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.
"I'm so sorry. I had no idea it caused such a rift between you and Stan."
She seemed calmer; almost complacent, "It doesn't matter anymore. That was forever ago." A moment of silence passed. I just stood there.
"You know even after that he never let up on me," she continued. "He resented my having to take care of him and you being so far away."
"Did you resent my being so far away?" I'd never thought about this before.
"No, of course not. You have your family and your life. You couldn't just pick up and leave." Her face changed again, reverting to the choleric, resentful grimace. "But he never stopped. Nothing was ever good enough. He was like that old cantankerous uncle from that Twilight Zone episode. You know. The one who can't do anything for himself and doesn't appreciate anything anyone does for him. I was beginning to hate him more than I ever did. I just wanted him to know that even through all the bullshit..." she paused and her face softened-her eyes dropped slightly. "I still loved him. I still needed a father."
This was normal for her-the anger, the resentment, and the unrequited need. She had been the one to take care of Stan, our father, that last year of his life. I was safe and detached, three thousand miles away in California. I only had to deal with things over the phone; secure from the daily duties and physical responsibilities she was forced to accept because of the proximity of her life to his. Listening to her accounts of his constant battles with this disease and that ailment. All complicated with the ever worsening condition of Multiple Sclerosis and his inability to accept the dish of life placed in front of him.
The last time I had seen him was six months prior to his death. I had flown in for a week just to spend some time with him. I guess I wasn't really sure if I ever would see him again after that. He was in the hospital trying to recover from a near fatal bout with pneumonia. I would spend most of everyday with him just sitting there in his room, forced to wear a surgical mask and latex gloves for fear he might contract some other fatal affliction. But by the end of the week he was well enough that a nurse and I could take him across the street to the park for a short sojourn into the real world. I think I knew he had really given up when he became incontinent and urinated all over himself. He just didn't care anymore. He'd felt he had nothing left to live for and nothing to lose, so peeing on himself was the least of his problems. It was harder for me I think. Here's this man, my father, in many ways my hero, giving up, just not even fighting for his dignity anymore.
After that I spent the next six months trying to prepare for what I knew was inevitable, trying to help my sister, if nothing else just trying to be there and support her. We both knew that he had given up ten years ago when he found out he had MS. After that it was just a matter of waiting until whatever got to him the hardest. We just never fully realized that he'd given up as much as he had.
"Okay, listen, I got this great idea. Stan was in the restaurant business all his life. Right? He made a big name for himself, friends all over New York."
"Yeah so?" she responded. I could tell I had her going. "So we take his ashes, divide them up and put them into about, what, maybe two hundred little spice bottles and then send it around to all his friends with his picture on the label saying something like... Stanley Gilbert's Special Spice. What do you think?"
She laughed. "Not a bad idea. Except we'd probably be sued when someone choked on him."
"Yea, I guess you're right. Still would be kind of funny to see, though." I stood up from the table and began pacing the room looking at all the symbols of Judaism she had amassed. A large ornate Menorah was proudly displayed in a glassed curio chest next to a Torah housed in a jeweled silver casing. Both were artifacts that had been in our family for many years. A Star of David medal given to Marlo by her temple for being a Jew above and beyond the call of duty or some such nonsense. It all bored me.
Marlo had enveloped herself into Judaism as she became older. Much more than I ever had or would for that matter. I could never find the solace or comfort she seemed to be able to attain from it. I think I was probably a little jealous by her devotion to a religion that seemed foisted on my shoulders to carry like Atlas with the world. I had not been able to come to terms with the faith-constantly wrestling with its traditions and morals, which were inherent in my soul. However, I was never able to deal with the rituals of temple and praying to a god I wasn't sure I believed in.