It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals.
— Anaïs Nin
All through dinner Hailey had to refrain from asking about Clare. Finally, the time came when Birdie went up to her room and returned minutes later with a small ornately carved mahogany chest.
“This is Papa’s memory box,” she explained, “—At least, that’s what he called it. Occasionally, he’d take it out and show me some of the treasures. He guarded it carefully and kept it locked away in his closet. When he died, I became the guardian and did the same.”
She undid the lock using a key that she wore on a chain around her neck. She pushed the box across the kitchen table to Hailey.
“You want me to help myself?”
Birdie nodded. “It’s easier that way.” She took another sip of wine and stared out the window.
Hailey hesitated, almost afraid to touch the contents. “Go on Miss Hailey—it’s all right.”
She reached in and grabbed a sheaf of cards and paper and fanned it out before her on the placemat.
Almost immediately her eye was drawn to a thin booklet with a cover illustration of Christ resurrected from the grave. She opened it and read the frontispiece: In Loving Memory of Clare Eileen McAdam. It was a memento of the funeral service given for her aunt.
Hailey flipped through the pages until near the end she noticed a curious passage: And so we consign your servant Clare to the flames.
Perplexed, she looked helplessly at Birdie, “I don’t understand this part of the funeral service—it’s not the usual wording from the Book of Prayer. It says that your mother was consigned to the flames.” She pointed to a part of the text. “Look at this wording—commit her body to the fire. Was Aunt Clare cremated?”
Birdie came around the table and stared over her shoulder at the printed page. “I never noticed that before.”
“But surely you’d know if your mother was cremated.”
Birdie shook her head. “Not really. I was only ten years old. I recall being at the service and then being driven home and waiting for the others to return for the reception.”
“So, all these years you’ve never visited your mother’s grave?”
“Oh, no. It made Papa very distressed when I’d mention mother. He told me she had gone to be with God and we should accept it. He said it was wrong to try to hold onto things like visiting the dead—that those practices were pagan.”
“But what about after your father died—didn’t you inquire about where your parents were buried?”
“Papa died in a plane crash in Mumbai—his body was never recovered. When I asked the aunts about my mother, they’d just repeat what Papa said. Your mother was more sympathetic, but even she felt it best for me not to dwell on the past, but to move on with my life. I followed their advice and it seemed to work.”
Hailey bit her lip and stared out the window. “Why are there so many secrets in this family?”
“That’s the way it’s always been, Miss Hailey—you know that. The McAdams are very private and discreet.”
“Oh, c’mon Birdie—telling a little girl not to talk about her mother—not allowing her to have some closure. It all seems so callous and cruel. I want to know what happened to Clare’s ashes—Don’t you?”
Birdie slumped down in her chair, lowered her head and whispered, “I do.” A huge tear rolled down her cheek and fell on the table. It reminded Hailey of her own final goodbye standing over her mother’s coffin—but, at least she had some closure. A wave of hot anger swelled up from deep within her. “Why do we allow them to do this to us?”
Birdie had grabbed a table napkin to dab her eyes and now began twisting it anxiously, her chin quavering and shoulders heaving.
Hailey got up and knelt beside Birdie, wrapping her arms around her. Whatever walls had served to hold back Birdie’s grief now gave way and she freely wept.
Hailey cradled her, made soothing sounds and stroked her hair, all the while planning what to do next. Regardless of what the McAdams thought, she was determined to help Birdie lay the past to rest—Surely that was the least she could do.
How long they stayed there clinging to each other, Hailey was unsure, but when she finally released Birdie and went to her room she had made a firm resolve to get to the bottom of the mystery.
She’d begin by contacting the church in the morning and from there, try to find out what became of Clare’s ashes.
Her fast rising anger was kept in check only by the shame she felt, knowing it was her family who for reasons unknown, had disregarded the feelings of a confused and frightened little girl and swept the matter under the carpet.
It was now up to her to rectify the situation.
Birdie was entitled to have access to her mother’s remains—plain and simple, regardless of what her aunts felt.
Whatever their response, she was prepared to deal with the fallout. It seemed an ironic consequence of Hailey’s personality however, that whichever way she turned, conflict with the McAdams was inevitable.
So be it, she smiled to herself, bring it on.
© 2017, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.