coffin for all eternity.

She wanted to be cremated. We respected her wishes.

The days following Mom’s death were cloudy and gray, which seemed a little too mood appropriate. It was as if the world was in mourning for the loss of a soul as good as hers.

Or maybe it was just that there was another hurricane in the gulf that was causing the front that moved through, and it was just coincidence she died the same week, but I liked to think it had something to do with Mom.

I took the full extent of my bereavement leave after she passed, and then a few days vacation on top of that. The rest of my family went back to work almost right away, so I was left doing some of the leftover stuff after someone dies that nobody had time for.

Putting her sick room back to a regular room, returning all the Homecare and Hospice supplies, intercepting grieving friends and family when they left food.

The day before I left to get back to my life in Lawrence, I made a trip down to the funeral parlor to pick up Mom’s ashes.

Not the funeral home from my childhood, thankfully. I’ve found that real life is never that serendipitous.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got there. The gentleman who greeted me was the man who had taken my mother away under an ugly fuzzy red blanket the night she died. He handed me a small cardboard box. Heavier than I expected. He had me sign some stuff, asked me questions I didn’t know the answers to, and I promised to have my Dad call him to fill in the blanks later.

And with that, I was alone with my mother.

Or what was left of her earthly remains, anyway. All that remained of her earthly vessel, reduced to the contents of a small cardboard box. Talk about surreal.

I got to the car and wasn’t sure what to do next. I sat the box on the passenger seat and stared at it.

“Am I supposed to seatbelt you in?” I asked the box.

I shrugged, feeling half crazy as I pulled the seatbelt across it and snapped it into place.

“Here we go, Mom. Your last car ride. You’re all buckled in safely.”

I stole sideways glances at it – her – the whole way home.

And I found myself babbling. Telling her about stupid stuff. The fact that we all went to Hobby Lobby for paint by numbers and did crafts for hours the day after she died. How my brother went to go see his girlfriend’s baby niece and left me behind. How my sister had already gone back to work. How we had all broken down crying in stages as we cleaned out her closet – and how I knew she’d roll her eyes at all the stuff of hers I was bringing home because I couldn’t let go.

I didn’t cry in the car. I just felt like this was my last chance to talk to her. Silly. She had been gone for more than a week.

When I got home, I parked in the driveway and sat with my hands on the steering wheel. It felt like the spell would break the minute I left the car. So I reached over and pulled the box into my lap.

I took a breath and opened it up. There was a tightly sealed plastic bag inside. I pulled gently, not wanting to shake loose a single particle of Mom, and peeked into the bag.

And wished I hadn’t. They weren’t smooth, pretty ashes. They were a strange shade, and I could see bigger chunks. Bone? I quickly closed the box.

The thought of what was really in there made me shudder: the remains of her worn and broken body. I wondered if I looked closely enough, if I could find chunks of her bright red painted finger and toenails.

Don’t be silly, Sara. The nail polish would have burned away. Her nails too, probably.

I felt slightly ill. I decided I didn’t really want a portion of her ashes after all. The spell was broken, so I stuffed the bag back inside the box and brought them inside.

My Dad and brother found them later, and did the same thing I did. Peeked inside to see what they could see.

“What are those chunks?” my brother asked.

I left the room.

I didn’t look at the box again, and the next day I left town. Went back to try and figure out how to live my life without my mother.

I went back a few weeks later for the memorial, and when I got there, I noticed a large, ceramic cookie jar sitting on the mantel above the fireplace.

“What’s that about?” I asked my brother.

“Oh, that’s Mom.”

I lifted the lid. Sure enough, there was the bag that held her ashes.

“A cookie jar?” I asked.

He shrugged and grinned. “It’s better than that cardboard box. What else were we supposed to put her in?”

“An urn, like normal people?”

“What’s the fun in that?” Dad asked from behind me. “Maybe someday I’ll get her one, but this works for now.”

I could just imagine her reaction. “You put my ashes in a cookie jar?” she’d ask, voice incredulous. And then she’d roll her eyes and laugh that belting laugh I still remember so well.

I smiled. Yeah, it worked.

And it still works. Mom watches us from the fireplace mantel inside her cookie jar to this day.

Sara is a Kansas-grown author of the fantasy and horror persuasions. She is convinced that fantastical things are waiting for her just around the corner, and until she finds the right corner, she writes about those things instead.

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