A Story of Family, Money, and “Cremains”
On Friday, I mailed my dad’s ashes to my brother in Kansas, in time to reach him for his birthday this week. The box containing what’s left of my father has moved with me from place to place, ever since his death in February of 2002. I feared opening it for 16 years, not knowing what I would find inside. A baggie with bits of bone and ash? Some kind of makeshift urn from the crematorium? When my car was ransacked last winter, I found out: It’s a simple yellow canister labeled “the cremated remains of Wade P___.” Obviously of no value to thieves, who took only a sack of dimes and nickels intended for the Coinstar machine at Walmart.
But now it is time for my brother, Bill, to take charge of our father. My note to him reads: “You and dad belong together. Many thanks for all your love and support.” That last sentence is intended to drip with sarcasm. I have not communicated with Bill in more than three years, since I launched the campaign to start this site in the early summer of 2015.
I know the reasons for his silence, because I know how he thinks. He thinks like my dad. “If we give her any money toward this venture,” I can hear him saying to his wife (we’ll call her Lady MacP),“ she’ll never leave us alone. She’ll keep hitting us up over and over.”
He used that same reasoning when an elderly aunt by marriage appealed to both of us several ago, when she was in ill health and depending on limited Social Security (my uncle had divorced her a few years earlier). “Give her money now,” my brother emailed me when I asked what we should do, “and you’ll never hear the last of her.” The hell with that, I thought. Though I did not know her well, I would never turn away even a distant relation in need. I sent a check for $200. She sent her thanks but never approached me again.
“I had this cockamamie notion that family members sometimes helped each other out.”
In emailing my brother and Lady MacP the link to my Indiegogo campaign, I certainly wasn’t expecting a generous contribution, based on past behavior, but I thought he might be interested to know what I was up to and believed he might appreciate the level of support I was receiving (even if the big-name artists who initially contributed would mean nothing to him). Besides, I had this cockamamie notion that family members sometimes helped each other out. Even my ex-brother-in-law contributed $500 toward the launch of Vasari21.
But that is not the way of the P____s, going far back to the earliest family stories about blood and money. When my father got a Christmas bonus in the early days of my parents’ marriage, my Grandma P happened to be visiting their apartment in Queens. “You should give that to me,” she said, when he came home flushed with pride at the size of the check. “I’m the one who raised you.” (This story came from my mother, of course, and was told to me, as I recall, more with astonishment than bitterness.)
It is not that my father was cheap, precisely—he was never stingy about clothing, tuition, meals, vacations, and the like—but there were some odd moments. When my ex-husband and I stayed with my parents for six weeks until we could take possession of a new apartment, he both refused to write us a reference for the rental application and demanded $75 a week for groceries. When I visited my parents in Florida during their retirement years, in the days before ATMs, I would have to write my dad checks for small amounts like $20 if I ran short of cash.
He was what I now think of as the “good-enough father.” He traveled often for his job, but he was always on hand for school events, parent-teacher meetings, or thorny problems with chemistry homework. And, particularly in his later years, he developed a wicked sense of humor. When my mother was in hospice care, a pair of crisply coiffed, pastel-suited ladies from social services stopped by the house to ask my dad what he would like to do about interment and a memorial. He glared at them, and then bellowed, “We both want to be burned. In a crock!”
He died about eight months later, at least partly, I am sure, from grief, for in spite of an often remote attitude toward his children, he loved his wife dearly. And taking care of her as she her health grew ever more fragile gave purpose to his last few years.
“My mother had predicted that my brother and I would grow closer after she and Dad died.”
My mother had predicted that my brother and I would grow closer after she and Dad died, and it seemed for a time a real possibility. There had been for years some unspoken tension between us, which I can’t seem to trace to any specific events. He and Lady MacP seldom visited my parents; I was the one who flew down from New York twice a year or so, and then more often as their health declined. (“You can’t go every time they have some little hospital emergency,” Bill advised. But I did, without rancor. I loved my parents. I felt I had a responsibility to take care of them as best as I could from 1,200 miles away.)
Five years younger, I was one of my brother’s biggest fans and admirers when we were kids. He was a tall, skinny, nerdy boy who evolved into a genius-level mathematician, breezing through Dartmouth as an undergraduate in three years and earning a PhD by time he was 26. He was awarded tenure at the University of Kansas two years later. When we were children, he occasionally demonstrated a big brother’s talent for torment—convincing me to give him the dime from my 15-cent allowance, for instance, in exchange for a nickel because the latter was “bigger.” I believe he taught me to play chess so that he’d have someone he could easily beat. But I was in awe of his smarts and learned from his tastes; he turned me onto classical music when I was still in thrall to Judy Collins and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
And then, over the years, came inevitable distancing. My life was mostly in New York; his in Kansas, not a place I particularly wanted to visit. As my parents’ health declined, there were occasional open expressions of hostility. When it was clear my mother had perhaps a day or two at most, I told Bill that if he wanted to see her alive, he would have to get on a plane immediately. He responded, “I’m not so sure that’s important to me.” And I exploded: “I’m down here in Florida with a dying woman and a barmy old man, and these people happen to be your parents. You get your ass here pronto!” And he did, but not in time to say good-bye.
He quickly assumed more responsibility when my father began to lose control of his finances, paying for the newspaper with a hundred-dollar bill and not demanding change, sending large sums to Venezuelan “investors” (the cleaning woman reported on his conversations). Bill had the courts appoint a guardian, effectively freezing his bank accounts. (“Do you know what that peckerhead, your brother, did to me?” my dad demanded during one of our weekly phone conversations). When my father broke his leg six months after my mother’s death, Bill was the one who flew down to visit him in the hospital. Then, two months later, he was gone too.
“We continued on our separate ways, not precisely hostile, but not friendly either.”
And we continued on our separate ways, my brother and I. Not precisely hostile, but not really friendly either. Then, one Christmas about 10 years ago, Bill asked me to Kansas for the holidays, the first time such an invitation had ever been extended. We had a splendid visit over three or four days, cruising Lawrence and sipping single-malt scotch while listening to opera on his excellent stereo system. If Lady MacP seemed a bit distant, I chalked it up to a grant-proposal she was then writing. The next year, when I asked to visit again, my brother, after consultation with his wife, informed me, “I’m afraid that would not be convenient for us.”
Seven years ago, they drove west to spend a few days with me after I first moved to Taos, NM. I’d just taken up residence, the house was still in a state of disarray, but I gave them the master bedroom and we happily did many of the touristy things the area offers in the summer. After that we carried on a sporadic but halfway affectionate email correspondence, all three of us, making recommendations for Netflix films, trading barbs about politics. My brother was diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer more than a decade ago, and it was through my sister-in-law that I was able to keep tabs on his health because his explanations were so loaded with medical terminology as to be virtually indecipherable. Last I heard, he has not needed chemotherapy and was doing fine with a cocktail of medications.
And then I reached out three years ago, and never heard from them again. There were no email greetings on birthdays or holidays, as had been customary in the past Just absolute, thundering silence. I have tried to second-guess the reasons for his refusal to acknowledge the crowd-sourcing campaign, as put forth at the beginning of this essay. I have speculated on others. There must be some resentment of me stemming from childhood. Perhaps I was too much the princess. Perhaps the genius-level brain comes with a touch of sociopathy. Maybe my sister-in-law despises me. Maybe I haven’t been solicitous enough about his health.
In the end I find I don’t much care to know. I’m sad to lose my only sibling, but I’ve heard far worse tales of family breakdowns. And I’m glad, finally, be rid of that damn can of ashes.
Top: Tomb of Philippe Pot, royal steward of Burgundy (1477-80)