Death, then fire.
That’s how my parents went out of this world. And likely I will too.
It’s something I really try not to think about: how my earthly remains will be disposed of. And for good reason. It’s completely out of my hands.
By the time I arrived in Florida in late May 2008, Mom had already been cremated. I was shocked by this, wishing I could’ve seen her one last time.
Then, after Dad died in early September of the same year, a similar regret. Except Pop’s body was still in the morgue when my brother Brian, our aunt, uncle and I met with the doctor.
I asked if I could see Dad’s body.
The doctor wanted me to think carefully about that request since, as he said, “blood had collected, post-mortem, on one side” of Dad’s face.
Did I want that to be my “last image of him?”
The others concurred with the doctor. I was the holdout.
But then Dad, too, was cremated.
I wasn’t even sure if that was his final request. But we purchased simple wooden boxes, into which the ashes of one half of the Family Project were put and kept at my brother’s house until finally, in April 2012, we were able to inter them at the family gravesite in Greensburg, Indiana.
I’ll never forget lowering Dad’s ashes into the ground. They were so much heavier than Mom’s. So like mother’s air-element quality to be light and for Dad’s to be heavy—almost waterlogged, like all the seven oceans were stuffed into that small wooden box, then placed in a tiny plot of earth.
And so the other elements remain: my brother is earth, like the ground into which our parents were laid.
Then there’s me.
Always on fire, burning through life, consuming everything in my path: jobs, money, relationships, you name it.
My Indiana birthplace had an incinerator in the backyard.
While doing research on the previous blog post, I came across this scene and was startled by its effect on me. William Inge’s play Picnic, released as a movie in 1955 and directed by Joshua Logan, shoots me back to a time when three generations passed through our tiny home in Broad Ripple, Indianapolis.
The above left photo, taken in 1956, shows Dad and Mom (right of frame) enjoying a night out with two other couples.
It was a heady time. Post-World War II economic vitality was in the air. Employment was on the rise. All the couples are snappily dressed. They seem relaxed and happy.
For Mom and Dad, it was early in their relationship. In another three years I would be born and—bang—one brand-spankin’ new Family Project, off and running. The house at 1827 East 64th Street was purchased with Dad’s new wages at the Indiana State Highway Department. It was quickly outfitted for all the things the project would need.
Our backyard incinerator at that house resembled the one in Picnic: metal with a concrete base and vented sides. Taking the trash out, lighting the match, burning the trash. Our Cocker spaniel, Taffy, sniffing the grass around us.
I’d nearly forgotten that Taffy was a gift from Mom’s Uncle Horace. Horace Harter was born in October 1903. He was husband to Grandpa’s only sister Edith (pictured at right with her mother, Lena Adams, who lived well into her 90s and whom my brother and I met many times in Greensburg, Ind.).
All I recall about Edith is a general sadness, so different from her outgoing brother Ray, and who was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1970s. She died in 1973.
Edith’s husband, my Great Uncle Horace, a retired assistant postmaster and Presbyterian, had one hardcore hobby: breeding Cocker spaniels and winning awards at dog shows. I remember his basement shelves were filled with trophies and plaques. He was an honorary member of the American Spaniel Club.
Taffy died in Maryland, shortly after we arrived in the mid-1960s.
Dad buried her in the backyard, just beside the playhouse.
On Friday, Dec. 27, 1991, the Family Project went into emergency mode.
A journal entry on Monday, Dec. 30, tells it in full:
“The folks’ house out in Minnetrista caught fire. The old Zenith TV in the upstairs living room exploded and caught fire, igniting the couch and everything surrounding it. Mom had left the TV on and went downstairs. She heard the explosion and went upstairs, saw the fire, went back downstairs and called the Fire Dept. It wasn’t long before Dad came up the driveway, soon followed by the fire engines. I’d been at work since 10 a.m., as I was supposed to leave at 6:00 p.m. to take them to the Comfort Inn on Highway 494 where they were to stay till their plane bound for Florida left the Int’l Airport at 6 a.m. Sat. I called home at close to noon to tell them I’d be out there earlier than expected and Mom picked up the phone in the garage to say the house was on fire. I left work right away…”
When I made it to the house, it wasn’t as badly damaged as I imagined. But, as the entry continues, “…when I saw the sooty walls upon which were the family photos, I got really angry and took them down.” It was a helpless feeling to arrive so late.
Brian convinced our parents to continue with their Florida vacation plans and deal with the house when they returned.
That’s when, I’m certain, Dad decided he and Mom would retire to Florida.
Two weeks later, after they’d returned, on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 1992, I wrote: “And then, the second fire…”
Workers making repairs from the first fire had left an acetylene torch burning while they took a lunch break.
The remainder of the house went up in flames.
So many elemental connections to this, which I’ve explored before: how Mom (an air element) left the old TV on, Dad (water) rushed home to put out the fire, how my brother convinced them to go on vacation (down-to-earth) and I, fiery nature, fire sign Sagittarius and all, felt so unable to be “a good, helpful son.”
You see, Dad abhorred the smell of smoke.
I’m certain my fiery impetuosity often rankled him. I do know that as I entered my teenage years, we had more than our share of misunderstandings.
And I’ve failed at so many things since then.
I’ve been a poor son and brother. Partner, and friend.
I’ve burned through it all, only stopping when everything had been consumed.