I keep my grandmother's ashes in a pill bottle

I keep my grandma’s ashes in a pill bottle on the bookshelf, next to the Harry Potter books. It sounds strange, I know, possibly disrespectful. But it makes sense when you learn my grandma kept her father’s ashes in a coffee can atop the piano for seven years. 

Like grandmother, like granddaughter. 

Before she was in her seventies, our physical similarities were striking. When I was in high school, for example, a waitress remarked about how much we looked alike. Now, when I shuffle through photos of her from the early 1950s, I see me. My face, my features. We were the same height, same shoe size, had the same smile. It’s fucking weird. Really, there were only two differences—her blond hair to my brown, her blue eyes, bright as a porcelain doll’s, to my … well, no one has ever really figured out what color they are. It says “hazel” on my driver’s license, but that’s a lie. In truth, they’re all three colors. They’re multi. Or, if you’d prefer to be trendy, ombre

As her only dark-haired granddaughter, my grandma used to call me “Snow White.” It’s a flattering nickname until you think about Snow White’s main, and presumably only, outfit. Puffed sleeves and a collar that looks like half a pet cone? No thank you. Also, fuck capes. Fuck housework, too. Who in the hell voluntarily signs up to live in a medieval cottage and clean up after seven old men? And let the old men watch you while you sleep? Damn, grandma. You could’ve gone with Belle. At least she reads. And looks good in yellow. 

If we’re gonna talk fashion, though, then we have to talk about my grandma’s hats. I’m not referring to some little hat rack just inside the front door. Or even the “hat walls” hipsters use for Zoom backgrounds. I’m talking closets full of hats. Multiple closets chock-full of oversized sun hats—some with pins, some without—fedoras, panamas, bowlers, bucket hats, derby hats, and visors with bills long enough to shame even the most bill-endowed duck. Her hats made her easy to recognize, but it was my grandma’s purse that was legendary. She once weighed her suitcase-sized purse and proudly demonstrated how heavy it was (18 pounds). Said purse was full of decades-old candy, Kleenex, spare silverware, and a collapsible cup “in case a stranger needs a drink.” She used to lug that thing everywhere—to the mall, to my cousins’ ball games, and to the grocery, where, in the dairy aisle, she would open tubs of margarine to see which one was most full. “Yooohooo! How much do you have in you?” 

I may look like my grandma, but God forbid I ever start talking to margarine. At least not in front of others. 

That’s the thing about my grandma. She didn’t care what people thought about her hodgepodge outfits. She wasn’t embarrassed by the plastic grocery sacks tied to the antenna of her car. (It was how she spotted it in parking lots.) She drank coffee almost exclusively, refused to follow doctors’ orders. Hydration be damned, Folgers it is. (If you knew how many coffee cans she hoarded, it really does make sense that she kept her father’s ashes in one.) No one could convince my grandma to stop smoking, either. Misty was her brand of choice, but I like to say she preferred Pall Malls because the name sounds as heavy as the smoke. 

The day she died, I was out-of-the-county, in Israel. I had traveled there as part of a tour group, but less than 24 hours into the trip, I got word—via a Facebook message from one of my cousins—that Grandma Geri, my mom’s mom, the grandparent I knew best, was gone. 

That same day, we visited the Western Wall. I spent a good deal of time with my forehead pressed to the stones, talking to her. To the void. Nearly two years later, I still talk to her. Or to her ashes, at least. I still get the impulse to call her before I re-remember she’s not here anymore. But even then, I still have my reflection. I see her smile every time I look in the mirror. I also wear her engagement ring. Not surprisingly—since she and I were constructed so similarly—it fits only one finger. Left ring. 

The similarities don’t stop there. To put it lightly, my grandma and I struggled with our mental health. To put it candidly, we were both suicidal at different points of our lives. Both of us had a plan. And when I say, “a plan,” I don’t mean a roadmap back to “normalcy.” No, the phrase “the plan” refers to the way in which someone has chosen to die by suicide. 

My grandma had trouble accepting her diagnoses. She referred to her emphysema as “just a cold,” for example, and could never call out her depression for what it was. Whenever she referred to her lowest of lows, when she wouldn’t eat or sleep, and would cloister herself for years at a time, she would always say, “When I was … not well.” This phrase always came with a pause between the words “was” and “not,” as if the word “depressed” were on her tongue, ready to burst through her lips with brutal honesty. “When I was … not well.” 

Perhaps she was embarrassed. Maybe it was because she was born in the era of “we don’t talk about these things.” I’m honestly not sure what she needed. Better medication? More conversation? More phone calls? More food deliveries? More visits? She had a tendency to push others away, refuse to answer the door. An anger she didn’t understand made her spew vile, foul things. Over the years, she became someone who talked to herself more than anyone else. 

I last saw her in December 2018. Walking up her driveway, I could smell the overbearing stench of her Mistys. Inside, the house felt like a cheap hotel, all cigarette-scorched with spidery rust stains on the ceiling. There was the din of the T.V. and the strike of coffee, whose circular ghosts tattooed knee-high stacks of newspapers. I chose to stare at the ash trays and coffee stains instead of my grandma, whose blue eyes looked at me through the decaying mask of her face. Wrinkles, as deep and uneven as life itself, lined her forehead. She was gaunt, and her clothes, which she had been wearing for a week, were stained with jelly and the blood red of spaghetti sauce. Her fingers, tainted by nicotine, scratched the backs of her hands, where veins rose above her translucent skin. 

“Hi, grandma.” 

“Hi, sweetheart.” 

It’s strange to write about her, when her grave and my childhood are 600 miles away. It’s like trying to write a book about America when you’re in Paris, at a small table outside a pâtisserie. The woman I saw in December 2018 was not the woman who taught me how to play Chinese checkers. Or the woman who would take my mom, brother, and I out to lunch on Sundays. Or the woman who would reach for my brown curls, tell me to never cut them. She’s not the woman who told me to always trust my gut. To this day, it is the wisest piece of advice I’ve ever received—from anyone. I’ve learned that betraying my instincts leads to disappointment or disaster. So, I follow her advice. I trust my gut. I say “no” when I feel unsafe or uneasy. I say “yes” when there is fiery passion. I write what’s on my mind. I say too much. I keep my grandma’s ashes in a pill bottle on the bookshelf, next to the Harry Potter books.

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