By Jane Hammons
Executor. That word has defined me and followed my signature on documents for over a year. I’m ready to put it to rest.
I’ve balanced the books on Kath’s account—down to the penny. She, the CPA, would be pleased. Or depending on her mood, she might make fun of me, pretend to be amazed that I—the writer, the teacher of writing—could do basic math. She would ignore—deny even—the story that numbers tell. I listen to them all. Months of unpaid invoices from the ambulance service—two to three rescues a week toward the end. Hundreds of dollars for online games. Enormous vet bills for the cat (sent to a shelter by the Sheriff of Santa Cruz County when he found Kath’s body).
The detailed billing from Mehl’s Colonial Chapel tells its own story. Of the many services offered, we choose the simplest: Direct Cremation.
No traditional funeral service. No cremation funeral service. No memorial service.
I have a hard time explaining this to our father’s family, who call from New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma—places where the traditional roots of his family are sown. They want to know where to send flowers.
A wreath then, offers Uncle Jerry, Dad’s little brother, loudmouth, big spender—someone Kath loved. She maintained close ties with our father’s family after our parents divorced. I did not. And I don’t want to talk about my sister’s death with any of them.
I listen while Uncle Jerry recounts his plan to take Kath on a drive down Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, from her home in Santa Cruz to Fountain Valley where his daughter lives near Disneyland. For over twenty years, I’ve heard Kath describe this imagined journey, sometimes as though she had actually taken it.
With this story he wants to claim some part of her, declare a bond. Kath told the story for the same reason: to let me know that she was connected to him—to our father, to that family, those roots—in a way that I never would be, something that has always been clear.
My father’s family is not subtle. Kath was like a baby sister to Dad’s youngest siblings; Uncle Jerry just eight when she was born. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was four, Kath required a lot of attention.
My brother Johnny—two years younger than I—was the first grandson, a sweet, funny boy, a troubled man, and ultimately a disappointment, but male, an heir to the significance they’ve attached to their family name. (My name, too.)
But Kath and Johnny are both dead, so Uncle Jerry spills out his funeral fantasy to me. She liked lilies and roses, he tells me, like it is something I don’t know.
A floating wreath. Put candles on it.
He directs the service.
As the sun sets, walk to the beach near Nancy’s house. (He calls my mother by name; my father refers to her as your mother.)
Sprinkle ashes upon the wreath.
Place it in the waves.
Watch it float out to sea, tiny lights disappearing along the horizon.
He chokes himself up imagining something like the final scene of The Descendants, the last movie Kath saw in a theater. Not that Uncle Jerry would know that. It was our stepfather, Jim, who took Kath to that movie and watched with her as handsome George Clooney and his lovely daughters sprinkled mother-wife ashes into a warm Hawaiian sea.
Here it’s January. The Pacific waters of the Monterey Bay are cold. Waves break hard upon a beach largely abandoned in winter.
Sure, I say, send it to my mother’s house.
No wreath arrives. We fly kites.
It’s something that Kath loved to do, my younger sister Diane reminds those of us who have gathered: me, my youngest sister Libby (my half-sister if you want to get biological, but we don’t in this family), our folks, my children.
We take the kites from Kath’s laundry room to the beach. There is very little wind, but Diane is determined and chugs up and down the beach, churning enough breeze to keep aloft the small yellow triangle with black and white cartoon eyes. We applaud. Cheer. Mom says silly things about Kath looking down upon us. Mostly we pay attention to my niece, Libby’s baby girl. We build a sandcastle. Decorate it with sea gull feathers, tiny shells, and bits of sea glass. Mom and Jim take their young granddaughter by the hand and toddle her to the water’s edge where, delighted, she pounds her tiny feet into the cold sea foam. Around her chubby legs wrap strands of sea kelp, their bulbs sputtering last gasps as they come to rest upon the shore. My two children, young men in their twenties, toss a Frisbee with Libby’s husband. We wish Diane’s family were here, but for work and school, they have stayed in Austin where they live.
The wreath that Uncle Jerry never sent floats, unwelcome, into my awareness that we are avoiding more than memorializing. Kath’s ashes—surprisingly heavy packed into a Tupperware tub by Mehl’s—sit in the garage. For the past few days, with the baby and my two boys here, Mom has been more attentive grandmother to the living than grieving mother of the dead. We don’t mention it for fear it will raise the specter of relief, something we are all feeling but cannot yet admit.
My children and I are the first to depart; then Libby and her family return to Portland. Diane stays a few days longer. From Mom’s carefully cultivated collection, she chooses purple orchids for a car ride down Highway 1. Mom wraps Kath’s Tupperwared remains in a blanket and cradles her oldest child in her arms as Jim drives down the Pacific Coast to Big Sur—not Disneyland—and they have a quiet picnic.
Months later, however, there is still the matter of Kath’s ashes.
I decide to sprinkle some of them around New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, land of our childhood. For the distribution, Mom has purchased several cheap plastic tubes in an array of lollipop colors. When I tell her they look like dildos, she blushes, suddenly prudish as she approaches eighty, this woman who once enlisted the help of her children in decoupaging onto thin pieces of wood pictures of bare-breasted Playboy Bunnies she’d ripped from magazines. We boxed the Bunny plaques up with candy bars and socks and mailed them off to soldiers in Vietnam. My stepfather among them.
I choose the purple one and fill it with Kath. Preparing for our journey, I check airline regulations for rules about transporting ashes but find none. I carry her in my backpack where she rolls along the conveyor belt and is x-rayed—greasy fat, thin skin, tiny shards of bone—along with camera, laptop, cell phone. I go upright skeleton, arms above head, through the body scanner. Can the TSA agent see that I have only one kidney? The other I gave to Kath twenty-five years ago.
I fly into record heat, the entire state of New Mexico in the second year of a terrible drought, pick up a rental car in Albuquerque, put Kath in the shade on the passenger-side floor, and adjust the air-conditioner vents to keep her cool. I don’t want that cheap tube melting in the sun, fusing her forever into a lewd purple conglomeration of plastic and ash. Then we hit the long hot highway, as we have done many times. Trips from Albuquerque, where we both attended the University of New Mexico, to Roswell before we followed Mom’s migration to California. Drives to see Dad and his family—Lawton, Amarillo, Carlsbad, Monroe. Roads stretched out before us then. Any destination possible.
I enter the Village of Capitan along U. S. 380 at one end of the Billy the Kid Trail. Across it hangs a banner reading, “Jesus Christ Lord over Capitan.” I react as though it says “No Sinners Allowed” and hit the brake hard. Kath rolls forward then back and under the seat, hiding. She doesn’t want to be here. And suddenly neither do I.
Capitan, New Mexico: population 1485; twenty churches; 3.2 square miles; home of Smokey Bear. Dad is mayor. The last time I was here with Kath, it was Christmas—the 1970s were about to become the 1980s; we were both getting divorces. We received matching gifts: beige sweaters with suede panels down the front, a big zipper up the middle. Laughing, we put them on under the identical plaid ponchos we got the year before.
Once in the eighties, I persuaded Diane to meet me at Dad’s for a couple of days in the summer—I didn’t want to make the obligatory visit alone.
Once in the nineties, I brought my sons—then five and seven—to meet their grandfather.
It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve visited Dad’s house. He’s never been to mine. In 2008 we all gathered at Kath’s condo in Santa Cruz when we feared she would die, hospitalized in a coma for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me.
I am here because she is not.
After I unload my suitcase and settle into the spare bedroom, I ask Dad and my stepmother, Ellen, if they want to drive over to where Mom’s cabin once stood in Noisy Water Canyon and sprinkle some of Kath’s ashes in the Ruidoso River. They look at me like I’ve shit on their shoes. Jesus Christ lords over Capitan, and, apparently he takes a dim view of cremation. Or perhaps it is the spreading of ashes. No one says a word.
Alone, I drive to the canyon, passing miles and miles of blackened trees and charred earth. The Little Bear Fire, the most destructive in New Mexico’s history, burned for weeks and has been out for little over a month. Ruidoso, once a small, charming village, has bulged into a chaotic mix of ugly pre-fab structures standing right next to the old split log and wooden buildings. It’s summer, so the horses are running at Ruidoso Downs and the traffic is hobbled by gigantic SUVs, RVs, and customized pickup trucks that crowd the narrow two-lane street. I’m happy to leave the center of town and head down into Noisy Water Canyon, sad to see that the wooden plank bridge that once crossed the Ruidoso River has been replaced by a paved over metal culvert. The river is so low that water just creeps around large exposed rocks and boulders.
I drive the short distance to where the cabin, demolished several years ago, once stood, and I park in the dirt driveway. The air is filled with dust and the scent of dangerously dry trees and grasses. The wild raspberries are not growing, the woodpeckers are not pecking, the pine cones on the ground hold no piñones. I had planned to hike along the river and leave some of Kath’s ashes on the big rocks we used to climb on. But I feel trapped in the canyon and panic, thinking about the fire hazard signs along the road as I drove here, Smokey Bear pointing to the red color bar designating extreme conditions. The canyon road is a dead end at the border of the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation. So I retrace the path that led me here and return with Kath’s ashes to Dad’s house where he sits watching the Olympics.
Over the next four days I spend a lot of time riding the Billy the Kid Trail in my rental car. From the Inn of the Mountain Gods Casino to the historic town of Lincoln for visits to the Tunstall-McSween Store, the Lincoln County Courthouse, the old cemetery. One day I make the trek to my hometown: Roswell, a place I haven’t been since the last time I visited Dad.
I follow familiar streets that lead south of town out into the countryside, but I can barely make my way to the farm where I grew up, so much of the landscape now a hideous agro-industrial parking lot and dumping ground. The house I lived in is almost unidentifiable, the lawn Mom struggled to keep green indistinguishable from the gravel driveway, which blends into parched brown fields.
“Catfish for Sale” reads a sign in the yard. The swimming pool is now a fishpond. My eyes full of tears, I get out to take pictures. The car fills with gigantic sticky horseflies. They land and linger on my face and lips; they snuggle in my hair. I snap a couple of sad shots before driving to the cemetery to sprinkle Kath’s ashes on the grave of the stillborn baby she had her first year in college. Pregnant and unmarried, she dropped out, losing her National Merit Scholarship. Banished from our home on the farm, Kath was sent to live in Carlsbad with Dad and his parents, undeserved punishment I thought even then.
In 1970 it was risky for Type 1 diabetics to have children, the monitoring required extensive, the chances of a healthy birth low. Kath’s doctor went on vacation two weeks before her due date. When she hadn’t felt the baby move for a couple of days, she drove herself to the hospital where the absence of life was confirmed. Labor was induced.
I was in high school then and left classes early one afternoon to attend the baby’s funeral. I joined my parents, stepparents, all of our grandparents, and a great-aunt at the little gravesite where a small spray of mini carnations and baby’s breath stood near a tiny white coffin; both were startling, unseemly in both size and luster. I don’t remember if my younger siblings were there. Kath was not. I didn’t question it at the time when Dad said she wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t be present. Only many years later, after giving birth to two sons of my own, could I even begin to imagine how horribly unwell she must have felt. But I remember wondering at the time if she was still in the hospital. Alone while all of us—her family—were at South Park Cemetery out on the highway between our farm and Roswell.
When I arrive at the cemetery with the ashes of Steven Christopher Hammons’ mother kept cool in purple plastic, I go to the office to ask directions to the grave. The secretary, one cigarette in her hand, another burning to ash in a ceramic dish on her desk, filling the air with smoke that makes me nauseated, takes her time finding a map. She draws a slow circle around the exact location with her red pen. When she hands it to me, she says Hammons aloud and takes a long look at me. If this were a movie, we’d figure out who we were. Biology class, cheerleaders, annual staff. But we’re old now, and I haven’t lived in Roswell since I graduated from high school. If my last name rings a bell with her, it’s not a very loud or long one. I hurry out the door.
Driving directly to the baby’s grave, I avoid the others that cry for my attention: my mother’s two sisters and a brother, all dead in infancy; my mother’s mother and father; my great-grandmother and two great aunts, women I adored as a child, their husbands. Somewhere, not too far from where generations of my mother’s family are buried, is the grave of my best friend’s brother. He and Kath had dated in high school. I was dating him when he was murdered at age twenty-three. My brother is not buried here. His daughter keeps his ashes with her in an urn. But he is on my mind. All of them are, these dead people.
I sprinkle Kath’s dense ashes and slivers of bone around the granite marker denoting a life never lived.
Then I take a picture of it with the iPad I bought to document this journey, sending my mother, stepfather, sisters, and children photographs of the places where I’ve left Kath’s ashes as I travel around the state for reasons of my own. Kath did not ask this of me as Executor or sister. Maybe she doesn’t even want to mark the territory of our youth with her remains. I snag the cemetery’s wi-fi and email the photo to Mom. Immediately she replies in all caps, multiple exclamation points screaming:
WHY DON’T I REMEMBER THAT THE BABY WAS GIVEN A NAME!!!!!!
I power down the iPad. This is not a question I can answer.
My sisters, my mother, and I continue to ask each other a lot of questions. We verify chronology, plain facts—marriage, divorce, birth, death, hospitalizations, transplant—with available documents. We accept that about many things our memories conflict, contradict and are most certainly imperfect. We try not to argue about right, wrong, truth, confusion, or mistake.
The Ex Parte Petition for Final Discharge and Order sits beside me on the couch as I write. Kath’s condo sold, gifts gifted, beneficiaries benefitted, my Executor duties near completion.
Ex Parte: legal work done on behalf of only one party, in this case a dead one.
Ex Parte: forms give the appearance of conclusion.
Ex Parte the story I want to tell is not. And this is where it begins.
JANE HAMMONS lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches writing at UC Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Brain, Child, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and the anthologies Hint Fiction: An Anthology of 25 Words or Fewer, The Maternal is Political, and California Prose Directory. Her photography has appeared at Revolution John and in New York Magazine.