In searching for pictures for my sister’s memorial service tomorrow, I’ve come across a lot of old baby pictures of myself. Out of the pure vanity of biological parenthood, I can’t help but compare them to baby pictures of Ruby: Do we have the same eyes? Nose? Cheeks?
After an exhaustive study of these pictures, I’ve concluded that Ruby and I do look similar –– except that I was a much more solemn child. Ruby is grinning like a fool in every picture; I’m looking warily at the camera as if whomever is behind it can’t be trusted.
It took a long time for me to develop a sense of humor at all and even longer for me to develop a sense of humor about myself. But now, luckily, I have both –– and it’s probably my greatest coping tool.
There was a lot of black humor this past weekend when I drove to meet my father at my sister’s house in Florida. There were also a lot of moments that were bittersweet or just plain sad.
The night before I drove in, I had the most disturbing dream: I was at my sister’s house looking for her, wanting to find her to tell her that I loved her, and I couldn’t find her anywhere. I finally found her, on the sofa where she died. And she was sitting upright, molded entirely out of ashes.
I woke up with a huge start to bright sunlight streaming in, and I tried to shake off the dream. On the drive over, I kept the music as loud as it would go because I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. But as soon as I saw my dad, I reverted to about age 6. I flung myself into his arms and said, “Daddy, I had the scariest dreams” and started crying.
He held me for a few minutes and then sadly said, “Well, let’s go on and have a drink. In a few hours, you’ll feel a little less ghoulish about being here.”
As we sorted through it all, all of the sentimental detritus that accompanies a life, we found an old VHS tape that said, simply, “GUMBO.” Curious, we slid it into the machine –– and there was my sister, five years ago, much healthier, in the same kitchen in the house that we were currently in. I think the tape was for one of those Next Food Network Star kind of things, and although it was sad to think about a time when Ashley had hopes and dreams, it was also nice to remember that her life hadn’t always been as bleak as it was in the last year.
My dad and I sat side by side on her white wicker bed and watched a much more vibrant version of Ashley as she browned sausage and made a roux.
It is a mark of two things –– how seriously we take gumbo down here and how difficult it can be sometimes to be my father’s child –– that my father had an opinion about how his dead daughter made her gumbo: “What are you doing, Ashley –– that’s not a dark roux! That’s not when you add okra! Tomatoes? Why are you adding tomatoes?!”
The gumbo looked good, though, and she seemed so vibrant and funny on the tape. We both laughed at the jokes she made throughout. “That’s a good line, Ashley,” Dad said a few times with an approving chuckle, and I wished she were there because loving to make my father laugh is one of the things we had in common.
The next morning, we went to scatter some of her ashes in the same bayou where she’d scattered her mother’s. We stopped at Publix beforehand and bought some flowers.
“I don’t really know what she’d like,” my dad said.
“Me neither,” I said.
“Are you going to a recital?” chirped the woman behind the flower counter.
My dad and I looked at each other uneasily for a long moment and then I cleared my throat and said, “Ah, no. No. Thank you.”
And we bought some roses and carnations and checked out. The cashier tried to fluff the carnations for us, stroking each one until it opened up. About halfway through, my dad took the bouquet from her.
“Thank you,” he said sadly. “Truly, thank you. But it really doesn’t matter.”
And so we went to the bayou and we threw handfuls of ash and bone across the water and cast the flowers out after them.
“The only thing I ever took comfort in about life after death,” my dad said, “was, ‘Today a man, tomorrow a worm, the next day a butterfly.’ I guess Ashley did it a bit different: ‘Today a woman, tomorrow an oyster, the next day …’?”
And I finished up, “A po-boy?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, she’d like that.”
And she would.
Rest in peace, Ashley. See you in a sandwich.