Friday, December 17, 2010

Nana’s Ashes

A number of secrets were buried with my Lithuanian grandmother, Leona Snyder, in 2000. She spent the last five of her ninety-two years  in a nursing home, the final two with dementia. Late in the game, she made hardly any sense—to me, anyway. She would be loving toward see my children one minute, then not remember their names the next. It was heartbreaking to see her degradation from the six-foot matriarchal battleaxe and stalwart of our highly dysfunctional family. That's her at the picnic table, sitting on the left, and me sitting second from right, circa 1963. Not sure what the noose was all about...

Once while visiting her, her youngest sister (then in her sixties) was present. “Nana,” as we called my grandmother, went off on some ridiculous tangent about THEIR sister not leaving them a penny when she died, having accumulated “a chain of whorehouses that the state got hold of.” Both her sister and I nodded in agreement until Nana fell asleep. Out in the hallway, I lamented to my great aunt about how difficult it is for me to see my grandmother this way, just rambling incoherently. She said, “What do you mean? You didn’t know about any of that?” Their heretofore unmentioned entrepreneurial sister ran a business that serviced Northeast Pennsylvania coal miners in back in the day. I have every reason to believe that Nana is living as colorful an afterlife as she did in her physical life!

When she died, it was decided to bury her ashes at her parents’ gravesite. My family has cremated most of its kin, for reasons of economy, they’ve said. In retrospect and since they all hated funerals as much as I do, I suspect the real reason is because they cannot bear to see their relation in a coffin surrounded by flowers. Many folks just don’t like long goodbyes. Seeing their loved one die gave them all the sense of closure they needed. Disposal of the body was a simple housekeeping task.

I don’t even know where the cremation was done (some details we just block out, you know?). I do remember, however, my parents asking me to bury the ashes. My first thought was to do this in some romantic fashion, such as scattering them across several farmers’ fields where she had us, as children, steal corn. She’d pull the car over to the side of the road and throw a bag at us: “Fill this up—they’ll never miss it!” However, the family thought it fitting to bury her ashes at her parents’ grave.  Now this isn’t as “normal” as it may sound. Her parents’ grave stone had been originally stolen by her two brothers, a nice red marble "model" lifted from a monument dealer's display. They took it to a different stone carver to have it engraved.

Photo by Tim Snyder
In addition, the intent was to not notify the owners of that little rural cemetery (shown above) that we were burying her ashes here. While its okay to scatter someone’s ashes to the four winds, you’re not supposed to just dig a hole on someone’s private property and bury them! Cemeteries make their money by SELLING you a burial spot, charging you to dig the hole, provide you with a fancy urn for the cremains, etc.That's how they make their money to stay in business.

Doing this illegally just runs in my family’s blood, I guess. As much as I enjoyed them all, they were either criminals, liars, or drunks, and sometimes all three--actual descendants of Molly Maguires gone awry. Once when paying a surprise visit to Nana’s brother, “Uncle Joe,” in Maryland, we found his house burned and boarded up. At about fourteen, I remember walking into the Glen Burnie police station with her as she went up to the officer at the front desk and said (and I’m sure she had no idea of his rank), “Sergeant, we’re looking for Joseph Wilkes.” Without even looking up from his paperwork, he replied, “Who ISN’T, lady?” We slunk out of there.

So one Spring day, three carloads of us drove out to the hillside cemetery where Nana's parents were buried. Not much going on, it being a weekend and the quarry down the road was closed. No houses for a quarter mile in any direction. We were all uncomfortably polite to each other—my parents (that's me between them in the photo below), an aunt with her daughter and child, my brother (not in the photo--he took the picture), and my cousin Albert (far right). You know how you begin to feel twelve years old again after spending a half-hour with your parents? Not this time; I was 42 years old and felt strangely adult.  Nana was there too—her ashes, that is, in a plastic bag.

Photo by Tim Snyder
Albert and I found ourselves in front of the family headstone, shovel in hand. Time settles down and concentrates on the moment, as writer Salman Rushdie would say. Albert and I hadn’t seen each other in twenty years, but we had been almost inseparable as kids. We shared many formative experiences, mainly during weekends and summers spent at Nana’s. I dug an adequate hole and Albert and I opened the bag. Over some nervously light banter, we began pouring the ashes into the hole. As the wind began to kick up and ashes took flight, I looked at him and asked with a grin, "You ever see ‘The Big Lebowski?” thinking of the scene where John Goodman empties a coffee can of Donny’s ashes off a Pacific coastal cliff and the wind blows them into Jeff Bridges’ face. Albert snickered and said, “Yeah…

No member of my family ever won an award for subtlety. Remember “The Loud Family” from the late 1970’s Saturday Night Live? Where everybody yelled? You know my people then. You could never be certain what they said was true, but they more than made up for it in volume. That said, as our little caravan of cars left the cemetery, my cousin Albert pulled an M-80* out of his shirt pocket, lit it, and threw it out the window! WTF! As the goddamn thing exploded in the woods, we heard invisible horses frantically neighing, as if someone had just uttered “FRAU BLUCHER!”  (from Mel Brooks' movie Young Frankenstein). As the main road behind the quarry came into view, we saw two horses reared up on their hind legs with their riders holding on for dear life! As the horses with their helpless riders galloped down the dirt road like twin bats out of hell, I realized that grieving is a very individual thing—and Albert was grieving in his own special way. It was the perfect denouement to my grandmother’s complex life, and a fitting tribute.

Some Notes and Links you may find amusing:


*An M-80 is a large firecracker, illegal in the U.S. due to its great explosive power (approximately equal to 1/20 stick of dynamite).

Some years later, we buried my father’s ashes in the same spot, with somewhat less fanfare. You can read about it here.

I would have loved to link you to an episode of SNL’s “The Loud Family,” but can’t find anything on the Web. If anyone can locate one, please let me know! Here’s a link to a transcript of an episode, anyway.

Molly Maguires