The Urn by Robert Isenberg

blue-urn-with-lid“Well, there’s Bernie,” Lilla says.

The sight of the urn startles me. It’s just a little vase, powder blue, sealed at the top and standing on a display table. That’s it. The culmination of an entire life, incinerated, clumped and potted. I almost laugh, but people don’t laugh in funeral homes. I nod solemnly and loom over the urn. To the right lies an American flag. To the left lies a sheet of vellum, imprinted with the Masonic emblem, a square and compass.

The funeral is just as eccentric as Grandpa was. My uncle speaks, and he cracks some jokes and shows some embarrassing photos of Grandpa reclining, shirtless, on a honeymoon bed. “I guess he fancied himself quite the stud,” Gary snickers. Carol, Grandpa’s stepdaughter, speaks next; she’s skinny and has long gray hair, and although she’s wearing a simple black dress, she still looks like a hippie. She quotes some lyrics by a 1960s folk singer and then sits down, dotting the gray carpet with tears. These are not people accustomed to public speaking, and I wonder why they didn’t ask, say, my Mom, who routinely speaks in front of people. But no matter. What’s done is done.

Two veterans fold the flag into a triangle, and they hand this to Lilla, who bows in reverence. And then the event we’ve all been waiting for: Five Freemasons file into the room. They’re mostly older men, wearing suits and what look like aprons. The tallest stands in the middle and carries and enormous book, a codex, really, which lies on a tablet and is supported by two shoulder straps. Later I learn that this book is the Volume of Sacred Law, which is present for all Masonic meetings, although the volume varies from lodge to lodge. Sometimes it’s just the King James Bible; elsewhere it might be an obscurer text.

The ritual is a special treat for curious guys like me, because it’s rarely seen by outsiders. The man with the book booms a series of recitations, secular and Biblical, and at certain points, as during a Catholic Mass, the five men speak in perfect unison. Never does one man speak out of place; never does a man misspeak. At the same time, the words are fairly generic; there’s nothing magical or occultist about them. Mostly it’s just a beautiful homily, spoken in five croaky baritones. And this, for my churchless grandfather, would have pleased him most.

 

The family gathers the next day for breakfast and sweet tea. I help Lilla move some boxes into her closet. Until now, I had no idea that Grandpa was a clotheshorse. I didn’t know he owned an authentic Stetson hat. In the living room, I converse with his sisters for the first time in my adult life. The room is full of kind words and reminiscences, spoken in sugary Southern accents. This world is completely unfamiliar to me. Kind as they are, I hardly know these people. Apparently, I’m related to a jocular Hungarian businessman, although I can’t figure out how. Lilla’s children are complete strangers, and although I share good conversation with Carol (the aging hippie) and Mary (the chipper soccer mom with a meth-addicted son), I barely share a word with Frank, who is tall and skinny and wears a mustache; he has, to my astonishment, brought his boyfriend Rodrigo along. Having grown up in a perfect household, it’s bizarre to see so much color and dysfunction. It’s strange, in fact, to see relatives at all.

Lilla shows me a photograph of Grandpa as a young boy. It’s a Depression-era picture, showing a stern husband, a frowning wife, and eight children. Grandpa wears a bandage over his face.

“The day before they took the picture,” Lilla explains, “something fell from the ceiling at school. Hit him right in the head.” Lilla laughs at this. “Bless my stars, he was always a character.”

A character, indeed.

 * * *

I was always suspicious of Grandpa Nash. The man had a lot of dirty laundry. He divorced my grandmother in the late 1950s and took up with Lilla. His child-support payments were irregular. Most of his promises were dubious and easily forgotten. Grandpa was a businessman — a bricklayer by trade — who helped construct all kinds of bland buildings in the Maryland sprawl. He drove fancy cars and collected carnival glass. He had a goofy, aw-shucks laugh that seemed to gloss over everything. He bought Uncle Gary’s loyalty with gifts and favors, in the endless war against his ex-wife, and when Gary landed in serious trouble with D.C. drug dealers, Grandpa bailed him out.

Mom was not so lucky. Their relationship was always frosty, right up until the day I was born. Apparently, my birth changed everything. Grandpa’s weird malevolence melted, and he and Mom silently declared a truce. Grandpa continued to philander with secretaries and play golf with fat-cat businessmen, habits that annoyed Mom to no end, but grandchildren made him generous.

“Grandpa never says I love you,” Mom once told me. “Instead, he gives you money.”

One summer, when I was fourteen, Grandpa took me and my brother to his hometown in Montross, Virginia. The population of Montross is about 300, and it’s known for only two things — a Coca-Cola bottling plant and the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. Grandpa had a singular affection for Lee. He’d long tried to convince me that he knew General Lee growing up, which, even as an eight-year-old, I knew was impossible. Really, Grandpa grew up a few miles down the road from Stratford Hall Plantation, Lee’s ancestral home. So Grandpa drove us to the grounds, where we saw three handsome brick buildings arranged in a semi-circle.

Then Grandpa pointed to a cluster of dowdy log cabins near the woods.

“See those?” he said. “That’s where the slaves lived.” He paused, gazing at the cabins. “See? They didn’t have it so bad.”

(This wasn’t the last of Grandpa’s outlandishly racist quips. Once, over breakfast, Grandpa looked up from his newspaper and said to my brother, “Looks like there’s an NAACP meeting over near the zoo.” He chuckled. “That sounds about right.”)

Next, Grandpa showed us the farmhouse in which he grew up. The white paint was savaged by years of rain and snow, and the vestibule was rank with dust and mothballs. If there had ever been furniture, most of it was gone now — I wandered through the empty rooms, taking slow steps on the creaky floorboards. And as I turned into a corridor, I saw a woman.

She was pale as a bone. Her eyes bugged. Her hair was only a wisp of white. She was tiny, impossibly fragile, and the way she stood on her stick-legs, she looked like she might topple forward. Her frayed blue gown was almost transparent, and as I recoiled from the ghostly sight, she opened her mouth to let loose a glob of saliva.

“EWWW-GRRR-WWW-HFFF-EHHHHHH?” she gurgled through the limp bulge of her tongue. It was as if all the flesh in her mouth had swollen together, and the only sound was a sputtering mess.

Grandpa emerged at my side and smiled. “Why, hello, Mama!” he called loudly.

“BWWWW-FFFRRRR-BLLLLLL-FRRRRRRLLLLL-UUUUUUHHH,” she gurgled back.

“These are your grandsons,” Grandpa said, nudging us forward. “This is B.J., and this is Joe. You remember them, doncha?”

I was astounded that Grandpa could understand this woman’s soupy language, especially given that Grandpa was hard of hearing, owing to unexpected artillery fire during his navy days that damaged his eardrums. So this was Great-Grandma Nash, a woman I knew only as a branch of the family tree. If I had ever given thought to great-grandparents, I certainly didn’t think of them as alive, much less skulking around farmhouses and drooling over their ragged clothes. But as the shock wore off, I was delighted to see this distant generation firsthand. This woman had been born into a world of steam engines and buggies. When she first occupied this house, there were probably oil lamps in the windows.

“We’re gonna take a walk around,” Grandpa said. “See if we can find some arrowheads.”

This was another of Grandpa’s bizarre boasts: He was always finding arrowheads on his boyhood farm. He allegedly used to find them in the 1930s, and he was still finding them in 1994. Knowing his knack for exaggeration, I didn’t buy it. Unless the Algonquians had operated some kind of arrowhead factory on this land, I couldn’t believe that hundreds of sharpened stone triangles were just lying around, waiting to be found.

We walked the dusty access road as the Virginia sun beat down. The air sweltered. Black flies spun around our heads. Crickets sang in the overgrown fields. I was bored, emotionally distanced. I didn’t know this man, really. I called him Grandpa, but we weren’t friends or confidantes. There was nothing I admired in him — and since I’d given up on golf lessons, there wasn’t much Grandpa could share with me. I was just old enough to recognize him as a liar and cheat, and because adolescence is a time of absolutes, these vices eclipsed any goodness. I was only killing time before Grandpa drove us back to Grandma Isenberg’s house, where he’d try to sneak a $20 bill into our palms — the loveless gesture that had so hurt my mother.

But then Grandpa bent over. He gazed at the maroon dust, reached down, and plucked up a stone. He examined it in the air and smiled.

“Found one,” he said.

 * * *

In the years since, I’ve softened. I’ve come to respect, even admire, his better traits, like his genius for mathematics, his long success as a businessman, his gee-whiz good humor. The man could awkwardly chuckle through anything. When Grandpa suffered through his stroke, I was calm but not stoic. The sad irony is that I’d finally resolved to get to know him. I’d even planned to visit him for spring break. It was the stroke that ruined those plans. Soon he was bedridden, and then he passed away. Now I have missed my chance, and it’s unfortunate. We weren’t close, I may have held him at arm’s length, but he was the only grandfather I knew. I’ve quipped to friends back home that this is my “warm-up funeral” — the interment I can attend without tears, before more beloved relatives pass.

So here I am, in Hilton Head, in the seniors’ colony where Grandpa ultimately settled. As the family chatters in the living room, I see that the man had a lot — one family that worshipped him, another that forgave. A quaint little house, a loving second wife, and a secret brotherhood of Freemasons. Grandpa enjoyed a few years of retirement, netting crabs and playing golf, before 74 years of atrocious eating habits got the best of him. We should all be so lucky.

I look at the urn, now standing in a glass case in Lilla’s lonely bedroom. It’s astonishing that so much life can fit into a little jar.

Robert Isenberg

beejRobert Isenberg is a freelance writer and stage performer. He is the author of two books, The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage, and Wander. His latest project is One Million Elephants, about the Secret War in Laos.

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  • Claudia Geagan

    Men never seem to be able to say how much they mean to each other. Good story.