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News Flash Re Ash Stash

by on November 12, 2014 6:25 AM

I lost my dad.

Specifically, I lost his ashes.

Dad died in April at the age of 96. He spent his last years in Dallas and several decades before that in Florida and California but he was the poster child for the saying, "You can take the New Yawker out of New Yawk but you can't take the New Yawk out of the New Yawker."

Case in point: He said "Fuhgeddaboudit" long before Tony Soprano ever did.

My sisters and I therefore decided to scatter Dad's ashes on what he would call his old stomping grounds. Since I live closer to New York than my sibs I volunteered to be the scatterer.

My plan was to perform the ritual of remembrance next spring, around the first anniversary of his death, preferably on a weekend when my children could join me. But when I thought to add Dad's cremains to the little shrine we created for the Day of the Dead last week, I couldn't find them.

This will not surprise anyone in my family. My mother prophetically called me the absent-minded professor when I was a kid. I plead guilty with an explanation: We moved over the summer. It was a short move – we could almost have transferred our possessions from one house to the other via bucket brigade, but things have a way of disappearing in transit.

The weird thing about losing my dad's ashes is that I have also lost his ring. I had called it a magic ring, for as soon as I put it on I began to show an aptitude for household repairs that I had heretofore lacked.

I noticed the ring was slipping off when I was mashing leaves into plastic sacks (fact: our fingers are skinnier in cool weather than they are in hot). I thought: I should really remove this ring right here and now. Inexplicably, however, I didn't – and didn't lose it that day.

I know this because three days later, I took the ring off before plunging my hands into a mixture of ground beef, egg and spices that I was going to roll up into cabbage leaves. I then remember digging the ring out of my pocket and putting it back on my pinkie once the cabbage rolls were bubbling on the stove. So I didn't lose it that day either.

The next night I took a soak in the hot tub (sorry, it came with the house) and I feel certain that the ring must have slid off then, except I'd expect to see it at the bottom of the tub, and I don't.

Two days later we lit the candles in our Day of the Dead shrine. My contributions included photos of Grandma Yetta, whose stuffed cabbage recipe I had attempted to recreate; tiny Grandma Rebecca, who died when I was 5; Grandpa Morris the milliner, who died before I was born; Aunt Lee, who cheerfully lived to 102; her husband Henry, who was a counterman at Zabar's; Bub Dambacher, the star of my doctoral dissertation; Paul Hastings, my sweet brother-in-law, who died way too young; Bop the Movie Dog, who had a knack for finding discarded bagels and pizza slices when we lived in the Highlands; and of course, mi madre y mi padre.

A week and a half earlier, in honor of what would have been my parents' 73rd anniversary, we played – and clumsily danced to – some big band music from their era: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and the like. My dad would be the first to admit he was no "tvinkletoes" (spoken in a faux-Yiddish accent), but compared to his son he was a regular Fred Astaire.

This week, in a box we just got around to unpacking, we found two DVDs with our names on them. To our delight they contained video shot at our wedding, which we then watched for the first time. The footage vividly brought back the joy of that July day in 2013. It also brought back my dad, who was there. It was his last wedding, his last airplane trip, his last visit with my kids.

I hoped that if his spirit was troubled by the loss of his ring and ashes, it was soothed by the Day of the Dead shrine, the anniversary tribute, and the wedding video. I also thought his spirit would get a kick out of it if I smoked a bunch of cheap cigars like the ones he favored – El Producto, White Owl, Dutch Masters and the like – saved the ashes and then scattered those instead.

But then here's what happened: The minute I finished writing the penultimate draft of this column I had a new thought about where his ashes might be: den, top shelf, behind the giraffe (don't ask).

Bingo.

I know exactly how Dad, an incorrigible punster, would have reacted.

"Well, buddy," he'd have said, "I can see you've made a complete ash of yourself."

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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