Scene One – WE WANT HEALTHY BABIES – Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 1952
“Momma, why is Mable fat?” I say.
“Let’s see Bobby.” Momma lifts Mable from her oversized goldfish bowl. “Your pet Japanese Waltzing Mouse is pregnant.”
I peer at the plump, black-and-white mouse squirming and waving her head back-
and-forth in Momma’s hand. “What’s pregnant?”
Momma moves closer to me. “Mable is going to have babies. Look at the nest she built from cedar shavings to hide her young and keep them warm.”
I gaze at the mound of wood chips heaped on one side of the goldfish bowl. “When will her babies be born?”
“Soon,” Momma says, returning Mable to her nest. “She probably became pregnant at the pet store before we brought her home. Now, run off to school. I’ll put her bowl by the window in a quiet place where she won’t be disturbed. We’ll check on Mable each day when we give her food and water.”
Two mornings later I run to the kitchen. “Momma, Momma, let’s check on Mable. I hear squeaking coming from her nest.”
“Sure enough,” Momma says, retrieving her finger. “I count six babies.”
I climb the ladder-back chair next to Momma and watch blobs of wiggling flesh, the color of pink worms we use for fishing and the size of beans Momma cooks for dinner. Cedar scent bathes my nose. “Wow, can I hold them?”
“Not now.” Momma says. “We don’t want to frighten Mable. She needs rest and quiet to nurse her young. We want healthy babies. Get ready for school. You may check on Mable when you get home.”
Later that day, I climb the chair to Mable’s bowl. Instead of fragrant cedar, I smell a pungent odor like dead worms. I reach into her nest, touch wet and cold, and jerk my red-stained finger from the bowl. Half-bodies, heads, and severed legs litter the nest. “Momma!” I scream, running to the kitchen to fall into her arms. “Somebody killed Mable’s babies.”
“Oh, dear Bobby,” she holds me to her heart. “I checked earlier. Mable killed her babies.”
“Why?” I stutter. Sobs shake my thin body.
“Mable was frightened and killed her babies to protect them from real or imagined danger. I meant to clean up her bowl before you came home. I’m sorry you had to see that.”
I look at Momma. “Would you kill me to protect me if you got scared?”
“No Bobby, I love you. I’d never harm you even if I were frightened.”
Scene Two – MAKE IT NICE – Sunset Nursing Home, Madison, Wisconsin, December 2007
“Hey Ma, I don’t want to hurt your feelings but I’ve been thinking,” I say.
“About what, Bobby?”
I squirm on the green vinyl dinette chair. “Well, I’m sure you’ll be around for a while, but I think it’s time to make plans.”
“What plans?” She looks at me, leans on the table between us, and sips black coffee with sugar. “Could you get to the point?”
“Your ashes,” I say. “Where do you want me to spread your ashes?”
“Oh, yes.” Ma takes my hand. “It’s time. You haven’t hurt my feelings. I want my remains cast over water at Sandy Spring where you placed Dad’s ashes. Nothing special. Just make it nice.”
“Are you sure?” I squeeze her hand. “I understand why you want to be with Dad, but you never liked to fish with him at Sandy Spring. And, what do you mean by nice? Do you want a ceremony or family to be present?”
“Yes, I’m sure about the location. Ceremony or family isn’t necessary. Just say a few words and let me be with Dad.”
Six months later, I stand on the bank at Sandy Spring. Late spring sun reflects from water’s unbroken surface. Red-winged blackbirds chirp their seasonal greeting from bulrushes circling water’s edge. My shoulder aches as I shift Ma’s urn from left to right arm. Inside the container a twisted wire seals a grey-black mass in a plastic bag. Cast over water, she said.
Shall I use my hand? I open the bag wider to cast ashes directly from the bag as a farmer might broadcast seeds over furrowed ground. I swing the bag in an arc. Instead of lofting into air over water, ashes fall in a dark clump into clear water and settle on the buff colored bottom of Sandy Spring. Minutes pass.
I walk upstream for a fallen branch and return with a small limb. White paper birch bark gleams in sunlight as I stir ashes to dissolve like brown sugar in hot water. Dark turns to imperceptible gray as I continue to mix cloudy water. I return to my Chevy pickup with plastic bag and urn. A sign informs me: No trash pick-up. Pack it in and pack it out.
I drive on a gravel country highway into town, more bumps in my road. At the high school baseball diamond, I drop the bag into an empty trash barrel. Ashes spill from the bag. “Damn, the bag’s not empty,” I mutter.
About a half-cup remains in a fold of the bag. I don’t want to leave ashes in the trash so I sprinkle them around home plate. Dark bone fragments contrast with white chalk used for baselines from yesterday’s game. I mix her ashes and chalk with the toe of my boot. Ma didn’t like baseball, either.
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Richard Wilberg, MS, PLCC, ACC
Creativity Coach for Personal Fulfillment and Career Success
About the Author
I write personal essays, creative non-fiction, flash fiction, and self-development articles from my home in Madison, Wisconsin.