One of my favorite books to teach is Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. It is a memoir about the first eighteen years of his Irish-Catholic life. He traces his life from America to Ireland, shares the exploits of his alcoholic unemployed father, serves up stories of how his mother tried to hold the family together, and shows the family’s descent from poverty to absolute squalor.
Yikes! That sounds really depressing! It isn’t, though, not really. He tells the story in present tense, and it is so easy to put yourself into his child’s mind that the majority of his stories become anecdotal and humorous.
With that being said, I am going to give a bit of the plot away. At one point about a hundred pages in, Frankie’s parents have another baby, and his dad decides he needs to explain where babies come from. “Dad says he found Michael on the seventh step of the stair… He says that’s what you have to watch for when you ask for a new baby, the Angel on the Seventh Step.”
Frankie finds great pleasure in knowing that an angel lives on the seventh step. Frankie likes the idea of an angel in the house. He visits the step often. “I sit on the seventh step for a long time and I’m sure the angel is there. I tell him all the things you can’t tell your mother or father for fear of being hit on the head or told to go out and play.”
Ah! The simple beauty of the childhood mind. Frankie found himself a guardian angel to help him through the tough times.
In the Fall of 2008, I was finally myself again. It had taken close to two years to get used to the fact that my parents had died. I had finally settled into my life once again. We had adjusted our childcare schedules; we had adjusted our holiday schedules; I had gotten over missing stopping over their house to visit.
Through those two years, my relationship with my cousin Marta strengthened. We had been close for a number of years, but I felt like she became a more prevalent part of my life. She helped me patch the holes in my heart.
On a random Saturday night, she and her husband came over to our house to hangout with us. We were sitting around chit-chatting when she started talking about painting their spare bedroom. They had been working on updating their house for a number of years.
“What color do you think you want to paint it?” I asked. Marta has an eye for decor, so I knew it would be something fabulous.
“I don’t know. We are leaning toward blue or pink.” She smiled. Without realizing it, she rested her hand on her stomach.
“You’re pregnant!” I jumped up and crossed the room to hug her. The very next thought (I mean the very next thought after shouting “You’re pregnant”) that went through my mind was I can’t wait to tell mom!”
In the midst of feeling joy for Marta, I felt absolute despair.
My entire life, whenever I had any type of news, good or bad, my mother was the first person I called. It had been two years since my mom had passed away, but at that moment I realized that it was just recently that I had really started to feel. I had felt panic. I had felt anxiety. I had felt empty. But I had not felt real emotion.
Marta gave me a true sense of sheer joy. I had finally emerged from the murkiness. Yet, the sudden penetrating pain that came with the joy hurt. It hurt a lot.
I did not let on how horrible I was feeling because I wanted Marta to relish in her excitement. She was going to be bringing a new life into the world, and we had a great deal to talk about.
A few days later, I was still shaken by my realization. I was cleaning the kitchen. I realized that I needed to put some of my bigger pots in the cubby in the basement. I had been accumulating kitchen paraphernalia, and some of the big items I never used were making my cupboards hellish. I went downstairs and started to reorganize when something very significant dawned on me.
My parents were in the cubby. They lived in my cubby. Literally. They had been cremated and we had not done anything with the ashes. They were resting there in two grey boxes.
Like Frankie McCourt, I realized I had “Angels in the Cubby.” I leaned against the wall, and I started to talk.
“Hey, you guys. I forgot you were here. So much has been going on.”
I talked and talked and talked. I do not know for how long, but I told them everything. I told them about Marta, my girls, my job, Tom. I told them how Rio had died and how we got another pug, Sunny. I told them how we gave Sunny to Tom’s sister and how we got Linus from the pound. I told them how hard it had been since they left us, and I cried. I cried so hard that I had to change my shirt after; I had wiped my eyes and my nose with my sleeve so much.
The entire event was cathartic. I realized I was not alone.
In the past few years, every so often, my brother and I talk about finding some place special to spread my parents’ ashes. However, I never push the subject. They live here in my house. Every so often, when my heart is heavy and my mind is clouded, I creep into the cubby for some guidance.
I tell them all of the things you can’t tell your husband or your kids for fear of being laughed at or told to change the laundry.