Did you know it’s possible to ship human remains – or in this case cremains – from one side of the country to the other? I did not.
My mother’s cremains were shipped to me on January 8 along with three copies of her death certificate and the necklace she was wearing when she took her last breath. I was told that after a few days of fighting the inevitable her passing last Friday was peaceful.
I need the certificates to close her phone, cable and bank accounts. Holding her necklace in my hands will bring resonant clarity to the last six months. But the ashes? What am I supposed to do with a box full of ashes?
I suppose, given how rare it was to see her without a cigarette in her hands, it’s appropriate that my mother ended her life on earth going up in smoke. But the truth is the box that arrives on my doorstep will not be filled with ashes. Cremains are, in fact, pulverized bone. So what should I do with five pounds of pulverized bone?
A quick internet search offers choices: I could have them compressed into a synthetic diamond or have them set into a piece of sterling silver jewelry. I could use them to plant a tree, which is a nice idea, or I could scatter them to the wind. What I won’t do is put them in a fancy urn to let them gather dust on a bookshelf until someone decides I should be turned into five pounds of pulverized bone.
When people die we like to imagine them with loved ones who have passed. With my mom, that’s tricky. I can’t imagine her with her abusive first husband (my father), or with the mother she fought with or my sister Margaret, from whom she was estranged. It would be nice if she was hanging around with her one true love, Tom, whom she met when she was fifty and was with for almost twenty-five years, but I never met him and so that’s difficult for me to see in my mind’s eye.
Maybe she’s nowhere. I don’t really believe that, but some people do. I believe that my mother’s energetic vibration is looking for a place to settle. In Buddhism this is a bardo state – a liminal state between death and rebirth. Given the story of her life, the drama and the anger, is it my responsibility to help her move from her bardo state? Or is finding a place for her cremains an act that will only bring comfort to me?
My mother loved to tell the story of being stationed in San Francisco when she was a young girl in the Army and her visits to Top of the Mark. I think that would be a nice place to leave a little bit of her energy. Later in life, she spent nights at the Fogelsville Bar, perched like the Queen of the Silver Dollar. Maybe I can leave just a little bit of my mom on one of the barstools.
What I think she might like most of all is a good view. So if you’re hiking the cliff side in Half Moon Bay and catch the scent of garlic, coffee and Pall Malls – say ‘hello’ to Bobbie.
Despite my mother’s insistence, and the evidence I found in her belongings, 23 and Me insists I’ve not a drop of Jewish blood. In other words, it’s highly probable that I don’t have the DNA to make a good latke. I tried anyway.
I had a few things going against me. Some my own doing.
They needed to be vegan.
Rather than using two potatoes I decided to use one potato and one white-fleshed yam.
I was of the opinion that latkes were nothing more than Jewish hash browns. What could go wrong?
It turns out, quite a bit can go wrong.
If vegan latkes means no eggs to bind them what will keep them from falling apart? The choices are varied: chia seed, flax powder or aquafaba. Ben’s brilliant sister – who knows her way around the kitchen – squeezed the water from her shredded potato, allowed it to settle, and then used the starch at the bottom of the bowl plus one half of a banana to bind. My sad choice? Flour. In my defense I was referencing a recipe I found online. I said to myself, “That’s odd” but pulled the organic flour from the back of my kitchen cabinet anyway. A more skilled cook might have gotten away with it. Me? Not so much.
It was going well at first. I grated my tubers (the joke goes latkes are “Grate, Grate, Great!”) and spooned the results into a milk bag to press out as much liquid as possible. I returned the dried lump of spud and yam (spam?) back to a bowl and added half of a finely chopped shallot, a bit of baking powder, a splash of plant milk, salt and pepper and, of course, the flour. I can’t provide precise measurements for two reasons:
I don’t have precise measurements.
I referenced the online recipe. I didn’t exactly follow it.
Over-confidence got the better of me. When I could turn my batter into little patties I thought to myself, “I’ve got this.” When I put two test latkes on a slightly oiled griddle and watched them turn golden brown I smiled. But something wasn’t quite right. Instead of my latkes looking like this:
After they were fried they looked like this:
Although Ben insisted that all latkes are different and some even look like mine, I didn’t believe him primarily because I could serve the darling man baked brown paper bag and he’d insist it was the best brown paper bag he ever ate.
While they were somewhat crunchy on the outside, they had the consistency of grade school paste on the inside. Next year? This Gentile is sticking to hash browns.
As I come to understand that my mother is going to die soon I find it difficult to remain present. My mind wanders to past injustices real or imagined and to future hurdles. I was not the best daughter. I stew in the guilt of our 28-year estrangement and then in the next moment choke it down where it sits like a lump in my belly.
Watching my mother’s dementia worsen is like watching a life disappear. And as I empty her trailer of books and furniture and clothing and photos it’s clear to me that my actions, too, are part of the process of disappearing.
What do I do with the things that hold resonance for me? Like the oak bookshelves, or the cookie jar and the 4-string guitar? They’re stacked and covered in blankets in a storage locker 2500 miles away. Will they stay there forever? Would it have been better to sell or give them away? In a year will I have regret for the books I saw thrown away or the trinkets I decided to keep?
And what about the things too big to hide in a storage locker? Like her trailer? It won’t sell and I can’t pay the $800 lot rent. Do I abandon my mother’s home for the past forty years? Her neighbor is afraid that if I close the PPL (Pennsylvania Power and Light) account the water pipes will freeze and burst, causing havoc and despair for everyone in her Green Acres Mobile Home Park circle.
I didn’t expect to be doing this alone. I didn’t expect to be doing it at all. When I ran away from my mother and my sister I had no plans to return. But there was a moment when I thought ‘an old woman deserves peace’ and I reached out. I told myself that I didn’t need to love her. I didn’t even need to like her. But I needed to be with her and to do my best to care for her. To be kind to her.
And I was.
She and my sister had stopped speaking to one another years earlier. For that reason I kept Margaret shut off from my life. Something I regret. A few years after the reunion with my mother Margaret died.
And now here I am, finding it difficult to remain present.
When I was in Pennsylvania in October I began each day with a walk and a photograph. It was grounding and brought a sense of calm presence to me that stayed with me for much of the day. But when I returned to Allentown last week I forgot that practice. Until I took half a day to visit my favorite place – Hawk Mountain.
The photographs are nothing fancy – simply shot with my iPhone 7. But each time I hold up that little miracle of a computer I am in the moment. There is nothing but my beating heart and the leaf or flower or mountain I’m looking at. For that little moment there is no past, no future. There is only now.
I came home last Friday and have decided to continue the practice of taking one photograph each day. And in that moment all things fall away and I am here.
We moved into the Lynnport Schoolhouse in the fall of 1966, when I was 8 years old. Built early in the 19th century – I think in 1814 – the two-room structure served students until the 1950’s, when it was converted to a home and a barber shop. By the time we moved in the original brick had long been covered with white stucco, the bell tower had been taken down (the original bell now resides in New Tripoli’s history museum), the fireplaces boarded and replaced by a hissing monster of a coal-fired furnace in the dank basement. That same furnace belched carbon monoxide our first winter there, and only through the quick thinking of Marge Merkle did my mother, my sister and I survive. Sadly, our parakeet didn’t.
When we moved in there were still a few remnants of the school’s former life: a portion of the original blackboard in what became my little ‘play room’, the chalk trough that extended along one wall of my bedroom, a tired schoolroom bench with cast iron details that my mom salvaged with a few coats of paint and, in the attic, three empty quart sized Sanford ink bottles. My mother carefully cleaned the bottles and kept them displayed on the built-in pine hutch that covered almost the entire length of one living room wall.
My mother sold the schoolhouse in 1977 when I was in my first year of college. I was told of her decision long after the deed was done. She had, in fact, already moved into Green Acres Mobile Home Park. I don’t know why but her decision broke my heart. Up until then, no matter how dysfunctional our family dynamics were, it was the home I remembered. But now a price had been paid for my memories and no more would I sit on my wide windowsill watching muskrats swim up the creek that ran below my bedroom window. The room would never be filled with the scent of lilac and spring willow. My refuge from the chaos around me now belonged to someone else.
The trailer my mother moved into was small and dark but she was happy to leave the big school house. It meant she was closer to Shankweiler’s, where she worked as a waitress. I visited her in the trailer once or twice in the 1980’s and then, for many many reasons, we became estranged. When I finally returned to the trailer in 2006 a few things had changed. It was darker than I remembered and sticky with layers of nicotine. But she now had the oak barrister’s bookcase that once belonged to my grandfather and, on one of the shelves, were the three Sanford ink bottles from the attic of the Lynnport Schoolhouse.
Since 2005 my mother’s health has declined. Her friends describe the behavioral changes and memory lapses of what is now diagnosed dementia. Over the past two years she’s fallen several times and remains in severe pain almost certainly due to fractures in her ribs and spine that were ignored by doctors after her first tumble. The remodeled bone – evidence of her injuries – was discovered just last week by physicians in the hospital she was admitted to after having the fall that finally broke her hip.
I was in Pennsylvania when she broke her hip, there to tell her that the nursing home in which she had been admitted would now be her home. My mother needed 24-hour care and I was, in fact, already in the process of parsing out her possessions – deconstructing an 86-year-long story. I knew that as I packed up my mother’s long and troubled life that I was packing up a piece of my own existence and it was unclear to me if the choices I made were correct. What should I keep? What should I pass on? They were, after all, only possessions. Yet they were imprinted with my family’s ghosts. Filled with uncertainty and guilt, I finally moved the items I thought should stay with me to one room and told my mother’s two friends they could have the rest.
In between searching for the papers needed for her Medicaid application and surviving the overpowering stench from forty-three years of cigarette smoke that infused every inch of every item in the trailer with an acrid, choking perfume, I made the twenty-minute drive down Route 143 to Lynnport.
I’d made this journey each time I’ve come to Pennsylvania to visit my mom. Each time I told myself that this would be the time I knocked on the door. And each time I lost my nerve. On this visit, however, when I drove past the house I saw a woman standing not far from where the rose bushes used to grow. I pulled my rented silver Hyundai Sonata toward the side of the road where the long-gone forsythia bushes bloomed bright yellow and walked to the gate held closed by a bungee cord.
“I used to live in this house.”
“What?” The woman couldn’t hear me over the barking of her black boxer. She walked over to me.
“I used to live in this house.”
She opened the gate and introduced me to her partner. She gave me a tour of the garden that changed so much since I’d last seen it. She told me she bought the house because she loved the history of the schoolhouse – a truth that created an instant connection. It was always the story of the schoolhouse that made me love living there. She brought me inside. My playroom, my bedroom and my sister’s bedroom were gone. The interior was a great open space. My mother’s bedroom was an office and the room we used for storage – the old barber shop once lined with mirrors – was now the bedroom it always should have been. Yet even with all the many changes, remnants remained – the energy of the schoolhouse was still there. So was the blackboard from my play room – preserved and hung with love in a wooden frame.
The dark attic where my mother discovered the Sanford Ink bottles was now a light filled loft. Exposed beams revealed decades old graffiti from students and teachers. The house I lived in until I was sixteen had been transformed into something beautiful. It had become a real home. It was then I knew what I had to do.
I brought two of the bottles full circle and returned them to the Lynnport Schoolhouse – the place where they belonged. The third bottle is filled with ghosts from my childhood and will stay with me.
As the year’s go by memories of my decade in the old Lynnport Schoolhouse become blurry. But like the bottle says, Sanford’s Premium ink never fades.
True confession. I ate an entire pint of fig, balsamic and mascarpone ice cream for dinner a few Sundays ago.
Ten minutes earlier I placed a reasonably sized portion in a small bowl and sat down to stream a few episodes of The Good Place. But on my way to Netflix I made the mistake of stopping by CNN. There was, of course, breaking news.
I know it was only two weeks ago but right now we’re living in the Upside Down and it’s difficult to keep track of the drama and the tragedies. To the best of my recollection either North Korea had launched a second test of short range missiles, the man living in the people’s house had said something ill-advised, offensive and untrue or someone decided to take a semi-automatic rifle and mow down a group of beautiful humans.
Whatever CNN’s bright red, all caps banner headline was screaming at me on that particular Sunday I remember reading it, mumbling something slightly stronger than ‘screw it’, and then grabbing the pint of ice cream from the freezer and a spoon of sufficient size with which to freeze my emotions.
Yoga is not about building a better butt, or meeting friends, or having a reason to purchase flashy overpriced leggings. All those things might happen if you attend asana classes regularly, but it’s not why we practice. When we practice Yoga we are building a strong foundation of self-regulation from which we can observe our actions and reactions.
But sometimes foundations crack. My self-regulation is crumbling and eating a pint of ice cream for dinner is not my only summer sin.
I’ve taken to screaming at bicyclists who mistake sidewalks for bike paths and then rush past me from behind with nary a warning. Even worse are the ones who speed down the pedestrian tunnel near the train station by my apartment with no thought for the safety of the shuffling, elderly woman wrapped in a coat on a warm August morning pushing her cart full of groceries.
But the salty invectives I hurl are not intended for the two-wheeled speed racers any more than eating a full pint of mascarpone ice cream is about hunger.
They’re simply misplaced reactions to events happening not only in the world but in my personal life. Both my B and I have endured a summer of parental ill health, sudden emergencies and painful loss. At some point in life we all take this journey and I’m grateful to be moving through it with B. Still, while we are each other’s support system the journey is still an intensely personal one and for me it’s one filled with conflict, guilt, lost opportunities and misplaced memories.
And to cope with that internal storm (and because I don’t want to weigh 400 pounds) I yell at bicyclists. I call my sudden rash behavior a ‘stress fart’. Yes, it’s enough to make a yoga teacher blush but so far no one has yelled back and while it doesn’t feel good at the time it feels wonderful after.
That being said, I’m pretty certain there are better methods of self-care during times of extreme stress…hmmm…like a restorative or yin asana practice, a few extra minutes of meditation, exercise, a healthy diet, a long soak in the bathtub…
The event hasn’t begun and already I’m sitting in a circle. And if you know me at all, you know how I loathe sitting in circles. I’m attending SYTAR – the Symposium of Yoga Therapy and Research. It’s an annual four-day event that brings inquiring minds, old friends, and new acquaintances together in order to share the latest research and advances in yoga therapy. There are practice sessions in the morning, plenary speakers mid-day and a great variety of special interest meetings in the afternoon. As usual, the halls of our hotel are lined with vendors promoting a variety of yoga therapy programs, opportunities to study Ayurveda, essential oils and various tools of the trade. A highlight is bumping into Rebecca Deano. We shared a room at my very first SYTAR. And it’s always nice to catch up with Jason Scholder, comedian and the man behind my favorite yoga prop, the great Three-Minute Egg. Bay Area yogis are always plentiful. I can usually count on seeing the co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging Baxter Bell, yoga for cancer specialist Lorien Neargarder and American Viniyoga’s Gary Kraftstow.
My very first SYTAR conference, the one where I shared a room with Rebecca, was at Asilomar in 2009. That was the year I fell under the spell of BK Bose and soon after began formal yoga therapy studies at his Niroga Institute. A decade passed and then, last June, I flew across the country, to Reston, Virginia. This year I flew an hour south, to Newport Beach. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) are the organization responsible for SYTAR. I’ve been a member for fifteen years (give or take) and in that time I’ve seen them transform. Since Asilomar they’ve grown into their name. A few years ago they initiated a rigorous credentialing criteria for certified yoga therapists who hope to add the letters ‘C-IAYT’ behind their name. Their high standards raised the bar for us all. In the next few years the organization hopes to have in place a qualifying exam for new graduates of IAYT-certified yoga therapy schools. This is exciting news. As yoga therapy moves from the fringe toward a routine wellness protocol for our physical and mental health it’s critical that IAYT continues to refine and codify what it means to be a yoga therapist.
Have you ever thought about something, or maybe saw something totally outside the realm of normal and then, for whatever the reason, it’s everywhere? Sort of like when Uno won the Westminster Dog Show and then suddenly we were running into beagles around every corner.
That happened to me three times this past week. Three times in the span of five days this question appeared: ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’. I first saw the question in an article I was reading online. Then I heard the same question posed to an audience during a TED talk. Finally, the question shows up in the tome my book club is reading, David Brooks’ The Second Mountain.
It could be that I’m riding the edge of a wave and by the end of next week we won’t be able to turn around without bumping into posters, bumperstickers and tee shirts imploring us to contemplate the answer. Or maybe the universe is directing the question to me and me alone – a little bit like the freeway sign who talks to Steve Martin’s weather man in the movie L.A. Story.
Either way, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to contemplate. What would YOU do if you weren’t afraid?
Maybe you’re already doing it. Maybe not. Does it matter?
I’m all for living fearlessly but the suggestion that we’re holding ourselves back from full self-actualization because we’re afraid is annoying. Why? Because it feeds the idea of individuation during a time in our history when, more than anything, we need to connect. The question encourages us to be selfish during a time in our history when we should be selfless.
Yes, sometimes fear keeps us from walking a certain path but is that always bad? I’ve often thought about getting a tattoo. With a great sigh of relief I happily confess that fear has kept me from the artist’s needle. The saying ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ is not one I choose to embrace. The intention of these ideas, on the surface, do not encourage community building. Instead, they lean us toward a narcissistic variant of introspection.