I don’t think about them much, unless I’m in the basement, alone, searching for something stuffed in some corner on some shelf. Two of them I’ve never met, and yet they are my burden.
They don’t frighten me, though I’ll admit to startling when I bump the side of a black rectangle box about the size of a football. What they do is make me existentially morose.
They had lives and loves and cares and woes and tears and passions and pains and joys, that I know nothing of and that my husband barely recalls. You see, they are his grandparents— my mother-in-law’s parents. And also his father, though I knew him, but not well.
Will I wind up in some box in some woman’s basement someday with a name that only registers because it is the same as her own now?
But it is more than the recognition of my own insignificance and mortality that depresses me. It is the fact I must determine what to do with these long dead that sends me to the furthest depths of futility.
Why. Why does this fall to the woman? Why have I allowed myself to take these ashes? Why is it somehow expected? We women have a long history of taking care of both the quick and the dead, which can be beautiful and life-giving. Yet when it is forced, when it is subconsciously delegated, when one’s mother-in-law has two sons who never had to lift a finger for themselves in a society where it is the women who arrange things, and so when no woman is available, dead people stay in dusty basements, that is when I call foul.
My mother in law is fairly healthy, whip smart, but not exactly organized (again, her parents in boxes). But she’s nearing ninety. She has not, as they say, put her affairs in order. I was the one to find the estate attorney, to make the appointment I had no seat at, to discuss money she resents me having any say or control over once she is gone. So why do I do it? Why haven’t I learned the two little letters: no?
I grew up believing a woman could be and do anything she desired. And while, the essence of that is still true — being a woman does not make one inherently less human, less capable— I know it is not a sentiment I can share with my own daughter. All I have to do is look at the way our almost First Female President was, and continues to be, treated, even by those who claim the word feminist. All I have to do is see that my country chose a man who assaults, excoriates, and cages women, to lead us, to speak for us, to be our face to the globe. All I have to do is watch what this nation and these politicians did to a victim of sexual abuse who was brave enough to try and save us all from a Supreme Court with two sex offenders presiding.
This world is not a place for my child to be and do anything. Already her education has been curtailed by four boys—four in a class of twenty-nine—who disrupt learning to the point that the whole class has had to skip science, music, drama, math, because these boys are uncontrollable. These are not boys with special needs. They are white, privileged, smart, undisciplined. And yet it is the others in the class who must adjust themselves to accommodate these boys. My daughter brings noise canceling headphones to class, avoids certain play equipment at recess, and has nightmares. My daughter is the one we will be pulling out of this school. She bends, she breaks. But the boys go on “being boys,” growing up to be men who will still behave like their worst selves. Because we all make room for them.
My next novel is about Jezebel, from the Bible, a woman who was expected to keep her place, to mold to her spouse. She refused and was killed for it. And to this day three major religions dance on her grave. So perhaps it is her echo, the threat of joining these dead basement dwellers that keeps me chained to the patriarchy which still reigns in our progressive, contemporary society in my progressive, contemporary city. And my daughter doomed to repeat it.
So I sit with the ashes of dead strangers. With no answers. Just the gnashing of teeth.