The Joke

By KYRA FREEBURG | Published: November 6, 2011

There are times when I choose my words carefully but this was not one of those times. I was in a car heading south on the NY Thruway with my sister Chris to rendezvous with my crazy mother and two cousins in Queens. I was tagged as the tracker while Chris drove, which meant I had to monitor the low-jack we had hitched to my mom, the old one. Mom was with my cousins so it couldn’t be all that hard to locate them as at least my cousins were normal people. I called the number I had for my cousin’s cell phone with no answer. I then called information for the number of the restaurant my cousin said where they would be; in the hood we were to rondevue. I dialed the restaurant’s number as we were close and I was greeted with a gravely morning voice and Irish music chaser in the background.

“McEwen’s Pub”

“Good morning” I said. I wasn’t raised by wolves, loons yes, wolves no.

And continued, “I am looking for an old woman, a young woman and a guy.”

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone during which all I can hear is breathing and the soft Irish music lilting away. Then the voice says, “Is there a punch line to this?”

“Uh no, I am looking for my mom, the old woman and my two cousins the young woman and the guy” I explain. “I understand they might be there.”

“Oh jeez I thought it was a joke.” What he doesn’t know, it is in a way due to my murky gene pool but I will get to that later…

He continues, “Yea, they are the three Bloody Mary’s in the corner hang on.” ‘Of course they are’ I think. It’s 10:30 in the morning and they are sitting in an Irish Pub across from the cemetery with a trunk full of ‘no-good-will-come-of-this-crazy.’

I hear my cousin Anna’s voice come on “Hello?”

“Hi Anna, it’s Kyra, we tried your cell with no luck and we are close.”

“Oh I guess I didn’t hear it with the music. Wow, good job finding us.” Really knowing my mom the way I do this was dead easy. Anna continues, “We’ll finish up and meet you at the front gate of the cemetery.”

“Ok” I say and think with resignation I would have rather taken a pit-stop for a cocktail myself to get ready for the morning ahead but there is no time to offer it up as she is gone. I give Chris the bad news that we are going straight to the cemetery rather than the pub. She nods lips tight. “Of course we are, there isn’t going to be any fun to be had on this leg of the journey.”

We are on a mission of mercy for my mother today. It is crazy, indulgent and I believe illegal. I say “I believe” it is because by checking it out that would be premeditated illegal rather than ignorance. And ignorance is, well not bliss here but tolerant. My dad died over twenty-five years ago, my uncle died a short time after that. My mother has been the keeper of her brother and husbands ashes and today is a service or sorts. For my cousins this is their dad, he left my aunt and them when they were all quite small. They really had little to no knowledge of him especially the youngest my cousin Anna.

Earlier in the week my mom had flown from Florida, where all New Yorkers live out their sunset years, to Long Island to meet my cousins. The plan was for her to meet up with family, for a nice little visit before this expedition. The next phase of said plan was for my mom to come back with us so she could visit with the rest of the family that lived upstate. It was a hand-off of the old one you could say. Seeing my cousins at first glance they appeared what you could say flushed and bright eyed. An untrained observer might believe that was due to the Bloody Marys’ but my knowing eye could tell it was the prospect of unloading the bundle of babbling babushka that is my mom.

We exchanged hugs all around and pleasantries and then began to address the business at hand. My mom had managed to find the plot number and location of my grandmother who is buried in the cemetery. On a side note Queens is populated with as many or more tombstones than mailboxes. Part of the history is that 19th century burials in Manhattan were banned so they moved them to the burbs. Or, prior to “bridge and tunnel” aspersions it was “buggy and bumpkin.” But I digress; we managed with my mother’s keen detective skills to park near my grandmother’s plot so there was a minimum of schlepping of accoutrement for the service.

My mother had a large shopping bag with what appeared to be lunch and a pokey plant. She was also sporting an enormous pocketbook. For those of you not familiar with east coast 1950’s language, “she carried a purse.” I reached into the shopping bag at my mother’s feet and pulled out one of the two Tupperware’s inside it. Looking closer it appeared to be a Tupperware inside of a Tupperware, hmmm curious.

“Be careful with your father.” My mother snapped as she was digging around her pocketbook.

I look at my sister first, then back at the Tupperware like, ‘I didn’t just hear that did I?’

But I say it only in my head. She answers in my head, ‘yep you heard it, dead guy in the wear.’

“You put daddy in Tupperware?”

“Yes I was going to fly over the water; I wanted him dry if we went down.” My mother will not fly in sandals for the same reason. Closed toed shoes are better to walk or swim out of the crash.

The day was cool and crisp but I was starting to get warm with just this small entry into conversation with my mom. I could almost feel a tic coming on, and wished for that Bloody Mary all over again.

“And there is a Tupperware inside of the Tupperware because you didn’t trust the seal of the first one?” I ventured flicking my eyes between the twinkle in my sisters and my mom’s furrowed sharpee style brow as she continued to dig in her bag mumbling.

“Exactly” she said flatly. “Your uncle is in the other Tupperware in that bag so don’t fool around with him.”

I would like the record to show that I have never fooled around with, trifled with, or was in any way careless with the ashes of anyone, much less my fraternal lineage.

With my mother’s last statement both my cousins’ eyebrows shot up. I think they thought this was going to be a ceremony or ritual with more symbolism and less dead people. Especially since the dead people in questions were our fathers. Silly rabbits, they don’t know my mom’s peccadillos to put it nicely.

Finally with an exclamation of glee my mom pulled a well-worn spade out of her bag. “I got it, let’s go!”

“Where the hell did you get a spade?” Chris asked as we crunched across the slightly frozen sod.

“I packed in my big bag. I knew it wouldn’t make it in the carry on and then prayed to Saint Jude. It’s a good spade and we need it for the pineapple plant.”

Now it was my turn at surprise. “Pineapple plant?”

“Yes, the plant in the bag you are carrying is a pineapple plant that we are going to plant in my mother’s plot.”

“But pineapple plants are tropical and this is uh Queens?” I said incredulously letting my free hand wave about a bit.

My cousins were cleverly quiet; I am sure trying to assess the percentage of their genes that were truly from our side of the family. A crap shoot by any other name…

“Pineapple plants mean ‘welcome.’” My mom said in a huff, coming to a stop at what appeared to be our family plot.

“But it’s a tropical plant going in the ground in Queens which is not a tropical place so it’s gonna die.”

“What does that matter? Don’t be so literal. It symbolizes welcome, I told you.”

I plopped the bag down with the ‘Welcome’ pineapple plant and the ashes looking at my mother in disbelief. “What are you welcoming them to? Being dead? It’s been over 15 years since that ship sailed.”

I heard my sister’s stifled laugh and car noises but nothing from my mom. She was frowning at me, and then kicked at the hard sod turning her glance down.

My cousin Michael cleared his throat. “Would you like me to start to dig a hole for the plant Aunt Teresa?”

She nodded and gave direction to depth, location for the best of care scenario of the soon to be tortured pineapple plant. I shrugged my shoulders to shake off the aggravation of years of these types of events and conversations with no luck. The only thing crazier than my mother is trying to find logic in her thought process. My sister just laughed harder and mumbled under her breath “crazy is as crazy does” as she peeked into the bag and its contents.

After directing my cousin my mom reached into the bag and pulled my uncle out along with a Ziploc bag. “Anna I want you to have some of your dad for a keepsake.”

Emily Post does not have a response for something like this. Let’s face it even the love child of Tim Burton and Mortica Adams would be stumped here.

Anna stepped back as if she were slapped, maintaining facial composure as my mom was in her face.

“No, no it’s okay Aunt Teresa,” she stuttered as my mother went on to take the top off the first and then the second Tupperware, revealing a clear bag with ashes.

“Don’t worry there’s plenty here,” my mother assured her as she proceeded to shake some of my uncle out into the Ziploc bag. In the process of the transfer I could see some of him being scattered on her gnarled hands and dark coat sleeves. She flicked the ashes away when she finished. Not unlike what she did with bees at family picnics, in a way that made everyone comfortable.

“I will put the rest of him under the pineapple plant with Bill, so they are together with my mom and dad.” She said to herself as much to any of us standing there.

Michael still had his head down digging furiously with the small smuggled shovel to stay out of the fray. Anna, now the color of parchment, clutched a baggie of her father who she never knew, nodding at my mother glass eyed. This was fodder for many a therapy session or a Cohen brother’s movie, probably both.

Chris redirected my mother’s attention away from giving my cousin ideas where she might keep her father, to the planting of the pineapple and the contraband of ashes. Four out of five of us knew this was bizarre and on some level a no-no. The other of us, double sealed ancient ashes in Tupperware, packed a favorite spade and was making comments on whose bag of ashes was heavier and chunkier. Another memory to discuss at a holiday dinner was born.

When my mom was ready to do the deed my sister and I worked the perimeter of the fence and the road to make sure we were safe. Getting busted for this would be bad. If I had to do anytime in a cell with my mom I would kill her and be up for even more time in the big house for sure. We scanned while the proceedings went on, each of us plotting our getaway and our first cocktail of the evening once safe at home.

My mom sprinkled the ashes in the bottom of the hole for the pineapple plant and we all said a silent prayer. I am sure my cousin’s were of the ‘get me the hell out of here’ and ‘I want a DNA test’ variety. For Chris and I it was in the flavor of ‘please don’t let me kill her before her trips end.’ For my mom I have no clue, nor would I venture a look if I could, too scary in that fun house of a head.

Finally she took the welcome plant and lowered it down into the hole. We all took a hand full of dirt and threw it in around the pokey and very tropical plant. I couldn’t help myself from blurting, “really a pineapple plant? Why not an evergreen for crying out loud?”

With that the others rolled their eyes so high and hard in their heads I wasn’t sure they weren’t seizing. We finished the planting of uh everything, and trudged back to the cars to the tune of my mother and I bickering about the message of welcome, dead shrubs, what tropical means and how to say good-bye.



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