For months, Valerie left her mother's ashes on the
shelf in her bedroom closet. Even though she opened and shut the door in
a hurry, she still heard her mother's reproach:
"So this is where you leave me? On a shelf
It wasn't right to leave Estelle in there and Valerie
knew it. In self-defense, she had tried to suppress thoughts of her
mother, but they kept bubbling up to the surface like oil. Guilt, sorrow,
and regret — she struggled with them all. Then over several nights
in August, Estelle came to Valerie in a series of dreams. In every one of
them, she was cleaning. This was not a good sign. In some families,
people eat when they're upset. Valerie's mother took apart closets,
repapered kitchen shelves, and defrosted the refrigerator.
In one dream, Valerie was unlocking her apartment door
on Riverside Drive when she heard the telltale swish of her mother's
scrub brush, which grew louder as Valerie opened the front door and
stepped inside. It was no surprise that Estelle was kneeling on the
kitchen floor. She was wearing her oldest housedress and a beat-up pair
of Keds with a hole in the toe. A cotton scarf covered her long brown
hair. Even while she was talking, the brush never slowed. "Are you
still drinking Diet Coke?" Estelle asked. "How many times do I
have to tell you? It'll give you cancer for sure and then we'll both be
dead." Another time she warned Valerie to take the stairs to the
fourth floor instead of the elevator. "The kids sneeze and they push
all the buttons with their dirty hands. Just one touch and you'll get
sick. Is that what you want? A single girl all alone. Who's going to come
and take care of you?"
Valerie woke up with a headache. She worried that her
mother had finally found a way to break through her defenses. As
protection against Estelle's craziness — for no doubt her mother
was certifiably meshuge — Valerie had erected a wall of reason,
logic and distance, which had served her well in the years between
adolescence and adulthood. She had matriculated at a college as far away
from her mother as possible — which in her case was 116th Street
and Amsterdam Avenue at the opposite end of the D train subway line. She
had to scavenge for understanding and support from sympathetic teachers,
a kind aunt, and a succession of unlikely boyfriends, but it never lasted
long enough. After graduation, she never went back to live with Estelle
in their one-bedroom apartment in the Sea Crest, right off the boardwalk
in Brighton Beach.
All that changed, of course, when her mother got sick.
Twice a week, Valerie took the train to Brighton to help out. While
Valerie mopped the floors and ran the vacuum over the rugs, Estelle sat
by the living room window, looking out at the ocean, one hand pressed
against her cheek. Sometimes she forgot to take off her rubber gloves and
the old shmate covering her head. That was on her good days. Most of the
time she stayed in her darkened bedroom, a washcloth over her eyes, as if
she were suffering from another migraine, which had kept her pinned to
the bed for days on end when Valerie was growing up. That's why Valerie
learned to cook, shop and clean before she was ten years old. Sometimes
Estelle even needed help washing her hair and getting dressed for work.
When Estelle lost her hair during chemotherapy, Valerie bought her a good
wig made out of human hair, but Estelle never wore it. Soon, she wasn't
even bothering to put on makeup. That was almost as startling as her
On one detail, Estelle had been quite explicit —
she wanted to be cremated. That was the enlightened way, the modern way,
the European way. She greatly admired the style, grace, and
sophistication of the women who lived in that part of the world,
especially Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. To her way of thinking, they
were more admirable than Rabbi Schein, who had been the family's
spiritual advisor for half a century.
When it came to the question of where to scatter her
ashes, Estelle's instructions were sketchy. "Find a pretty spot away
from traffic, noise, and dirt," she had directed in her will. In
Manhattan? Central Park was out. Besides, that place had no significance
for her mother. The same was true for all the special spots in the city
that Valerie loved — the sculpture garden on top of the
Metropolitan Museum, the Cloisters, and the ice skating rink at
After some thought, Valerie chose New York harbor.
Estelle had always admired the ocean view from their apartment window.
When Valerie was little, she kept track of the cruise ships heading out
through the Verranzano Narrows to the sea and followed their schedules in
the newspapers. They were headed to exotic places — Havana,
Hamburg, Le Havre. Sometimes, she put down her binoculars and sighed.
"You see, Val," she said. "Now that's really
On Saturday, Valerie took the urn down from the closet
shelf, packed it in her knapsack and took it with her on the train to
Battery Park, and on the Staten lsland Ferry. As the boat picked up
speed, the wind whipped Valerie's short brown hair and ruffled the edges
of her print blouse. The air off the water was surprisingly cool for the
middle of August, so she was glad she wore her jeans. Valerie had always
made a point of being at the opposite end of the fashion spectrum from
her mother. For years, Estelle had dyed her hair a darker shade of brown
and styled it to look just like Audrey Hepburn's — everything from
her impish pixie cut to a sophisticated French twist. She even went as
far as buying a Yorkie just like Audrey's and naming him Mr. Famous.
Sometimes when she walked the dog vigorously up and down the boardwalk,
the wind tugging on the hem of her camel hair coat and the silk scarf
knotted under her chin, people stared. A couple of times, they asked for
her autograph. Laughing a little, Estelle repeated this story with a
dramatic flourish. "I'm sorry, but I'm just a simple girl from
Brooklyn," she said with a trace of a foreign accent, which she
hoped would make them suspect she was lying.
For all her dreaming, this trip on the ferry was the
closest Estelle would ever come to a cruise. As they approached the
deepest part of the harbor, Valerie walked to the stern, where a small
knot of people were taking photographs or working on their tans. Moving
to a quiet corner, Valerie unzipped the backpack and grasped the urn. As
she pulled off the lid, she was struck with a terrible thought. Although
Estelle admired the ocean, she was terrified of drowning. Imagining her
mother's anguished cry, Valerie returned the urn to the backpack.
A few days later, Valerie telephoned her mother's
sister Rose in Boca Raton and asked for her advice. "Crazy to the
end, your mother. What's wrong with being buried under the ground like
everyone else? She had to be different," Aunt Rose said.
"What's so surprising? She always hated
dirt," Valerie said.
"So smart you are, bubbellah." Aunt Rose
gave Valerie's question some thought. "She always liked the Empire
State Building. That's where she met your father. On the observation
"I thought she was afraid of heights."
"That was later. After your father
"She was having second thoughts about marrying
him," Valerie said.
"Are you out of your mind?" Aunt Rose cried.
And so, Valerie told her aunt about the conversation she had with Estelle
a few weeks before she died. They were sitting in Estelle's bedroom and
Valerie was trying to coax her to drink a little tea from a china cup.
Estelle never used mugs, claiming they were too masculine. As always, she
talked mostly about herself and the past.
"I should have married somebody Jewish,"
Estelle said out of the blue.
"But you loved Daddy," Valerie said,
glancing at their framed engagement photo on Estelle's dresser. Her
father leaned towards her mother; their cheeks and foreheads touched.
Dressed in a black scoop-necked dress and pearls, Estelle's sleekly
brushed hair was coaxed into a flip and heavily lacquered with hairspray.
Half boyish, half-charming, her father looked at the camera square on.
His smile was a little lopsided and sweet.
"Of course, I loved him like crazy," Estelle
said. "But if I married a Jew he'd still be alive right now and I
wouldn't be a widow for half my life and you'd have a real father instead
of a picture on the wall."
"Jews got drafted too," Valerie reminded her
"Not the smart ones. They stayed in
college." Estelle sighed. "But he was so handsome, your father.
He looked like a movie star. You should have seen the two of us. We
Their faces in the photograph were young and fresh and
handsome — her mother was right about that. Valerie took her cue.
"You're still beautiful, Ma," she said.
Estelle was still talking. "We wanted more kids.
He wanted four or five."
"Is that what you wanted, Ma?"
She nodded. "And a house in Queens. Forest Hills.
Near the tennis courts."
"But you don't play tennis."
"I couldn't learn? I've got the legs for
After Valerie repeated this conversation, her Aunt
Rose laughed and then sighed. "She was so crazy, that
"You're not helping me," Valerie said.
"So try Bibbe."
"She hated Bibbe."
"That was later. When she comes down south for
the winter, we play mah jong on Tuesday nights. She always asks about
"So give me her number," Valerie said.
Bibbe Gwertzman used to live on Brighton Seventh
Street, just a few doors down from Estelle's parents, her sister Rose,
and various cousins on the Rosenbaum side of the family. Every day
Valerie ran into at least one Rosenbaum on the way home from school or in
the shops on Brighton Beach Avenue. Her father's side of the family was
practically strangers. In fact, the Capodonna's and the Rosenbaum's never
got together except for the two funerals. For a while, they tried to get
Valerie to sleep over at their house in Bay Ridge, and a few times
Estelle let her. All well and good. Then one Sunday morning when Valerie
was seven or eight, her grandparents had her baptized on the sly. The
priest had her lean over the baptismal font while he murmured some
prayers and poured water over her head. She wasn't sure what to make of
this whole experience — the priest was dressed in a ridiculous red
and white dress and smelled strongly of cigarettes. Afterwards, she
didn't feel any different, even though her grandparents told her that her
soul had been filthy with sin before and now it was whiter than
On Sunday night when Estelle was rinsing the baby
shampoo out of Valerie's hair, she told her mother that she was one
hundred percent clean, down to her soul. She thought her mother would be
pleased, but instead, she threw down the shower hose and screamed. When
she calmed down enough to call the rabbi, he wasn't much help. He didn't
know any specific rite or prayer that would protect Valerie's soul from a
Catholic invasion. He told Estelle she had to trust that when the time
came and Valerie was standing at the gates of heaven, God would know she
was the child of a Jewish mother and would let her in. Estelle, however,
didn't entirely trust the rabbi. So, she asked Bibbe Gwertzman for help.
In addition to her psychic talents, Bibbe was the wife of the kosher
butcher on the corner of Neptune Avenue and Brighton Seventh Street. For
two dollars she read Valerie's palm, studied some tea leaves, and started
shivering. "It's worse than I thought," she told Estelle. For
an extra dollar, she taught Estelle a few chants that would provide added
protection. Sometimes in the middle of the night, Estelle stood over her
daughter, her slim body swaying as she recited the same singsong string
of words over and over. With her long white gown and her wild hair, she
looked so much like a ghost that Valerie cried out. Grandma Rosenbaum
added another charm, which involved spitting in the air above Valerie's
head. "Poo, poo, poo," she cried, claiming it chased away the
Valerie was sure they tried the same thing on her
father, but it hadn't done him a bit of good. He was drafted a couple of
months after he married Estelle and was shipped out to Korea. To cover
all the bases, he also wore a Saint Jude's medal for protection. But his
ship was torpedoed in Inch'on harbor and it sank, pulling the crew down
with it. Back at home, his death elevated him to a saintly status.
Estelle couldn't talk about him without crying, and even her parents were
seeing him in a different light. All things considered, he was a pretty
good father and son-in-law.
One night after work, Valerie called Bibbe and posed
the problem about her mother's ashes. "Could you find out what she
wants?" Valerie said. "I know you can speak to the
"Of course I can speak to the dead, but why
should she talk to me? You heard what happened?" Bibbe didn't wait
for an answer. "Six months before she got the bad news, I called her
up and told her to see a doctor. But did she listen to me? Of course not.
She waited until it was too late. I called her every week until the end,
but did she want to talk to me? Never. Is this the way to treat your best
friend? Like a dog? I kicked myself for months, but then one day I woke
up. Is it my fault your mother was impossible? You of all people know
what I mean. Who could love her? Even your father ran away from
"He got drafted," Valerie corrected her.
"He signed up," Bibbe insisted. "With
that crazy wife and in-laws right down the street, who could blame him?
When he told your mother he was shipping out, she was hysterical. And
that was before she knew she was pregnant."
Bibbe went on and on, but Valerie didn't say much. Her
throat was tight. "I gotta go," she murmured. After she hung up
the phone, she squeezed her eyes shut, remembering the engagement photo
of her parents, who seemed happy enough. But maybe Bibbe was telling the
truth. Maybe that's why her mother faltered. Perhaps he simply broke her
heart, and in the years afterward, no one's love was powerful enough to
ever heal it — even Valerie's.
She didn't get to the beach until late — when
the sun was lowering in the sky and the heat was rising up out of the
sand, gripping ankles and feet. Brighton Beach had already started
clearing out. The families left first, hauling kids and umbrellas and
beach chairs back to the avenue and the el. After the families took off,
the place got pretty quiet. The hot dog and ice cream vendors along the
boardwalk cranked up their awnings and locked their doors. Soon, the
teenage girls were pulling on their short shorts and spaghetti strap tops
and climbing down the stairs to the street, their flip-flops slapping
against the pavement. Only the old time Russians were left, sprawled out
in their lounge chairs, their skin slick with oil and their faces radiant
from the homemade aluminum foil reflectors tilted under their chins.
The light gave her mother migraines. That's why she
always wore sunglasses. Valerie shaded her eyes with her hand and wished
she brought her bathing suit. As an act of defiance, she had learned to
swim in college. By conquering each one of her mother's fears, she hoped
she would become immune to them, but she hadn't realized she'd develop
new ones of her own.
The sun went behind the clouds and she spotted the
Baptists, all dressed in white, heading down the boardwalk and out across
the sand. There had to be forty of them, talking and laughing. The wind
played with their hair, tugged on the men's shirtsleeves and puffed out
the women's dresses, which in time collapsed against their warm brown
skin. Someone started singing a hymn, and they all joined in. The
minister and his assistant kicked off their shoes and headed into the
water, pushing through the waves, which lapped higher and higher against
their ankles, knees, and hips. The initiates formed a line that zigzagged
across the beach. One by one, they waded out to the minister, their white
clothes sticking to their skin. Placing one arm behind the convert's head
and the other across the shoulder blades, the minister half-cradled and
half-pushed each one backwards into the water. He didn't let go, so it
was a kind of graceful dance, one fluid swoop of falling and rising
again. The minister's assistant led the newly baptized back to a group of
women who wrapped them in clean white sheets and sang to them. When the
wind shifted, their voices drifted past Valerie and a shiver ran through
her because she never remembered hearing anything so joyously selfless
Valerie stayed on the boardwalk until the lights came
up across the bay in Coney Island, her hands pressed against the white
railing, her bare feet warmed by the hot wood planks. Perhaps she had
always underestimated the simplicity of the believer. At times she wished
she could find some transcendent idea that would lift her above the
narrow perimeter of this moment. And yet, she didn't dare name that
indefinable something that now filled her with peace. Some people called
it grace. Others called it God. And still others called it love. She
supposed it didn't matter.
And so, Valerie lifted the backpack and walked across
the sand, following the path the Baptists had taken. When she got to the
shoreline, she lifted the urn out of the backpack, opened the lid, and
poured her mother's ashes along the line where the water met the land. At
that luminous edge, just about anything was possible.
BIO: After rewarding careers in teaching and in
publishing, Patricia Moed is now devoting her talent and energy to
writing. For the past eight years, she has produced newsletters,
brochures, annual reports, and promotional articles for profit and
non-profit institutions. In addition to co-authoring a textbook, she has
written short stories, poetry, essays, and two novels — More
Sweet, More Salt and The Sweetness of Adversity. Two of her
essays "Bertha's Blessing" and "Nick's Gift" have
been accepted for publication. One of her short stories won an award from
The Detroit Monthly/Detroit Women Writers. She has been granted
fellowships at the Ragdale Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center, and
she was selected to attend master classes in fiction taught by Lynn
Sharon Schwartz at the Vermont Studio Center, Alice Adams at the 92nd
Street Y Poetry Center, and Catherine Hiller at the Writer's Voice
Program at the West Side Y. Her current projects include a screenplay and
a short story collection, which is being reviewed on Zoetrope.com. She
lives in Connecticut with her husband and son. Email: