My mama is in this box. And my mama is sitting next to me.
She’s the last to board in Louisville, and the train slides from the station before she takes a seat. As we slip into the landscape of golden fields and dove-gray skies, she stands surveying the car for a moment before her eyes land on the not-quite-empty place next to me. The train sways gently along, and as she makes her way up the aisle, my hope is fulfilled when she approaches and stops at my row. My row. She stops and sits at my row. The soft sunlight streaming through the window buffs her skin into luminous, youthful perfection, and she wears that same bouffant and white collared blouse as her college-graduation picture. Her eyes seek permission to settle next to me. To me. Yet in her eyes and slight, polite smile, there is no recognition of my face. Just the muted, demure acknowledgment of a similarly aged, similarly hued woman similarly traveling alone. We exchange courteous nods and she places her train case overhead while I pick up the box and hug it close. She takes the seat, smoothing her hands down a skirt that reaches, appropriately and just like mine, to her knee. With legs crossed at the ankles, she opens what I know to be her favorite book in her lap.
Outside the window, farm-to-farm, the fields are spent and golden as the train carries us south. Somewhere along this journey away from the Midwest, in some nondescript time and place, the wheat fields gave way to soybeans and cotton, indistinguishable from one another under winter’s soft gray sky. We move forward, melding into the landscape, going off-course somewhere in the universe where the clock reads eternity and it has no hands with which to hold us in a fixed period of time. Right now, there is no right now , for the immediate is fluid.
Unlike months ago, about a week before she passed, when my mama and I had already discussed her final wishes in all things except where she was to be buried. Those days, each tick of the clock’s second hand seemed like another step in time’s race toward the inevitable. But as though reciting a grocery list or telling me to lay out my school clothes the night before, she told me,
“I wish to be cremated.” But then she paused, gazing off into that soft place where memory and mortality link, and said, “And I want you to carry me home.”
So now, I am traveling the same tracks she once rode south, south, back to Alabama. Toward family I’ve never met and places I’ve never seen. Yet the further south we go, the more complete the embrace of the gray-turning-azure sky and the sun swimming through it. Inviting me home with my mama. And my mama is in this box. And my mama is sitting next to me, not recognizing me or showing any interest more than polite before she buries her nose in her book.
This is not the mere idea of her, either—an apparition of my grief manifested on a woman passing in the opposite direction or sweetly chastising the grocer about the wilted collards, no. It’s Mama reading that book with those same pursed lips and squinted eyes that tell me she’s trying hard not to dig her glasses from her pocketbook. And a quick glance at her left wrist reveals our shared, tiny mole as she turns the pages. But she has none of her motherly energy—hardly even a kind, pitying nod for me as I sit with her ashes in my lap.
We ride in silence for a long time, and I can hardly determine where to look. Obviously not at her, but I don’t want to look away from her, lose sight of her, either, so I keep my eyes straight ahead, clutching her ashes against me and sneaking little side glances at her every chance I get. And I know it’s her. It is her. It is. Just . . . her before me, when her world was wide-open with the mere possibility of meeting my father and having my brother, my sister, then me. There’s no gold band on her finger or baby on her hip, and she lacks that uncanny ability to sense my agony in the moment. But we share the same tiny mole on the inside of our wrists that I can see from the corner of my eye.
Without moving her head from her book, she must have noticed her first name on this box, followed by a last name that isn’t hers yet, printed on a tag from the funeral home. She turns her head and regards me, the closeness and life in her eyes finally giving my tears permission to overflow. And once they start, it feels like I will never empty. But my arms are wrapped around the box, and my pocketbook is underneath the seat, where my handkerchief is folded and waiting too far from my grasp to be useful. I want to clean myself up and pull myself together so I don’t scare her away, but before I know it, her pocketbook is in her lap. Open. She pulls out her handkerchief and dabs it over my face while correctly guessing that these are my mama’s ashes in my lap.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, miss,” she says. “We buried my mama last year.” But in the space of eternity, my grandmother died fifteen years before I was a thought in anybody’s head. I nod my thank-you, as too many words, admissions, pleas bubble in my chest and threaten to spill from my mouth drop by drop. My mama’s loving touch dabs my tears away, and she has found that soft, honey warmth to her voice that I know. Though my endless tears flow, I hold my tongue for fear of losing this gifted moment.
“Please don’t cry,” she says. “You’re such a pretty girl to be crying on this train like this. And I’m sure your mama wouldn’t want you to be sad. Right? Of course not. I know what you’re going through. Probably expect you see her everywhere. Hold still while I dab this mascara from your cheeks. There. Much better. Such a pretty girl. What’s your name? Juh . . . mee . . . lah? That’s unusual. Beautiful though. The kind of name that tells me she thought about you before she even knew you. That she’s still thinking about you now.
“Looks like we’re stopping again. Do you want a Coca-Cola from inside? Something else, perhaps a little water? Oh, I used to come this way often when we visited my mama’s family around here. A lot of my people still live around this way. I. Oh—”
My mama-before-my-mama draws her hand away abruptly as another similarly aged, similarly hued woman similarly traveling alone boards the train and takes a seat to the front of the car. I do not know her, but my mama’s sigh is unmistakable as the gentle gasp of recognition.