There is no easy digging on the island of my wife’s childhood. Inches below the topsoil it’s alluvial coral, bleached white and bouldery. You want a grave, even for a body reduced to five pounds of ashes, to be dark and easy. I could have buried the bodies in the backyard, hauled out a pickaxe and had at the ground, but it would have been a long, sweaty labor.
We’d also been cleaning house for days and greasing the work with smoothies made from mangoes off the backyard tree and a heavy pour on the rum. My wife’s mother had finally been committed to a memory care facility. When one puts ‘finally’ in a sentence, there’s always a backstory. This one involves hoarding.
Five hundred pairs of shoes, no lie, most never worn. Decades of Home and Garden Magazines. A Dollar Store worth of Dollar Store stuff. The usual things one finds with hoarders.
The first body was Thomas, one of my mother-in-law’s favorite cats, who’d been cremated and interred in a carved box from Pier One and then shelved in the living room. He sat below a shelf-bending row of Modern Architecture ‘83-’92, next to porcelain cats in play, a dusty tasseled lamp, a tea set, a knock-off Lladro ballerina, a tiny basket.
My wife’s mother had had a cousin — Poor Bill, we called him, derisively. He’d shambled his life, de-closeted at 50, badly. His wife and kids, not liberated, not happy for him but feeling betrayed. And he too, not liberated, but still angry and wounded and therefore mean and self-pitying. You want to be kind to a man who has suffered unfairly, who kept his true nature hidden away in misguided shame for so long, but sometimes they won’t allow the sympathy. Someone knows Bill’s kinder story, but it wasn’t us, who knew him only as Poor Bill, a distant sometime denizen of my mother-in-law’s rental, and her confidant in her meaner, bitter days before the strokes gentled her spirit and took away her memory.
Bill had died a few years back, skipped the family reunion of our lives like an awkwardly invited guest. My wife’s mother kept his ashes and one assumes there was no welcome plot, no space among the headstones with corner enough for his remains. So on the shelf he was, body number two, beside the cat. There was no ceremony at all in his casket: a white cardboard box, of better paper than most but paper none-the-less. It still…