Mom had been dead for a while, so driving to New York with her in the back of the van freaked out my daughter. Allie always sat back in the third row seat, which meant Mom was right behind her. But since Mom was packed under all the luggage, I really thought Allie was over-reacting. At least Mom wouldn't be lying up on the top shelf of the closet anymore.
When I was little, riding in the station wagon, I liked sitting in “the way back”, a third bench seat that faced out the rear window - still with my mom, but far enough away to be alone with my bizarre thoughts and fantasies. I was an independent child, just like my daughter.
We had picked up Mom from my sister’s house in Las Vegas, after having our own private memorial service. Mom didn’t want a regular funeral – at least she hadn’t mentioned it recently, so my wife and daughter and I were just taking her remains back to her hometown of Niagara Falls to be buried. We flew her first to Cincinnati, packed in the big suitcase, because we weren’t sure about the rules for putting a heavy, sealed, wooden box of ashes in the overhead.
When I was little, my grandfather and his second wife moved to L.A. to live near us. When her step-mother died, Mom flew us all back to Niagara Falls for the funeral. During the service, my sister and I had to sit out in the lobby of the funeral home; I still don’t really know why. But, like sitting in the way back, I was just far enough away to be happy and secure. And my sister was with me.
Allie never had a sibling and wasn’t used to competing or sharing. I didn’t want her to start distracting me from driving by yelling from the back of the van, “Grandma’s looking at me!” or, “Grandma’s touching me!” so we had put Grandma securely beneath everything else we had brought along for our vacation. We were dropping her off in Niagara Falls on the first leg of our tour around the state of New York. This was not immediately after my sister handed her off to us. I was gainfully employed so I couldn’t take time all at once to vacation in Las Vegas with my deceased mother and then run off to New York with her; that’s why we left Mom in the closet of our house in Cincinnati for a few months.
When I was little, Mom would sometimes leave us with her newly-widowed father while she went to work. My grampa didn’t relate to us very well, but one thing that always worked for everyone was when he would buy us glazed doughnuts off the Helms Bakery truck. My sister and I would try to nibble them slowly in a competition to have the last bite left so the winner could proclaim, “I have a doughnut and you-ou don’t”. Grampa didn’t play; he was there in the next room smoking his pipe, but far enough away that we could be alone with our own bizarre games. When Grampa died, I was visiting my grandmother on my father’s side and I didn’t go to Grampa’s funeral; I’m not even sure there was one.
Allie hadn’t gotten to spend much time with her grandma because of the distance between Las Vegas and Cincinnati. The few years before she died, my mom suffered from dementia; she still knew who Allie was, but Allie didn’t know who Grandma really was. Until she got sick, she was the grandma that fell asleep in our living room while reading and snored really loudly. She was the grandma that revealed to Allie where Dad had learned to make horrible puns. But she was also the grandma that taught Dad to make mince pie.
When I was little, Mom had stories about growing up in Niagara Falls during the Depression and about her dad who worked on the railroad and her brother who became a big deal at G.E. in Syracuse, NY. She told us about her mother dieing when Mom was a teenager; how Mom had to take over preparing meals for the family and how her dad liked mince pie. She told us about her best friend, Helen, whom she still kept in touch with “back home”. Mom told us she had bought a plot to be buried in there.
So at not-quite-nine-years-old, Allie sat in the back of the van with her dead grandma behind her, traveling to Niagara Falls, New York. It was kind of like National Lampoon’s Vacation meets Little Miss Sunshine. Niagara Falls looked like it had not changed since the 1930s. This was the US side, not the touristy, honeymoon destination in Canada. Best Friend Helen was still living in the house she grew up in. Some of Mom’s other friends also still lived in town. We bought a grave marker and buried Mom while everyone told a few stories of the old days. My mom had been the adventurous one who traveled around Europe after WWII while others stayed safe in their hometown. Mom had been the smart one who had to work to help send her brother, the goof-off C-student, to college because he was a male and girls didn’t need higher education. Mom was funny, a good friend and beloved.
When I was little, I knew some of that, but mostly Mom was just Mom, going to work to support us, driving the station wagon while I played in the way back, making pies. My sister told me she was thinking about Mom yesterday and that made me start digging up these old memories. I will pass them off to Allie so that Grandma is more than that box of ashes haunting her from the back of the van.