5 Bodies: a true story

The first was Thomas, a cat, ashed at 18, interred in a Pier One Indian carved box, shelved by my wife’s mother, whose house was being emptied by her daughters of all but the firmest shared history.  All her brittle coral chipped from the reef, all her old paint sanded from the walls.  Strokes had taken her memory and her independence.  The rest was slowly shoved out the door by her daughters.  My wife had been charged with ‘taking care of Thomas’ by her sister, who’d assumed the role of caretaker of their mother – to whom the cat – one of the last in a very long line of borderline crazy-cat-lady succession – had belonged.

Thomas on a shelf, below a shelf-bending row of Modern Architecture ‘83-’92, beside a cut glass vase and platter, porcelain cats in play, a dusty tasseled lamp, a tea set, a knock-off Lladro ballerina, a tiny basket and an ash tray.  Everything but Thomas (and the other bodies) free from metaphor, empty of simile, symbolism, tone or mood.  

‘All you are at the end of your life is one big yard sale,’ my wife says on one of the many Saturday mornings.  Her mother’s life is slowly stripped from the house, as if by a kind of wind made of people, who shake, grab, tossle and tip and slowly lift away down the street and around the corners the sand that was the sandcastle of her mother’s life.

But you can’t sell a corpse even if the casket’s fine, so the cat had to go.

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 joyous at his escape, but, as too often when one slips the chains, betrayed. And he too, not liberated, but still angry and wounded and therefore mean and self-pitying. Someone knows his kinder story, but it wasn’t us, who knew him only as Poor Bill, reclusive, a distant sometime denizen of my mother-in-law’s rental, and her confidant in her later, meaner, bitter days before the strokes gentled her spirit.  

He’d died a few years back, skipped the family reunion of our lives like an awkwardly invited guest, the misplaced friend of a friend who simply leaves.  She’d kept his ashes, though, and one assumes there was no welcome plot, no space among the headstones, no crypt or keep with corner enough for his remains.

So on the shelf he was, body number two, beside the cat, in a smoky porcelain urn richer in glaze and shine than anything we remembered of his living days.  

Our educated guess was that the third box was Bill’s late lover, who’d slipped the bonds before him, and himself a drifter had briefly drifted off with Bill for some cloud-filled happy time in which they’d found – we imagined – some short and happy peace and quiet.  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 had the mailing address on the flap that made a lid. 

There is no easy digging on the Island of my wife’s childhood.  Inches below the topsoil it’s alluvial coral, bleached white, a gritty, fossilized marl.  You want a grave, even for a body reduced to 5 pounds of ashes, to be rich, dark, pregnant.  And easy to dig.

But the ocean promises a fertile burial. Ashes can drift, disperse, nurture and mineralize.  The pier up the street had long since lost its ships.  Now it was peopled by dog walkers, bicyclists, tourists, its only traffic with the sea the occasional fortunate fisherman -kid or -woman.  The rest just stared: poets and dreamers and drunks, fantasizing midwesterners, building impossible lives out of ocean wind, horizon, cloud and sun and vacation.  

I emptied a canvas beach bag of towel and snorkel, sunscreen and frisbee, and we hauled the three bodies down the street.  We’d spent the day driving boxes in the other direction, to the Salvation Army next to the liquor store.  Dinner had come and gone, with wine and beer and fruity rum drinks made with mango fresh from the tree in the backyard.  So we were not a little drunk.

The cat, Poor Bill, Poor Bill’s lover: boxed and bagged.  Remarkably heavy.  The cat went first.  A grey stream of powder, the occasional bit of bone slapping among the dry hiss atop the ocean.  The water was evening calm despite the breeze coming out of the ocean’s night, and we’d found a spot in shadow, away from the streetlights and fishermen and tourists, facing inland (lest the wind throw the ashes back in our faces, you know.)  There must be oil in ashes, for they clung to the surface momentarily, something in their molecular decomposition less than eager to sink.  But eventually the water clouded, the surface cleared, the current took and the waves stirred.  Thomas the cat, interred in the sea.  (He was a good cat, I reflected, the thinking a kind of eulogy.  One of those orange fellows, a little larger than most, affectionate, and one of the few creatures in my mother-in-law’s post-stroke life who didn’t leave her mind when he left the room.)

The lack of ceremony was slightly appalling.  My wife and I giggled, hunched around the urn and boxes lest we be caught.  It has to be illegal to dump a body in the ocean, no matter what the state, no?  Waves slapped quietly against concrete.  You want there to be some quality to the air, but there was nothing special to the night.  There were clouds enough to dim stars already dimmed by the town’s glow.  There was wind enough to dull the air, sound enough to break the silence.  You think, ‘This is death I have in hand, pouring out a plastic bag, twist-tied.’

Next to go was Poor Bill.  One thinks when tossing ashes that it’s perhaps not even him. There was an article a few years back about the business practices of crematoriums, the ashes gathered in a pile over time, all mingled together, just a shovel to the bag if you wanted something back.  What do you say, anyway, of a man barely known, nine years after his death, at his impromptu funeral?  What do you say about a man you’d gossiped into a joke? What do you say when the funeral’s ten years too late, forty people too shy, ten drinks too far, ninety degrees turned, a hundred boxes light?  The funeral was a shrug, this writing the only homily.  Poor Bill whitened the water, clouded the sea.  I expected fish to come, and prepared a thought about the mingling of flesh and fish, but no fish has a taste for ash.  

Only Poor Bill’s lover left, his body in a box.  I used a house key to slash the seal, fingernailed the rest.

There were three bags inside.

Two were fist sized and fist heavy, the other the expected size, about as big as a pineapple.  At first we thought them pets, thinking this funeral was bookended by cats, but one said, in black sharpie, ‘Aunt Dorothy’ – name and title as light and easy, as familiar, as an old plot.  Aunt Dorothy?  Who even has an Aunt Dorothy outside a movie?

The other: Michael.  No name for a pet.  Mike, maybe, but not Michael.  Poor Bill’s lover’s lover, we hazarded, one more victim of 90’s scourge?  Just names, of course, with attendant invented history.  

So we dumped Aunt Dorothy, then fed the sea with Michael too, whoever the hell they were.  And finally Poor Bill’s Lover, who streamed into the sea, whose molecules moved together one last time, one long limb left, a final stretch before dissolution.  The water had been seared from all five of them, in whatever kilns were used, and now they were back to liquid and salt.

I read somewhere once that the salt in our blood is roughly the same percentage as the salt in the sea.  Somehow that detail felt slightly eulogistic, and I mentioned it to my wife.  We’d talked through the whole event, like a rude couple at a movie.  Maybe; the demand for silence on the pier came not from people (if it came at all) but something vague in the air of the moment that asked for seriousness and solemn respect.   

Asked, perhaps, but did not really receive.  Without a soul to mourn your loss, a lifeless body’s journey – in whatever form, however finely dismembered one might be – is little more than one more wave in the endless tidal ebb and flow of matter.

How hard we sometimes search to find some meaning in that restless oceanic current.  Nobody around us had any idea what we did.  Not the German tourist family on rented bikes, the Cuban father and his two sons fishing, the people with their dogs (though several did sniff their ways over curiously), the couple dressed alike who looked like they’d been sent home early from some quiet restaurant shift, or the ceaseless flow of story-less humanity that moved beside us on the pier that night.

The five bodies had been with us for years, on the shelf, idly recognized every so often.  Our daughter had asked once about the urn when we were visiting, back when my wife’s mother hadn’t completely lost her mind (or so we thought).  Or no, I’d pointed it out to her once, because that’s the kind of thing parents like to introduce to their children, precisely for her response of ‘eeww!’  And then she’d told her brother, and later their cousins when they had visited.  They opened the urn and looked inside, but I never told them about Poor Bill’s Lover in the cardboard box next door, and they only had passing interest in Thomas.  When my mother-in-law had mind enough to mind herself there’d been too many cats altogether.

I left the urn and Thomas’s wooden casket on the concrete railing of the pier.  More than likely it was taken up by one of the island’s homeless, one of the many who slept in all the shadowy unowned (and sometimes owned) corners of the island, and who emerged before sunrise, as I’d learned one summer when our daughter as an infant woke reliably and crying at 4 am and I’d been charged with tending her into dawn.  I can’t imagine where that urn is now, or what purpose it might be serving.

Though it is amusing to speculate.  


Are Rubrics Really Good for Me?

Anyone else stumble across the feeling, every once in a while, that your carefully crafted Rubric, so precise and efficient, so clear in its expectations, just turned your entire assignment into ice?

I get this a lot:  ‘Is that a 4?’  And you look at the work, and it kind of is a 4.  (We’re on the 1 to 4 scale here.  4 is an A.)  Kind of, because they have the rubric next to the assignment and technically everything has been done as described.  There are no mechanical errors, so 4 on Mechanics.  The sentences are clear, and the paragraph has support, so a 4 on Informative Writing.  But something about the writing is flat and sterile.  It’s a paragraph that goes through mechanical motions like a machine and you just know, reading it, that the paragraph is really ABOUT getting a 4 and nothing else.  If there is any joy at all in the assignment, it is only the joy the kid feels at getting the 4.

When we had mere grades, in all their arbitrary looseness and vague indecision, one was allowed to recognize that so much of what we do is rarely simply about going through motions like a machine.  It’s impossible to truly rubricize the magic and mystery of purpose.  Rubrics mechanize skill, and dehumanize effort, which is half of a good thing. We want kids to have clear skill sets, and we want to be able to define those skills down to clear and precise actions.  We want to take out the arbitrary value judgments that muddy the cold window of mechanical action.  And yet, the closer we get to that precision, the further we get from those fuzzier Emotions that make the job worth doing in the first place.

I don’t mind using Rubrics.  They make my assignments efficient; they clarify purpose; and they make most things a hell of a lot easier to grade.  I used to spend too much time writing all over a kid’s essay.  Now I just look for whatever it was I put on this particular rubric and circle the right box.  Takes me less than a minute to grade an essay.  And if the kid doesn’t have to invest very much in the assignment – other than some attention to expectations, some alignment of their action with the definition on the scale – neither do I. You can’t rubricize emotion, which is the point, I suppose, to the things in the first place.

Still, there are times when I tire of being so cold all the time, even if it does make the classroom cool and clear and efficient.