Palo Alto Weekly 29th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Adult


By Margaret Young

About Margaret Young

"Ashes" is a story I began years ago. Grief can be ugly and angry. I wanted to write a story that got across just how difficult mourning can be. For a long time, though, "Ashes" sat on my various hard drives as it was a story with a lot of emotion, but without a resolution. However, when I looked at it again a few months ago, I was able to see what it needed.

I've lived in Palo Alto since obtaining my master's in print journalism. I've worked at newspapers, edited and freelanced. My main work in recent years, however, has been teaching music to young children. I own and run Magpie's Music. I'm a Bay Area native and grew up in El Cerrito. I did venture east for college where I studied creative writing among many other things at Sarah Lawrence College.

During all of this, I have written fiction, off and on. "Ashes" is a bit unusual for me in that it's a complete in itself -- a captured moment. I tend to think more in novels than in short stories. I am currently looking for an agent for a finished novel and am now working on a young adult book -- i.e. a book my teen daughter might like.


Judge's comments

In "Ashes" a daughter who has just lost her mother sets off to scatter her ashes, accompanied by the stepfather who has been in her life since she was eight. The result is an emotionally complex and moving story about the complications of family, the walls we build around us and the way we connect in grief.
— Meg Waite Clayton

We are going to scatter Mother today. Bertie is doing the driving, while I sit beside him reading out the directions. It is strange to think of us together in any context, though we tolerated one another well enough when she was alive, or, at least, gracefully avoided one another. But we've not seen one another since the funeral. It's been a year.

Bertie yanks around the curve. I clench my hands, but know better than to say anything. But there are sirens and Bertie pulls over.

"Just where do you think you're going," the cop asks. "You were 20 miles over."

"My daughter and I are taking my wife to the beach," Bertie smiles his Realtor smile. The officer looks suspicious, seeing of course, no one but Bertie and me.

"She's in the trunk," Bertie says. The officer looks angry--are we joking or kidnappers?

"She's dead," I say. "We're scattering her ashes. Perhaps you'd like to look?"

He's really upset now, but let's us go without even a ticket. Another challenger defeated by death. We drive on, though Bertie's slowed down.

"I'm not your daughter," I say.

- - -

Mother's death was not unexpected. Nor was Bertie's reaction to it. To listen to him, the whole world was not enough to contain his grief. Blocking the front doorway, he'd fall into the arms of whichever visitors had come to pay their respects--even the mothers of my friends--or maybe particularly the mothers of my friends. "I loved her so much," he would sob. I never cried around my stepfather. I never got the chance.

There wasn't even much to say. I organized things, packed up Mother's clothes for Good Will and returned to school. I signed documents sent to me by the lawyers. I studied like hell. If I said my mother was dead, I did so conversationally, so that people did not quite catch my meaning. They thought I was joking or that she had died years ago. I did not correct them.

I earned praise for my resilience.

"She's taking it like a rock," I overheard one of the mothers say. "Now poor Bertie, he's just completely broken up over it."

"Are you sure you're all right?" my roommate would ask before escaping our room.

I'd learned quickly that that was a question with no right answer. If I said "Yes," I was seen as cold or "not really dealing with it." If I said "no." ... well, I never said "No." People don't want to hear you're miserable unless they enjoy pitying you. No amount of shed tears was going to bring Mother back or substitute Bertie in her place. Certainly, no one wanted to hear that I wanted Bertie dead or, at the very least, out of the way.

"Sometimes a tragedy is needed to bring people together," one of my more annoying second cousins said, beaming at Bertie and me at the wake. "When I think of the problems you first had--"

"We're a true family," Bertie said, squeezing my shoulders. "Emma knows she's got someone she can count on."

As usual, I said nothing. Part of me wanted to believe him--I'd been wanting to believe Bertie since I was a kid--but I knew I was being a fool.

Mother died in September. When Thanksgiving came around, Bertie was in England. He told me his grief therapist thought leaving the country around the holidays was a good idea. Christmas found him in Africa. The annoying second cousin invited me to her house in Fresno. I went, the family stray cat. Bertie sent me a necklace in colors I never wear, but his new girlfriend did. Frankly, I was surprised when he invited me to scatter Mother's ashes with him on the anniversary of her death.

"Why on earth would I want to do something like that?" I'd said.

Bertie had reacted huffily. "I thought it might help you to learn to deal with your grief--to move on."

It's not long after that that Bertie tells me that he plans to remarry the new girlfriend. Oh, and he needs to sell the house--my mother's house, my home--that Lisa wants them to have their own place. I tell him I don't care because I hate him anyway.

Bertie takes a deep breath--I can tell he's rehearsed this--and says all the right things, no doubt coached by his grief counselor, or perhaps the new girlfriend. You'll always have a place with us. No one will ever replace your mother. I'm not trying to replace your mother.

"The hell you aren't," I'd said.

- - -

I was eight when Bertie came into our lives--young enough to still believe in fairy tales, but old enough to tell life wasn't one. Since my father had died in Afghanistan, I'd had my mother to myself. My mother thought she was bringing me a new father. Turned out she was bringing competition.

Sometimes I wonder if there's anything about Bertie I liked. Not the loud laugh, the ruddy face or the pot belly from drinking too much on a regular basis. He played the television too loud, complained that my computer games took too much bandwidth and, after a drinking binge, would eat the leftovers directly out of the fridge. Once I saw him wipe his nose on his sleeve when he thought I wasn't looking.

But, really, worst of all, he pretended to like me when I knew it was just a way of getting to my mother. He'd pat me on the head, bring me a present and make jokes about how children should be seen and not heard. He made those jokes a lot.

He is uncouth, I told my mother, using a word I'd just learned.

Oh, he's not so bad, my mother said, laughing. You've wiped your own nose on your sleeve a time or two.

I didn't say anything then, but thought how my refined mother would never let me do what Bertie did, that she'd never say that's not so bad.

Really, my mother continued. You ought to like Bertie. He likes you.

No, he doesn't, I said. He's just faking it.

He's just not used to children, she said.

But I knew she was just making excuses. She refused to see the coldness between us; the way we avoided saying anything directly to one another beyond "Pass the salad, please." I hated what being around him did to my mother, how she'd laugh loudly, smile, smile, smile and put on too much make-up. She'd rush out when he came by, giving me an air kiss to keep her lipstick from smearing. Bertie would put his arm around her waist and then sometimes slide it down. It made me sick to my stomach.

A year later, when they married, Mother was determined to think Bertie and I had reached a truce instead of quietly engaging in a cold war. We went through the motions. Bertie giving me lavish gifts, introducing me to his business associates as his daughter. I held back from correcting him. Sometimes I even referred to him as . . . well, not very often.

- - -

The sky's a flat grey when we reach the beach, the horizon of the dark water hard to pick out against the sky. As soon as I get out of the car, the wind whips my hair and makes my ears ache, but the pain does not shut out the deep tremolo of the waves crushing the rocks over and over on the shore, pulling the pebbles deeper. Far off, someone walks a dog, but we are, otherwise, alone. I stand, hugging my arms about me to warm myself, but it's not enough. It's never been enough.

Bertie comes up beside me, holding the box with my mother's ashes. He looks at me briefly and then out toward the water. "Well, we better get this over with." He almost spills the box as we clamber down the rocks to get to the sand, I feel a shard of rage cut through my numbness. We shall scatter no ashes before their time, I think absurdly.

But all of us arrive safely at the water's edge, the wind is worse here, the sand stings my face. Bertie and I turn to face one another. I can tell, even behind our sunglasses, that we're both blinking rapidly to keep out the sand. Neither of us is certain how to proceed next. One more thing we never talked about.

"They didn't cover this in Toastmasters," Bertie says.

No, of course not, toasts are for gatherings, not separations. We should just get this over with and get on with our lives. But like Bertie, I continue to stand.

Near the horizon, there's a cloud break, I see sunlight bright a small patch of water. I remember it is summer.

"It was a nice picnic we had here," Bertie says. And though we had many picnics here--for this was Mother's favorite place--I know the one he's talking about. It was just the two of us. Mother was sick, but at the time there was still hope. The odds were still in her favor.

So we were celebrating, maybe. The sun was out, the water an icy, vivid nephrite. Bertie bought cheese, prosciutto and rosemary bread from the farmer's market. We flew a kite Bertie had gotten as a freebie from a convention. I helped a child built a sand castle.

We hadn't planned it. Bertie was supposed to be watching football and I was supposed to be packing for college, but we'd gotten the news that my mother's white blood cell count was close to normal. She was meeting friends and Bertie had come into my room and said, "Let's hit the beach, just you and me."

And I'd gone. We had laughed and waited 'til the sun set. When we got home, Mother was so relieved to see us getting along that she didn't scold either of us for being late and not calling. Instead, she'd made a spice cake with brandy-flavored frosting. "Just a cake for the family," she'd said. We both smiled--real smiles--because for that moment it was true.

- - -

"Your mother got pretty sick not long after that," Bertie says, not looking at me.

"And your wife," I answer.

"You make it sound like she was two different people," Bertie says. "I guess that's how you wish it was."

"Don't you?" I challenge him.

For once, his glibness fails him. "No," he says. Then, "Only, sometimes." He pushes up his sunglasses, trying to hide. "Christ, Emma, can you just cut me a little slack for once?"

He sounds angry, but he also sounds tired. I look at him--are his ears bigger? The ear hairs in them are grey. Repulsive, part of me thinks. Then another part of me says quietly, he's getting old--that this isn't a fair fight after all.

It's my turn to look away. "Sorry," I say. We're both relieved.

"I do love you," he says and waits for me to say the same in return, but I can't. I know saying it would make all of this go easier, but it's just not that easy.

Bertie sighs and then yanks open the box. "There," he says as if to put an end to something, but what? Mother? Or us?

The ashes have a gravelly heavy quality to them. I wonder if the wind will catch hold of them and get them to the water, or if they will drop into the sand, never making it into the water.

"We need to be closer," I say. "We need to be in the water."

He nods. I kick off my shoes and roll up my jeans. Then I take the box of my mother from Bertie so he can do the same. We wade into the frigid surf, so cold that my feet hurt and then go numb. We won't be able to stand it long.

"Now?" I say.

Bertie nods and I tilt the box away from us, toward the wind, tossing up the ashes in hopes the wind will help scatter them. The ashes waft and fall, some fall straight into the water, but the others . . . the others fall between us and on us. I shut my eyes and mouth tightly willing myself not to inhale--her? No, this is not my mother. This, all of this, has only the slightest connection with her--meaningless remnants. What remains of her is already in myself ... and Bertie.

The last ashes fall more slowly on the water, on Bertie and myself--the two of us survivors of a battle for something that no longer exists. I remove my dusted sunglasses and dip them in the water to clean them. He does the same. We stare at one another, unable to find the words and gestures that would bind the wound between us. Death tears down truisms, easy phrases.

"I really did love her," he says, but it is to himself. There is a blank look on his face. I wonder if he remembers if I am even there.

My eyes water. Is it my mother or the wind? I look again at Bertie, still lost in himself--this one person, like it or not, who shares my grief. In a moment, he'll resume his salesman charm, put up his walls, while I put up mine.

"I know," I say.

He nods to show he's heard, but does not answer. We turn away then, to turn back to our lives and find our way home.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.