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 collecting dust?"
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 actual death.
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 Rockefeller Plaza.
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 living."
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 deck."
"I thought she was afraid of heights."
"That was later. After your father died."
"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 mother.
"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 stopped traffic."
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 it."
After Valerie repeated this conversation, her Aunt Rose laughed and then sighed. "She was so crazy, that Estelle."
"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 you."
"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 white.
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 evil eye.
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 dead."
"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 her."
"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 and pure.
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.