Stan's ashes came in a box neatly wrapped in very plain brown paper-much like the plain wrap uniform of the man who delivered it to the New Jersey door of my sister Marlo's house. As the driver handed me the package, I became curious how he might have reacted if told of the contents, but realized he must deliver countless items far stranger and more grotesque than this. My mind reeled with the possibilities. Was it befitting the grandiose life of a famous New York City restaurateur Stan had lead for his ashes to be delivered by a mundane UPS man? It seemed like there should have been more fanfare of some type. Perhaps a somber group of white-coated waiters who humbly cradled the box in their arms as they ambled up the walk. Better yet, they carry his ashes inside a solid gold chafing dish within an ornate sedan chair, the outside adorned with bright gold trim-inside, the chafing dish would sit on a soft, crushed velvet maroon cushion. They would come up the front walk slowly, stepping with timed precision as if walking down a church aisle. Maybe a small busboys' choir in flowing aprons would be in step behind them, fancy menus open from each of the restaurants he owned or operated: The Four Seasons, Le Pavilion, The Forum, to name a few, chanting a mournful requiem. Slowly, they would set the chair down, just as the choir's last notes filled the air and then reverently serve the holy ashes unto me.
But alas no, I got the cold, but cheery UPS man, who plopped the box in my arms and thrust the clipboard in my face for me to sign. He cupped his hands and chugged warm breaths through his fingers while waiting for me to finish autographing the form.
"Keep it warm. Have a good one." He grabbed the clipboard and jogged back to the cozy interior of his truck.
I closed the entryway door and went back inside to the kitchen where I unwrapped the box. It wasn't large, about the size of a top hat, smooth, white cardboard, slick and shiny.
"It's kind of like the Cadillac of cardboard boxes," I said to my sister, Marlo, as I removed the last of the outer wrapping. "Stan would've liked that. He never did get to buy that Yid Yacht. He always wanted one."
"Calvin!" she exclaimed, shoving me.
"Ooww! What? What's your problem? And why do you always insist on using my Hebrew name?" I was never sure if she did that to annoy me or because she was so caught up in her Judaic beliefs that she felt she could somehow draw me back into the religion by planting little Jewish bombs in my path every chance she got.
"I don't want you talking like that in my house," her angry finger flicked back and forth, scolding me, "and that's your name whether you admit it or not."
I ran around to the other side of the large dining room table, taunting her. "Yid yacht, Rabbi racer, Jew canoe, Kike cradle." I couldn't help myself. Cajoling Marlo was a way of life-something we had both practiced on each other with tremendous authority as we were growing up. It was in our blood.
She reached into the crystal bowl in the middle of the table, picked up a piece of plastic fruit to throw at me, but then stopped, and looked at me strangely, "Kike cradle? What the hell's that? That's the stupidest thing I ever heard."
"I just made it up."
"Sounds like something stupid you would make up." She placed the plastic orange back in the bowl. "All right, come on. Sit down and let's figure out what we're gonna do with him."
There would be no fancy urn for Stan. He would not be displayed on Marlo's mantel or mine so we could exclaim to visiting company that our father was still among us, at least in ashen form. He was to be deposited or scattered somewhere, more or less appropriate; exactly where was the question we were trying to answer.
I walked around the large white washed table across from her and pulled out the matching chair with the flower cushion.
The bowl of fake fruit was between us. "What? You can't afford real stuff, anymore?" I picked up the red wax grapes, and inspected them closely. "Amy could eat one of these and choke."
"Amy is ten years old now. And she's not as dumb as you were back then."
"Hey, I was three and I didn't know the grapes weren't real. I almost choked." I slid the box of Stan down the table in between us.
"I know. I was the one who slapped your back to get it out."
"I remember you slapped me so hard you almost sent my lung flying into the next room."
"That was the fun part," she smiled and then looked at the box of Stan on the table. She reached out and pulled the box closer to her, holding it between her hands at arm's length. The smile left her face, which then began to contort into a sorrowful grimace. I could see small pools of tears forming in the bottom of her eyes. She brought the box close to her, cradled it in her arms and rested her head on the lid. She started to cry in earnest, slowly shaking as she sobbed. I started to join her.
My sister never cried very much, even during the funeral with dozens of bereft relatives barely able to stand they were so grief-stricken. She always had to be the emotional fortress-never wavering, always supporting, always the crutch for everybody else's feelings and emotions. She never gave herself the chance to ever feel pain or sorrow. I actually enjoyed watching her cry, finally letting something out for herself, born of her own grief and not someone else's. I think I cried not for Stan, lord knows I'd done that enough, but for her, for her ability to finally feel anguish for something just for the sake of... whatever - the need to feel pain, to release, to let go and finally express grief about something. But her remorse was derived from some obligation to feel sadness for the loss of her father not out of any deep love or affection she had actually felt for him.
"He was such an asshole," she said still hugging the box. "All my life, he never let up on me. Not once. I know he saw Mommy in me and hated me for it. And I hated him for that. For that stupid idiotic hang-up of his."
"Oh, come on, Marlo, that was only the tip of the iceberg with you and him. And you're wrong. He didn't see Mommy in you, he saw himself in you. That was always the problem. What about the way he acted at your wedding? That was a Stan Gilbert classic."
Marlo's wedding. It was a classic affair almost too surreal for words. Stan, in his usual form, refused to cough up one dime unless she conformed to the way he wanted the wedding to be staged. One afternoon during a luncheon in a very posh Manhattan eatery with Stan, Marlo and her husband-to-be, a fight broke out between the three of them. The result being that Stan was not invited to the wedding. He and Marlo remained silent until the day before the event when the entire family pleaded with both of them to make up and settle their differences. It was still an incredibly strenuous time with the two of them upholding a fragile treaty for the sake of the family.
"I know, who could forget that?" she said through her smooshed cheek resting on top of the box. "I really wish it could have been different between us."
I got up from my seat and went around to her, putting my hands on her shoulders, trying to absorb some of the grief she felt, but I didn't have to. I knew what she was feeling.
"I remember when we were kids and you, me and Dad..."
She abruptly sat up straight and looked at me squarely. "You called him Dad. You never call him that."
"I didn't always call him Stan, you know," she rested her head back down on the box. "Anyway, I remember when you, me and Stan were walking down Seventy-seventh Street from Central Park West. We were next to the New York Historical Society, and for some reason that I can't remember, he started yelling at you and cursing. You know how he used to do it," I took a couple of steps and put my arms out in mocking exasperation. "He just stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and got that incredibly disturbed look on his face and screamed, 'SHIT MARLO!' Then he grabbed your arm and yelled 'WE'RE GOING BACK, NOW' and dragged you off. I remember feeling so bad for you and thinking, why is he doing this to her?"
"I remember that," she said without lifting her head from the box. "I was ten years old," she raised her head, a look of memory induced anger quickly took command of her face. "I was so mad at him then. You want to know what that whole mishegoss was about?"
"I'd love to know. It's been a festering boil on my psyche all these years."
"We were coming back from dinner and he asked me where his pen was."
A little shock wave went through me and a tinge of cold sweat started to break on my forehead. "His gold one? The one he got from his Bar Mitzvah?"
"Yeah, that one. Anyway, I borrowed it from him, and I guess I left it at the restaurant by accident. Needless to say he lost it, big time." She banged her fist on the top of the container, hard and shouted down at it. "You fucking jerk! Why'd you do that to me? It was just a stupid pen!" She began to cry again and put her head back down on the box.
I tried to comfort her. "Marlo... It's all right. He's never gonna hurt you like that again. He's gone. Just a buncha' ashes in a box, now." I realized now that I had to tell her. "Marlo, I have to tell you something."
"It umm... was me." I felt terrible that after twenty-five years I was the cause.
"What was you?" she asked.
"I took the pen from the table."
She turned to face me, "You took the pen? Why? How could you do that and not say anything?"
"Marlo, I was six years old. I didn't know. I saw it on the table and put it in my pocket. I didn't think about it," she turned away and put her head back down.
.... There is more of this story ...