Those ashes. I hadn’t expected to love them. The twelve-inch square box, the glossy white paper. How heavy they were. That’s the bone, they said. In the car, I shook the box, and the bone rattled.
At home, I scoop some out. The powder in my hand is dense, not dusty the way wood ash is, and it is infused with tiny slivers of bone that remind me of Stone Age needle-tools. I take another handful. The ash seems to contain something like life, but the opposite of warmth. I seal my purloined ashes in a sandwich bag and lay it flat in my desk drawer. Then I rewrap the box, tape it shut, and tuck Barby’s ashes into a canvas carry-on. I am flying south to California to meet my brothers.
On the way to the airport, I shake the box again. The bone rattles.
Barby was my mother, but I always called her Barby. Many people begin calling their parents by first names once they grow up, a rite of passage, but in my family it was Barby and Dick from the beginning. They said my big brother Bruce started it when he learned to talk and they just let it be. Everyone called her Barby, my friends, her friends, our teachers, the cleaning lady, the kids on the block; milkman, mailman, garbage men. Because she came before the doll, I never associated her with all that. Anyway, the doll spelled her name B-A-R-B-I-E, and, except for the same noteworthy breasts, that vacant-eyed airhead was nothing like my Barby. My Barby smoked cigarettes, drank martinis, and was really really smart.
Later, the grandchildren called her Barby, too, but by then she wasn’t the same person.
We are meeting at David’s place in Del Rey Oaks, near Monterey. We plan to rent a car and drive down the coast to Santa Monica to release Barby’s ashes into the ocean. No one knows whether or not this is legal, but that is the plan. We are not exactly close. This will be our first gathering since Barby’s seventy-fifth birthday, three years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee.
A quick introduction. Barby was a housewife and Dick was a rocket scientist, and they were married for twenty-six years, from 1938-1964. After five years of unfettered, young-married fun, they had four children: Bruce, me, Geoff, and David. For most of my 1950’s childhood we lived in West Los Angeles around the corner from the sprawling Douglas Aircraft plant where Dick worked on a busy street called Bundy Drive. Sprinklers, sidewalks, and stucco ramblers.
In the fall of 1963—Bruce was in college, but the rest of us were still at home; David, the “caboose,” was barely ten—things fell apart. Dick went to Huntington Beach to live with his girlfriend and Barby went crazy.
Neither of them ever came back, not really.
Black Dog backwards. Barby flung the skirt of her shirtdress over her head. She would not come out; she would not cover her exposed underwear and skinny, bruised legs, askew on the rumpled sheet. Black Dog backwards, she rasped from under the thin cotton, over and over and over. They called it “nervous breakdown.”
The sun is out in Monterey. We have come from deep winter: Bruce, a scientist at NASA, from Cleveland; Geoff, a physics professor, from Knoxville; and I, a private-practice psychotherapist and visual artist, came from Seattle. David, a math professor, is the lucky one who lives here, where you get spring in January.
We assemble in David’s bright living room on two sectionals and the sole family heirloom, a spindled mahogany rocker. It occurs to me to put my glossy white box on the coffee table, but I don’t. Dust motes jounce around in the late afternoon sunbeams. We always do this, some delicate shuffle, like dogs creeping around corners to sniff and sneak peaks. Sometimes, in the course of our get-togethers, we soften up. I know we try. I had wondered if it would different with Barby gone, but this feels the same. I feel responsible for (and incapable of) making things go well, and I prattle, brightly, into the air.
David hops to the kitchen and returns with a bottle of champagne. I watch his handsome hands, square like Dick’s but with more refined fingers like Barby’s, as he unwinds the wire. His left-hand nails are short and the right-hand’s long, for guitar and bass. He pours the cheerful, light-amber liquid and we raise our flutes. No one says Barby, but it’s to her. Then we all chat, about weather, wine, travel, nothing.
Bruce steers into our past. He complains about the derision, the neglect. His face, in any case pinkish, flushes deep rose, and his lips are stiff. I stare at Bruce’s thick wavy hair, shiny-aluminum in a sunbeam. Barby loved Bruce’s glorious hair, the wave and the widows-peak. I don’t think Dick did. Dick was bald. Bruce says there was some weird overlay of sex in our household. He says we were abused. We have talked about all this before, but I am no longer interested.
I was there when Barby died. If she had just died suddenly in her sleep, like Bruce I might have still been mad, if not about our childhood then about the long years after, thorny and stingy. And I would have been sad. I would have been relieved. But Barby didn’t die suddenly in her sleep. Barby spent her last days tucked in my house, in my bedroom, and something I could not have anticipated, or even imagined, happened. We fell in love.
You never know, Barby-the-athiest said, two days before she died. She was talking about heaven, about joining her mother there. She smiled into my eyes, a brave girl going off to her first day at kindergarten. You never know.
I cannot expect them to feel the way I do. They weren’t there. I tried to tell them over the phone last September how sweet she was at the end, but I got the feeling they found me irritating or disloyal. But if you walk off the ship, must it mean you are abandoning the other sailors?
Geoff stands up. He looks the same as always, with his deep-set brown eyes, dark beard and plain-brown country haircut—except for the eyebrows, I notice, which are darker and bushier and create a shelf so that his eyes are hidden in shadow, just glints. He brings out a fake-leather yellow suitcase with rusted locks and peeling decals secured by a heavy nylon strap. Barby’s stuff, what is left of it; in fact, her entire archive. Barby left it with him almost two years ago when, evicted from her apartment in Knoxville, she moved to Seattle to live near me.
Barby rolled her eyes and pointed at her lap. Uh, oh. The airport wheelchair appeared to be leaking. Barby sucked hard on an Old Gold. We had passed three bathrooms between the gate and baggage claim. Three times, Barby had claimed she did not need to go.
A little puddle formed on the dirty grey cement. Barby smirked, took another long drag, and gazed at passing cars with smoke leaking from her nose. The puddle trickled toward the curb.
Geoff lays the yellow suitcase on the coffee table. His hands are a slightly larger version of David’s. I look at mine. The same, Dick’s; I wish I had Barby’s. Geoff says he wants to show us how beautiful Grandma Butch (Barby’s mother) was. He takes off the strap, unlatches the rusty clasps, and lifts the lid. The smell of stale cigarette laced with mildew rises into the room like a genie wafting out of a bottle. We are silent.
Over the next hour we pluck out photos: sort, stare, show each other. We build our separate piles, from our yearly visits to Barby’s beach in the 1970’s. I think about those ashes again; they belong to all of us; they might help bring us together. But still I do not bring them out.
I grab a random snapshot of Barby standing on the lawn on Bundy Drive in the ‘50’s showing off her new, short haircut, called a ducktail. Her head is tilted. She wears a satisfied smile.
Why not? Barby would say, spiraling her right forefinger in the air in a tight circle and then swooshing it up and away. Barby was learning shorthand, a stab at practicality for this summa cum laude Phi Beta Kappa. Her simper said it was a cute trick. You knew she was never really going to be a secretary.
Finally, Geoff suggests we stop and he closes the lid. We move on to more wine and David’s lasagna. Later, Bruce, Geoff, David and his wife, Anne, settle at the dining table to play Pit and Liars’ Dice, games from our childhood, and I envision the competitive steam from our childhood. I am not a good loser, I never was, and I usually lost—and I am tired—so I retreat to my room to read.
But first I say, on impulse, “Would it be okay if I took that yellow suitcase home with me? After we’re all done?”
They look up. Anne shuffles the cards.
“Sure,” Geoff says.
Bruce shrugs and nods.
I can take the yellow suitcase home with me.
I will use that archive to investigate Barby’s life, something I know almost nothing about. I will use it, photos and papers, to write her story. And I will paint portraits of Barby, too, lots of them. But I do not know that yet. I just want the yellow suitcase.
Night night, sleep tight—I tensed—don’t let the bedbugs bite! Dick pinched my arm. He chuckled.
I liked it better when Barby patted my shoulder: night night, Patty.
We spend the next day exploring Monterey County like pilgrims in the Holy Land. You can tell David is proud, as though it’s his. Near Big Sur, we sight sea lions, sea otters, pelicans, and then a spout, and then lots of spouts, out near the horizon. In David’s scope the barnacled backs of gray whales migrating to Baja to have their babies heave into view.
Barby’s mothering may have been absentminded, but one thing all four of us got, and we got it from her, is this capacity for enchantment with nature.
Across Highway One, we take a hike up Soberanes Canyon: Redwood and manzanita in the ravines, prickly pear on the slopes, and everywhere horsetail fern, coyote bush, shooting stars, and sticky monkey flowers. Bruce doesn’t want to cross the wooden bridges over gold-flecked Soberanes Creek. I have to coax, I hold his hand. Bruce was born with a stiff, permanently contracted right arm and right leg, probably the result of a difficult forceps delivery—spastic diplegia, it was called. This is the first time I’ve realized that, because of his shriveled foot and uneven gait, he does not trust his balance.
We eat apples and trail mix on Rocky ridge with the sun warm on our backs and the Pacific below.
On the way back to town, we make a quick stop at a copse of eucalyptus in Pacific Grove, just in case. The canopy is coated—coated—with Monarch butterflies, like orange-and-black leaves that unfold and flicker sunlight with silken whispers. A peak experience, Geoff mutters. He and Barby were butterfly collectors.
Finally, we pay a visit to Ventana Vineyards, in the foothills of the Santa Lucia range, to watch the sun set while we sip sauvignon blanc. They just give you this? For free? They don’t charge for this? We find Geoff’s amazement very funny, our genius physicist bumpkin brother. Maybe Barby gave us her enchantment with wine, too. For her, it was nearly lethal.
That night, like a kid calling in the last outliers in a game of hide and seek, David sings out, rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons, and we crowd onto the deck to take turns one more time at the scope: rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons, in Del Rey Oaks’ clear winter skies.
Whales, wildflowers, butterflies, wine and planets. These are what bring us together, wrap us in happy wonder. And though Barby was not mentioned, she was with us all day. Barby loved California.
We set off the next morning in the rented Chevrolet, everyone soft and generous about who gets which seat. We steer onto Highway One, the old snaky coast road—eight hours to L.A., but it was the road of our childhood, and it has the gunmetal Pacific Ocean on one side, and silver, olive, and jade chaparral on new-pea foothills on the other. Red rock. Black conifers. I always feel hopeful when I see the smudge-line where ocean meets sky.
But then Geoff inserts country music, Alabama, into the tape deck and our sweet, delicate accord deteriorates: Bruce says something funny—Bruce is very funny—but it has bite, and Geoff, who has one of those faces you can’t read so you read it as arrogant, stares at him in the rear-view mirror without speaking. I am in the back seat with Bruce; I start vibrating with his prickle. I wish I were the kind of person who could tune that stuff out, but I’m not. Finally David and I generate a rule that the driver should get to pick the music and Bruce curls into a slouch, his mouth a horizontal thread. Now the silence is not tranquil.
And I was already getting tense. Geoff drives too fast. They all do.
Later, when Bruce is driving, he puts in some loud rock music. Geoff, now in back, protests. Bruce pauses the tape. Do we have a rule or don’t we? Okay then. Bruce again blares Led Zeppelin. The atmosphere in the car has become noxious, as though oxygen is in short supply, and my stomach clenches. I need something, like my own tapes, maybe the Goldberg Variations. Why didn’t I bring tapes? I think about those ashes in the trunk. I want Barby. This longing surprises me. I never believed Barby was on my side. I would have said she liked the boys better, and David best. I find out later they always thought she favored me.
But did Barby ever settle our squabbles? Did she soothe us? Four kids.
Finally, after seven-and-a-half hours, we hit L.A. County. Geoff is again at the wheel. Right at County Line beach, right where we set off Fourth of July fireworks when we were little, he inserts a new tape. Oh dear, I think, now what?
The piercing guitar and sweet harmonies of the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari burst forth, loud and ringing, and instantly we are bouncing, all four of us, bouncing high in our seats; and singing, too, like on ancient family car trips. I glance at Bruce’s bobbing, grinning face and grab his hand. I look at Geoff in the rearview mirror, and at David—we are also weeping, all four of us, but weeping can’t stop us. We chant, we shout, we shriek, Help Me Rhonda, Good Vibrations, Surfin’ USA past the sere hills of Malibu, past Topanga Canyon and Sunset Boulevard and Will Rogers State beach; Wouldn’t It Be Nice past Chatauquah Boulevard and the cliffs along the Pacific Coast Highway. Together again, all the way into Santa Monica. And Barby would have sung along. She loved music, any music, including our music. She sang harmony.
That night, in a modest hotel on Ocean Avenue, I place my box of ashes on the nightstand and I stand there, palm on top, until the paper grows warm. Then I slide my bare legs between cool, pilled sheets and turn off the light. I roll the stiff pillow. I am too worn out to read, too tired to dream.
Ollie ollie oxen free free free. Robin song, eucalyptus, orange blossom and dust. Barby’s musical lilt called us in. Ollie ollie oxen free free free.
The next morning we meet in the lobby wearing shorts and sweatshirts over bathing suits. We carry identical white hotel towels, and I carry the white box. No one comments on the box. I also carry four copies of a poem, Rilke’s Ninth Duino Elegy. We amble, silent, two blocks along Ocean Avenue to a steep little alley called Pacific Terrace, down to Appian Way, then two more blocks to the Sea Castle, Barby’s last home in California. The temperature is in the sixties, the sun a pale disc behind morning marine air.
The Sea Castle is gone. My throat constricts. The pink, art deco high-rise is gone, replaced by a sleek steel and glass structure called the Sea Castle Luxury Suites. Why would they tear it down? We had loved the rent-controlled Sea Castle, with its assortment of grizzled eccentrics, mothers on welfare, and old ladies. Barby claimed Joan Baez lived in the penthouse on top, though we never saw her. We did like to watch the surf bums who lived in white vans in the parking lot—in fact, David had once lived in his white van in that parking lot. If you got there early enough, you could catch them rousting out of side doors, their ecstatic teeth and far-away eyes gleaming in bronzed faces. Beach coyotes, they would lope to the ocean with their toothbrushes. Their hair looked like the cellophane hair of dolls.
We trudge through the half-empty lot, now devoid of ratty vans, to the fresh asphalt boardwalk, now called Ocean Front Walk, and down the same old concrete steps onto cool, soft sand. Far away down the beach, two orange beach-cleaners chug toward Venice Beach.
We sit on a shelf formed by the night’s high surf and we gaze at the grey-scrimmed waves. No one speaks. Finally, I read the Elegy.
Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)–:why then
have to be human—and escaping from fate,
keep longing for fate.
I tell them how I found this poem on my computer the morning after Barby died, in My Documents, and how I had not put it there, and Wayne, my husband, had not put it there, so I decided it was a message and a gift. And how I told Wayne it was proof that God was in the computer, and how Wayne said, only half joking, don’t tell anybody, and how I told everybody. How I read it at Barby’s memorial, read it to all my friends, read it to colleagues, read it every evening to myself. (David’s wife, Anne, had typed out the poem for her collection on her last visit and accidentally saved the file. Learning this later in no way diminished my miracle.)
Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?
Transformation. Urgent command, I say again, and I hand them their copies. My breath grows shallow. My chest feels as though it is wrapped with wire.
We tell stories, the old standards: cows eat dirt, all through train go home now, ice cream tastes good with napkin. We each pitch memories into the pot, but our supply is so small. Geoff, and especially David, can’t remember much about Barby before her nervous breakdown. I want to give them something, but nothing comes.
Some sniffling, a few tears. Silence. Bruce makes us laugh, reminding us how Barby was just like Lucy on I Love Lucy. It’s time.
I pass the box of ashes to Bruce, who hefts it and rattles it. He passes it to David, who hefts, and David passes it to Geoff, to be hefted, rattled. They pass it back. I hold out my hand, but Bruce un-tapes the white paper, flips up the lid and grabs a fistful with his left hand, his good hand. He extends the box to me in the crook of his right arm.
Bruce marches to the water and stands ankle-deep, a lone figure facing the heaving, leaden ocean with his arm raised. He leans over and lays his ash on the sea. Some of the ghostly powder blows away, some rests atop the creamy foam. Bruce appears to taste his hand.
He turns around and limps back to our shelf, his mouth upside-down. Geoff wraps his arms around him and they sob. I cling to David for a moment, and then I take some ash. I walk to the water. Sprinkling her ashes through my fingers as though I am spreading grass seed, I say softly, here you go, Barby. After a minute, I turn around. Three pairs of eyes are watching me; three stripped faces.
Bruce wails, “I thought we were only going to say good stuff. But she was a terrible parent. We all had a hard time, a terrible time. And I will do better than that.” Very fierce, “I will be better.”
Geoff, who has recently had hard times of his own, says, “Well, but she is like us, we are like her. She did the best she could.” Bruce is sobbing. I don’t know what he hears.
As though he has no choice, Geoff picks up the box. Maybe in a family that falls apart too soon, marching in birth order is a way to resurrect, to concoct, tradition. Or maybe all families, fallen-apart or not, do things in order. Geoff scoops, strides to the water, and flings the ash, like a cloud, at the surf. The cloud flies apart; tiny fragments rain down. The bone. When Geoff turns around his cheeks are coated with tears.
David takes his turn. With the light steps of a cat, he jogs to the sea and lays his handful of ash on the foam with the rest.
Then we all just bawl. Together.
The first time we lost Barby, thirty-four years ago, we blew apart. We shriveled, stunned and silent, into our separate shells. We moved away, from her, from each other, and sooner or later, from L.A. Now we stay together. We hug, we look at each other. David’s round brown eyes swim, his lower lip quivers; Geoff’s face morphs into a gaping mouth and injured brow; I don’t squelch my crumple and hiccup; and Bruce, the expressive one, our Pavarotti of grief, spews saliva and snot and tears and words, though I don’t follow. I think, we’ve never cried together, but then I remember just yesterday we cried with the Beach Boys.
Later, on the drive home, David will say that we salvaged a family on that beach.
I will say we created a family.
Geoff will say we’re both right.
When our tears are spent, we just sit side-by-side, staring at the sea. The ash on the foam has not dissipated. I watch it slide toward me, and away.
But I guess we were too frugal, because when I check the box, it is still half-full. I give the boys a look. Bruce smiles, the green-glass of his eyes startling against red rims. I jerk my chin at him and say I want someone to go in so I will have to. We all stand up. I pull my sweatshirt over my head. Bruce shrugs and says something like, well, here goes. He grabs a handful of ash, dashes into the surf with his lopsided sprint, and dives under a roller. He jets up on the other side, howling.
I am right behind him. I dive—it is so cold—and the icy ocean snatches my tears, leaving me empty and clean. I shake my hair and dive again and this time I open my hand, and Barby’s ashes bloom into the salty water. I pray to the ocean gods, take her to China, she would love to see China.
Geoff, and then David, slam into the waves beside me. We all leap and scream and chortle and snort; windmill arms and whip water. We grin at each other, born-agains in the surf. We are proud to be the only people at the beach. Angelenos, they call us.
Pretty soon, I get out. I feel like a chicken. But I am too cold.
Years later, on the phone, Bruce will tell me, “I talked to her out there. I remember, I was standing in the water up to my chest—it was so cold. But she was there. I talked to her. And I told her, it’s not your fault.” He paused to snuffle and clear his throat. “It wasn’t her fault,” he cried, his voice high. “It’s like, our family was five kids and one really horrible parent.”
Of course, I thought. That’s it. Dick was the horrible parent. Barby was one of us.
We sit again on the shelf of sand wrapped in white towels, hunched-up and shivering. We aren’t ready to leave the beach. We watch the scrim of foam, now top-lit by the sun, slide toward us, and away. I pick up the box.
I have a fleeting thought that we should have used some ash to create a ritual, swiped a bit on each other’s foreheads—but no. We did what Barby did; we did the best we could. And those ashes are gone.
Honeymoon, Ontario, Canada
“She Would Love To See China” first appeared in (em) Review of Text and Image, issue one, Fall 2012.