There is a small rectangular table by Trudy’s front door. On it sit her keys, the outgoing mail, a blouse to be returned to Bloomingdales, and what looks like a large nylon lunch tote. But it’s not food in there. It’s my father.
We plan to spread Dad’s ashes in the San Francisco Bay, in accordance with his wishes, as soon as we can all bear to get together and take the trip up north. But for now, John waits patiently in the foyer, encased in a sporty, forest green snack sac, embroidered on the bottom right hand corner with the watchword of Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary: Dignity®.
I don’t know why Trudy parked her husband in that particular spot, but I’m guessing her motivation was at least partly shock value. A few weeks earlier when Karla stopped by the condo for a visit, Trudy casually gestured toward the bag and announced flatly, “There’s John.” Karla was horrified, and when Leo heard Dad had been offhandedly plopped down by the front door, he was disgusted by our mother’s lack of compassion and decency. I actually thought it was kind of funny. At least John is cooling his heels in a well-trafficked area instead of lying neglected in the trunk of Trudy’s car, the forgotten object of yet another bothersome errand she will never get around to running.
When I arrived to help sort through my father’s things several weeks later, his ashes were still next to the door. I pretended not to notice when I walked in, but as soon as our mom left the room, I gave Karla a meaningful look, patted the sack and cooed softly, “Hi, Daddy.” I did it to make Karla laugh, but the joke was on me because once I’d done that, I found I enjoyed it. I began giving John affectionate taps each time I walked by, even when Karla wasn’t around. It was comforting. And, it’s something that would have made John smile knowingly, raise one eyebrow and crack, “You’re a little spooky, kid.” Which is true, I suppose, if you are one of those people who thinks having inside jokes with your father’s charred remains is spooky.
After lunch and a lot of stalling, Trudy, Karla and I filed upstairs to sort through John’s belongings, take whatever keepsakes we wanted, and box up the rest for charity. There is nothing unique about the grief one experiences wading through the petty objects a loved one leaves behind. In fact, I’m embarrassed by how unoriginal my feelings were. Of course I sucked in my breath when I walked into his closet and was blindsided by the smell of him. And I wasn’t the first daughter to bury her nose in her father’s coat or plunge her hands into the pockets of his sweater, hoping to find something he had touched, if only a book of matches, or a cigar band.
Obviously, I cried standing there, with the stuff of his daily routine all around me. His clothes, his shoes, his robe, his slippers. The dresser on top of which sat his comb, his handkerchief, a gifted box of Cubans, and the jar, once full of Trudy’s bath salts, where he emptied his pockets of loose change each night. His wire rimmed reading glasses. His wallet. His watch with the frayed brown leather band that I wore whenever he was in surgery, the only times he was ever without it. The shoebox full of old walkmans and portable cd players, some broken, some in working order, but dropped on the cement in the backyard so often he had taped the sides together or the battery compartment shut. The pile of mixed tapes and cd’s I made for his birthdays and father’s days. The valet box where he kept his cufflinks, his money clips, a lock of hair from my first haircut, and a clump of Army Air Corps pilot’s wings, which had melted together during a plane crash during the war. (John always carried extra set of wings with him to hand out to “the girls” wherever they landed.)
I emerged from the walk-in closet holding up John’s watch and asked Trudy if I could keep it. She looked at me doubtfully, frowned and said, “Well, that watch was very expensive…I thought I’d give it to Leo.” After our mother left the room Karla advised me to pocket the watch, and anything else I wanted. “She doesn’t really care, anyway.” Of course, I already knew that. Trudy can be extremely generous, but rarely will she give you what you want. In fact, the more directly you ask for something, the less likely you are to get it.
Here is what Trudy allowed me to take: Four cashmere sweaters, a bunch of old family photographs, the lock of my hair, and a paper cocktail menu from the King’s X restaurant with my crayon scribbles all over it and a note in John’s barely legible cursive reading, “Daddy and Mary Patricia’s first dinner date, 1967.”
Here is what I stole: The watch, a money clip that reads, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” a key chain bearing the likeness of the Pope on one side and JFK on the other, and the melted wings.
Oh, and also, I took John’s dentures. I found them while I was cleaning out his side of the bathroom he shared with Trudy. I started with the drawers, which were full of Depends. I was going to trash them, but Karla told me Trudy wants to save them for long car rides. Mom watches more than her share of Court TV, so I’m guessing she picked up this trick from lovelorn astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, who wore a diaper as she sped from Houston to Orlando to kill her lover’s girlfriend, so she wouldn’t have to stop along the way.
Next, I cleared out John’s medicine cabinet. After making certain there were no medications prescribed that might go well with a cocktail, I tore the pharmacy labels off of the brown plastic bottles and poured the pills into the toilet. With a flush, hundreds of dollars of Aricept for Alzheimer’s and Altace for high blood pressure were whisked away to eventually dissolve in the L.A. River.
In the cabinet under the sink, I found a plastic hospital container that had John’s name written on top in black Sharpie. I opened the lid and there they were, all yellow and brown, just like the actual teeth of a man who had smoked cigars for nearly 50 years. I held the open container out to Karla and mimed sneaking the dentures into my purse. Karla shrieked, “Oh, gross!” I laughed and told her I was only kidding. She shook her head and commanded me to throw them in the trashcan. So, I did.
But then I did a weird thing. After making sure Karla and Trudy weren’t looking, I dug the container out of the garbage, wrapped it in paper towels, stealthily carried it downstairs, and buried it in the bottom of my purse. The dentures are truly gross. I don’t even want to look at them again. But I couldn’t throw them away. Until a year ago I didn’t even know John’s teeth weren’t real. As far as I was concerned, they were a part of him. I couldn’t throw a part of him in the garbage. Instead, I brought them home and put them in my closet.
This, my father would have objected to. In fact, he’d be mortified and revolted and insist that I throw them away. And then wash my hands. Well, too bad. He’s dead. I can keep his dentures if I feel like it.