Here, you can see Aunt Marjorie’s pillow, heavy with the cells of the dead. She wouldn’t consider any offers to replace it, remaining insensitive to the argument that cushions collect shed skin, gaining up to a pound over time. For ten years she slept on this pillow, boasting about it as a luxury. Down feathers. Soft cotton slipcovers. So plump. Now that we’ve ashed her remains and tossed those ashes out over the salt flats, this pillow is the weightiest piece of her that exists on earth.
There is an argument to be made that her soul, wherever it landed, is heavier still. But naturally we can no longer measure. At this point we’ve done all we can do.
* * * *
To get to the salt flats in Tooele County, where Marjorie swept out on the wind, bitter clean, we must first pass through a more complicated terrain. We must, in fact, go back in time and look at Marjorie at the height of her strength. It’s the only way to see just where that strength failed.
It’s bright outside, summer, and she’s walking into a bakery. She gave up alcohol when she converted, abandoning the glass of brandy her mother and father each indulged in before bed. But although she enjoys the lucidity, the all-time clearheadedness of teetotaling, she is not immune to pleasure.
Behind the glass counter, the cakes are sweating. Or perhaps not—but it is a hot day, and everything seems to exhibit a sheen, a glow. Particularly these beautiful cakes, frosted to resemble flower gardens, little girls’ bedrooms, the Taj Mahal. The colors are bright and moist, the iced edges precise. Little placards explain what lies inside each sugar-wrapped package.
Sweet cream and raspberry jam. Lemon with slivered almonds. Chocolate ganache on a bed of candied walnuts.
Marjorie’s hands are aloft in an attitude of delight, fingertips pressed together, palms tented. She buys a cake for herself every Sunday—an almost hysterical indulgence—and eats it slowly over the course of the week. Generally she chooses something unusual: a vanilla bean body with a layer of sliced strawberries and an outer shell of marzipan, for instance. But really, anything will do as long as she doesn’t know how to bake it herself.
When Marjorie knows how to bake a cake, the illusion of its individual perfection is spoiled. Plain chocolate cake, for instance, is out, because all Marjorie sees when she looks at one is two eggs, cocoa, two sticks of butter, a few cups each of our and sugar, and a pinch of baking powder, baking soda, and salt. On the other hand, pear galette filling over Peruvian spiced butter cake carries a whiff of the eternal, the slices of pear laid out with the geometry of ammonite fossils, of star formation. That’s what she told me. What I used to believe.
Let’s look at Marjorie’s hips, encroaching on the band of her skirt. Her hands have been gnarled by time, but still evoke a certain cream-fed health. Her face is round. Her teeth stick out. Her body would be beloved, beautiful, if you didn’t focus in on the particulars.
* * * *
When we had Aunt Marjorie cremated we asked that the crematorium take care not to leave any bits of unburned bone. I didn’t want to recognize a femur, a finger, something from my freshman anatomy textbook. I didn’t want to recognize any piece of Marjorie in that pile of smooth gray ash.
There is an art to cremation, with different schools of taste and judgment. For instance, it’s traditional for Japanese cremation to take place at lower temperatures so the family can recognize the form of the skeleton and place their deceased feet first in the urn. I felt it was important to know these things, in order to make the right requests for Marjorie. Temperature, density, duration. It’s always better to know what you’re doing, to be in control.
Because I was interested, the technician let me watch the beginning of the process. He even let me push the button to start up the fires. It’s like being in a jet engine, he told me. You need a fuel that will burn at extreme levels. I watched them place the bag in the oven. I pressed the button with my thumb.
Marjorie wasn’t really my aunt, she was my mother’s. But she helped raise me, and after a couple of arguments over the niceties of terminology—did our relationship make her my great-aunt, or my something-once-or-twice-removed?—it was agreed that Aunt Marjorie had a sweeter ring than any of those more specific titles. In Wrocław her name had been Margita, but that she shed on Ellis Island along with all her traveling companions.
I always liked the idea: stepping down from the dingy steamer where you’ve spent a frightened month and shaking everything off. The body scent of vinegar and soap, the late-night conversations with strangers. The strangers themselves, turned into circumstantial friends. Even your name. Get rid of it all.
Walk away clean.
* * * *
Here is Marjorie in her kitchen, a wax cloth thrown over the table. She is rolling out a wad of dough and tearing off hunks, fashioning them into little animals and people and mushrooms, to the delight of the small girl beside her. The girl is on her knees, on a chair, elbows grinding into the spare our strewn across the tabletop.
Each of their bread-pale creatures is loaded onto a tin baking sheet and popped in the oven, emerging rock-hard and flavorless to be painted with acrylics. Marjorie and the girl sip glasses of cold water and work in a glow of concentrated attention long past the point of hunger. The longer they work, the nimbler their fingers, so the last character Marjorie fashions looks just like the little white dog from the girl’s favorite cartoon. Its fur is riveted, its nose and eyes distinct.
Their facility is a gift.
But then Marjorie sees the clock and is dismayed. She wipes her flour-and-water-crusted hands on her housedress, leaving streaks. From underneath a tall glass dome she produces her weekly cake—a deceptively simple one, seven thin layers of gingerbread with a honeyed buttercream frosting. Dusted with nutmeg.
For herself and the girl she cuts two gigantic slices, breaking the spell of their holy focus. These are pieces of cake as large as men’s shoes, and will certainly spoil dinner for both parties. But according to Marjorie, it’s all right, they skipped lunch. They may each plunge fork-deep into the butter softness of the layers and eat until their eyes glitter with sweetness and their bellies bell out like women with child.
* * * *
My mother always told me that Aunt Marjorie was converted to the Mormon Church by a boy back in Wrocław, himself transformed by missionaries from an indifferent type into a community pillar: a kind of miracle. Where once he’d slept all day and pilfered cigarettes from the corner store, after his baptism the boy worked for his father as an apprentice carpenter and building contractor. He told his neighbors the good word of Joseph Smith while dangling from great heights, hanging shingles.
Marjorie was moved to see the boy translated from apathy to energy incarnate. But her conversion became official only after she witnessed the boy save his father from a pile of collapsed boards at a build site, lifting him so easily that it seemed neither the man nor the lumber weighed anything at all. Another miracle. She left Poland in the thirties, on the rising tide of war, and always felt that her faith brought her safely to America—the carpenter’s rescue an appropriate premonition of her own salvation.
So, she was Jewish before she converted? I asked once.
No. My mother laughed. Where did you get that idea? Lots of people left then. The place was deadly.
I should be clear: It wasn’t that I really thought Marjorie was Jewish, not the Marjorie I knew. But you get a certain sense of things from school, a tidiness of history. You imagine the throngs of people escaping from disasters as all having, in some sense, the same face. The monsters as uniform, the blameless as uniform, and the possibility of good in the world as existing in the pure separation between those two units.
* * * *
Marjorie approaches the temple of her adopted church with the look of someone being baptized. She appreciates the way that the church’s temples—even in America, where buildings so often blur into functional boxes—aim for style. She stands on the lawn, making her small companion wait, so she can admire the view. Sleek white, clean corners. A spire—or is it an obelisk?—on top, tapering off into an ideal point.
Secretly, Marjorie even likes the way this temple mimics the severe lines of Soviet architecture. The thought betrays how far she’s come from Wrocław, where the Russian troops did no favors. But she admires discipline, and if she can only access it at church—through her commitment to God, through the structural engineering of His house—then she will do so with gratitude.
The lawn is precise and green and it springs back under Marjorie’s footsteps as she strolls across it, struggling somewhat against the tightness of her out t. Her dress today is gray and blue—you can see how it once fit her figure, although now the seams are strained. Marjorie holds the hand of the young girl to whom she has fed cake, whispered secrets. The girl is attired in lavender and her dress is shapeless as a bag, showing off the roly-poly nature of her childhood body.
As she’s tugged into the lobby, the girl is making a decision. She will not, when they get home, accept a slice of cake to “start off the week.” They never end up having time for breakfast before church—I’m not exactly an early bird, Marjorie says—and the girl likes how she enters and exits the temple with a feeling of pure ascendancy. She wants to spend the whole day like this, vibrating with the light of God.
She wants to spend the whole day like this, vibrating with the light of God.
Marjorie chatters happily with other members of the congregation, who ask after the girl’s mother—so sad, she has to work on a Sunday. It is sad, but Marjorie’s face is alight; her love of the church is transfixing. Outside, Marjorie is just Marjorie, but here, her beauty shines through. Her commitment. She knows all about miracles and transformation. And so, standing in the vestibule and watching dust motes rise on the heat of sunbeams, the girl makes the mistake of thinking that Marjorie will understand.
* * * *
Another thing my mother has always said is that loveliness is not everything, but it helps. I appreciate the way this point of view makes her sympathetic to what I have to do. She takes me grocery shopping, and we skip by the aisles of milk and bread and cheese and pick out gorgeous slender celery and organic oranges. With a good orange, you can suck the juice right off the pulp, so you never have to swallow more than the pure nutrients, the ones you need to stay alive.
I tell my mother, then you’re not weighed down by extra fiber, see? If you know the tricks, if you know how to plan, your muscles can stay long and sinewy, like they’re supposed to. Your ribs won’t be hidden under thick layers of fat, as if you were a penguin hunkering down in the arctic cold. My mother nods. Though as I turn, I think I see her shake her head.
Part of planning well is not wasting energy on too much analysis. Even the thought of, say, a pastry, exhausts me. It’s just a whole mental effort. Picking apart the ingredients and weighing them out on a scale in your head so you know what you’re eating. Like math homework.
When Aunt Marjorie died I saw her house with entirely new eyes. It was different without her in it. Everything dusty, the kitchen rimed with oil and peelings. Scrubbing it down for sale was a team endeavor, and I remember sweeping behind the stove and finding the papery shell of a garlic clove. Who knows how long it had been there? Who knows what meal it made, however many years ago? Perhaps Marjorie knew, but with her gone the pieces of her life were just pieces. The pieces were just trash.
I picked up a little white dog from the mantel, made out of our and water paste. It had calcified over the years, and shrunk. Its stomach squeezed, as though by a corset. I put it in my pocket, and it was so light I could barely feel it.
Back at home my mother baked cookies, which is not the kind of thing she does. She sat with a plate of them in front of her while I made tea, and she watched me.
You could have one, she said. They’re not that bad for you really. They’re oatmeal.
She never used to say things like that. Aunt Marjorie would, though, any chance she got. My mother is easy—she backed off with her plate of sweets as soon as I closed my eyes and told her no. But Marjorie wouldn’t leave it alone. Just one bite? she’d say. You used to love cakes. Red velvet, orange pecan, double espresso hazelnut chiffon.
Look at her, choosing one: a bubble of a woman with a cheeky smile, telling the man behind the bakery counter that this is her one great opportunity to be naughty. But really, is that true? Doesn’t she eat chicken cutlet, doesn’t she eat garlic bread? Doesn’t she drink whole milk, on the argument that it is healthier despite the little plug of cream that sits at the top of every bottle?
* * * *
The girl and Marjorie have gone to the shopping mall, hoping to buy the girl’s mother a gift. It has been a long day, and the girl and Marjorie are in a tiff. They couldn’t find nice shoes in the shoe stores—everything was patent leather, wedge-heeled, ticky-tack. They couldn’t agree on a scarf or a lipstick shade, tending toward different colors and styles. The girl likes everything diaphanous and bright, whereas Marjorie is looking for something just a little practical, for a woman, after all, who has to wait outside every afternoon for the bus.
Now it is getting close to closing and the girl is tired in her knees and her spine. She tells Marjorie her ankles are getting swollen and Marjorie snaps at her to sit down then. Just wait on the bench, and she will find the one object they can come to terms on: a charm for the mother’s charm bracelet. Both disapprove of the bracelet itself, where it comes from, but they know the gift will please her.
In her early life, the mother was a beauty. She got married just out of high school, choosing a husband a few years older than herself—one who’d already been on his church mission. She had her pick of men to fall in love with, and that was an important criterion. If she missed a few others, well, never mind. It was of great concern to girls she knew, their beaus leaving to travel the world while they sat at home, writing letters. They were like fishwives, all of them, doomed to it. So the girl’s mother had sniffed.
Her husband did his mission work in Istanbul, walking or biking around the city wearing a crisp white shirt. Temples, though not his temples, loomed above him. Bells rang, and voices called the world to prayer, but not his prayer. He showed her pictures. In them, he looked very young, and very happy. After a year of marriage, he melted back into those images, this time for reasons of his own. Proving that there are no safe choices, not in marriage, not in the world.
After a year of marriage, he melted back into those images, this time for reasons of his own. Proving that there are no safe choices, not in marriage, not in the world.
The girl has never yet seen those fabled pictures of her father—the disappearing man, the vanisher—though she has seen the charm bracelet from him that her mother still wears everywhere. We’ve already looked in the jewelry store, the girl tells Marjorie. She’s sitting on a bench that wraps octagonally around a planter, in the middle of the mall’s throughway. The bench is made of slats, and bits of the girl’s legs keep getting stuck between them.
I’m just going to pop downstairs and check the bargain area, says Marjorie.
But it’s her birthday.
Just sit. Marjorie screws her lips up to the side, making herself look somehow garnished. Her mouth a vegetable sliced up like a flower. You never know, she says, what you’ll fnd down there.
This late in the day, Marjorie is the only one going to the basement, and so she seems to be the engine driving the escalator down, sinking the steps with her bulk. Who knows what she will do there, how long she will dawdle? The girl can only guess, inventing interactions between Marjorie and exhausted merchants: Marjorie tossing out uninvited banter and standing in the middle of a walkway to consider a spritz of discount perfume. Marjorie peering one-eyed through a glass paperweight, as though, on the other side, another world would reveal itself.
She won’t find anything, the girl knows. By now, half the bargain counters will have been locked up and prematurely abandoned. Perhaps, by the time Marjorie gives up her quest, the escalators will even have been disabled, forcing her to trudge, step-heavy, up the immobile staircase. The girl smiles; she thinks it’s funny: Marjorie tricking herself into getting some exercise.
Families hurry around her, mothers checking their children’s arms for the requisite number of packages. A threesome of teenage girls scurry by, their hands held up over the mouths, eyes alight. The girl is about to abandon her post to take a closer look at a store window—she’s drawn by its display of slender dummies, draped with summer whites and seersucker. But then she hears it:
There’s Marjorie, rising, rising, on the escalator, one hand held over her head. She’s pinching something gold—a charm— which catches a flicker of fluorescent light and glints. Like a polestar. Like a signal. Marjorie is beaming, her mouth spread wide enough to show the fillings in the back of her jaw, but she doesn’t care. She’s laughing, smiling, coming up in triumph from below.
* * * *
Aunt Marjorie went to church every week, and for many years ran the Relief Society. If she were a man, she would certainly have been a bishop, but she was content to serve as God saw fit for her. She took care of me when my own mother could not, and helped me see the clean lines of the church, the sweetness of discipline, the possibility of miracles.
Let’s look at heaven: a place of perfection, weightlessness. The ideal mathematics of celestial planets, one person on each, living as a god of light. That is something people don’t understand, if they don’t go to church, study the scriptures: that our God was once a man like us who earned his radiance through strict adherence to the Gospel. By living a life that was strictly good—good in every measure.
And now let’s look at Marjorie, fleshy from bottom to top. She wouldn’t listen to my explanation of why I only wanted a dinner of crackers and apples, the lightest possible food, the simplest vitamins. No matter how I tried to make her see, she turned ashen when I talked about the beauty of bones, how they are like volcanic rock—so much more delicate than they appear.
Bones are full of fatty marrow, Marjorie told me. People in Wrocław would boil them and scoop the marrow out, and spread it on toast. Like lard.
That’s what she said to me, that’s what she believed. Marjorie whom I loved. Marjorie, with her heavy feather pillow. Marjorie who dipped one pinkie into the cream of a tiramisu and stuck it in her mouth with such a glow of pleasure that she appeared to be self-cannibalizing. Marjorie, hungrily stripping the esh off her hands to feed the rest of her heft, the fat marrow of her bones. Marjorie, massive.
* * * *
I promised that we would end up on the salt flats in Bonneville, that somehow Marjorie would lead us there. But in fact it was my idea to go to Tooele County, and on the drive out I held Aunt Marjorie’s ashes in my lap. My mother drove barefoot, her black shoes kicked off and thrown onto the backseat in a jumble.
The salt flats are moonlike, with the incandescent glow of a night-light even at high noon. In life there was little about Marjorie that was tidy, and I’d made it my mission to fix that, to the best of my ability, now that she was dead. Marjorie refused to understand me, couldn’t see that I was enacting a marvel of my own. A transformation. Sometimes her cheeks would hang off her face and jiggle a little. Sometimes she had jowls.
I imagine being a teacher, using Marjorie as an instructive example of how to save a falling soul. Here we see the droplets of sweat that polluted Marjorie’s brow when she exerted herself. Here is the back of Marjorie’s knee, creased like a marshmallow crushed between crackers. But then: We see her cleansed into ash, cool and gray and soft. At Bonneville, the ground is self-disinfecting. Salt leeches out the moisture, evaporates into the air all possibility of mildew and blooming mold, leaving the landscape white and uniform, the wind whistling across it unimpeded. I told my mother: It will be pretty. It will be a nice place for her to rest. To meet with God.
I wanted to believe in Marjorie’s ascension into heaven: a last miracle, for her. Rising up into the arms of infinity. I wanted to believe I had the ability to make such a thing possible. My mother slipped back on her shoes, and we crunched out over the dry earth of the salt flats until we were in the middle of a great white nowhere. I knelt down and tried to pry the lid off of the box, the Marjorie box, but my fingers shook.
Let me, my mother said. Honey, let me help you.
She took an old pocket knife out of her purse, a knife with a yellow body and a slightly rusty blade. Her charm bracelet made a sound like ice when she jammed the blade into the seam of the box and then the hinge. Sharp, clean movements. One, two, three. With a pop, the lid came free and released a little puff of Marjorie around us.
God bless her and keep her, my mother said.
The sun was hot; there was very little breeze. I picked up the bag of ashes and turned it upside down above my head, downwind of my body, and watched Marjorie fall. I was a little disappointed—she was supposed to catch on a breath of air and fly to the Lord. But Marjorie remained in death what she was in life, even after all my planning: so heavy, so physical, so full. She drifted onto the salted earth and moved across it like a wave, like a twister. And then the wind changed.
The dust of Marjorie rushed back at us, a sudden gust hitting our faces and billowing my skirt. My mother covered her eyes, but I didn’t move quite fast enough. We were in a cloud, and then the cloud was gone. In the stillness that followed, I looked down at my arms, which were coated in gray. The color grit stuck to my eyelashes, and to my teeth.
Mama, I said.
She was all over me. Marjorie in my ears and under my fingernails. Sitting lightly on my collarbone and dusting the part in my hair. Marjorie, swallowed, no matter how I tried resisting. My mother used her shirtsleeves to clean off my cheeks, bent my neck down and scratched the ashes off my scalp, then flipped my hair back up and over, for volume, the way she’d shown me when I was a little girl still learning how to be in the world. How to be good, and how to measure it.