Ashes in the kitchen

Sometimes, parking the car and walking into our apartment just feels like coming home. More often, though, it's remembering all the times coming home with Stephanie, and all the times coming home to Stephanie.

It's no longer shocking, like it was at first, but it still seems insane, idiotic, incomprehensible that Stephanie is gone from the world. What is the purpose of anything at all, when I can't see her smile or hear her laugh? Why bother with anything, when she's not in the apartment, in the car, or in the seat next to mine at the movies?

Work, home, work, home, work, home, weekend at home, rinse, lather, repeat. Now and then there's a walk, always spent remembering Stephanie. There's a Shrine of Stephanie mementoes where I often stand, remembering specific moments. And there's a cat Stephanie loved and held, that jumps in my lap soon as I'm done eating dinner every night.

And in the corner are Steph's ashes, in the same plastic sack, inside a cardboard box, inside a white paper bag, all the same as when it was handed to me at the funeral home, minus a few ounces of ashes now in her parents' possession.

It's a strange concept — the ashes of the departed. I'm generally slow on the uptake, and for more than a year now I've felt next-to-nothing about the ashes that once were Stephanie.

Her toothbrush is still at the bathroom sink, her make-up is still in the car, and her recipe cards have been moved from the kitchen to the Shrine; these things remain, because these were things Stephanie wanted and used. Countless other of Stephanie's possessions are still in the apartment, or in storage in the basement, waiting for me to sort through them all. But the ashes? What use are the ashes?

That's been my mindset, but for reasons impossible to put into words, it's occurred to me today that the ashes are supposed to be spread, shaken out like salt and pepper, at some place that meant something to Stephanie.

In many ways we weren't "traditional," and maybe that's why the traditional spreading of the ashes hadn't occurred to me. But it suddenly seems like a worthwhile tradition. So where should Steph's ashes be scattered? At some of her favorite places ...

Olbrich Gardens, in Madison, where she was always happy to walk among the flowers. We went there every spring, several times every summer, any time she needed some sunshine and a reason to smile...

·  Pohlman Field in Beloit, where we enjoyed so many baseball games. Steph always had a beer and a hot dog, always liked the beer and always thought the hot dog was disappointing, but always wanted another hot dog the next time..

·  LaBahn Arena, where Steph delighted in watching the University of Wisconsin women's hockey team. Five bucks per ticket, sit anywhere, and watch an excellent team that usually wins. And mostly, she'd say, watch women being excellent at what they do...

·  Cinematheque, the local venue for old movies, artsy movies, and foreign movies. We attended many, many shows, usually enjoyed and appreciated the screenings, and almost always left a donation in the box, since admission is free...

·  And a few of her favorite restaurants in Madison — Ogden's North Street Diner, Maharani Indian Buffet, and Buraka Ethiopian Restaurant...

Ashes will be spread in all these places, though of course, like any dust or powder, the ashes won't stay where they're scattered. Outside, they're going to blow away with the wind, and inside, at the theater and in the restaurants, 99% of the ashes will be sucked into a vacuum cleaner that same night. But a few molecules will remain, and I'm telling myself that those molecules will be there for a long, long while. Instead of merely memories of breakfast with Steph at Ogden's, a few fragments of Stephanie will permanently be part of Ogden's, or for at least as long as the building stands.

And no, nobody's asking permission for any of this, because someone might say no and no is not an acceptable answer. There's no damage being done, by adding a few teaspoons of dust to the sixteen acres of greenery at Olbrich, or to some corner of the carpet at a restaurant or cinema. The funeral home gave me several pounds of ashes, and only a few ounces will be left in any of these places. Most of Steph's ashes will always be in the box, in the Shrine.

So, several places in and around Madison need Stephanie's ashes, and there might be a few more when I've thought longer about it. Today, though, only two other locations come to mind.

Locally, her ashes need to be spread around in our apartment. For all the time we lived in San Francisco and Kansas City, Steph was homesick for Madison. It took her several years to admit that to herself, but Wisconsin is where she wanted to be, needed to be, and we were both so glad that we moved to the dairy state.

When we arrived in Madison with a truck full of our stuff, and started looking for a place to live, this 50-year-old building was the first apartment we looked at. We started moving in the next day, and it's the only apartment we had in Madison — fourteen years in these same three rooms.

We had our complaints about the place, of course. It's not wheelchair-accessible, and those few steps at the front door became quite an obstacle when Steph was no longer walking. Among the lesser annoyances, our neighbor across the hall lets her grandkids play in the hallway, right outside our door, so we sometimes hear lots of screaming and stomping. Our bedroom is directly over the hot-water heaters in the basement, and thus gets uncomfortably warm once in a while.

We had assorted other grumblings, all the gripes and grievances you'd expect from years living in the same rather old, slightly dilapidated building. But the neighborhood was perfect for us — safe and quiet, with the more metropolitan Washington Avenue just a few blocks away. And the rent is reasonable.

We felt that we'd found the right neighborhood, and the right apartment for us. Steph was at home here from the moment we carried in the first box of our stuff, more than she'd ever been at home in California or Missouri. And that made it home for me, too.

Certainly, then, some of Stephanie's ashes will be spread around this apartment. Ashes in the oven, maybe in the fridge, because she loved cooking in our kitchen... Ashes in the bedroom, where she could let down all her defenses at the end of every day... Ashes in the living room, where we spent most of our leisure, loitering and lingering, watching old movies, surfing the internet, and talking about infinite everything...

There's only one other place that comes to mind, where Steph would want her ashes sprinkled. In San Francisco, at the western end of the N Judah streetcar line, across the pretentiously named Great Highway, lies Ocean Beach, a lovely, sandy stretch of shore.

We went there for picnics, for sunsets, for holding hands, and to lose ourselves in the view of the Pacific Ocean. As far as you could see, just water. I grew up near the ocean, in Seattle, and was maybe more accustomed to the vastness of the sea, but Stephanie was a Midwest kid. The Great Lakes are mighty big, but they're not oceans, and Steph was always awestruck at the ocean.

Long after we'd left San Francisco, we frequently reminisced about our time there, and talked about what we missed most. We often spoke of taking a vacation to San Francisco, and what we'd want to see and do if we were there for a week or two. We wanted to visit San Francisco like you'd visit an old friend, and while we never got around to planning such a trip, it was always on our long-term wish-list.

When we talked about such things, we could each come up with a dozen things we missed about San Francisco, and they might not be the same dozen things we'd thought of when the same question had come up a few months earlier. But always, at the top of Stephanie's list of things she'd loved and missed about San Francisco, and near the top of my list, was the streetcar ride to the ocean, and our picnics in the dunes.

Thus it occurs to me this morning, that I need to spend a week or two in Frisco. Maybe next summer, if I can afford it, but it needs to be soon. To see again the city where Stephanie and I fell in love, and where we spent the first years of our marriage. To see the apartment where we lived, the taqueria where we had our first meal together, the bake shop where Steph bought Mexican-style pastries, and to rekindle myriad other memories to be found nowhere else. And definitely, to ride the N Judah to the Pacific Ocean, and pour some of Stephanie's ashes into the sand.