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Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust


Jack Swenson


What I remember most clearly about the funeral is the dreary sermon, the boredom, the wasted day, and the treachery of my second cousin, Helen Marie. Why do they make little kids go to funerals? Surely my parents could have left me with dad's parents. I loved my grandma; she let me eat bread with butter and sugar on it, and when we played Parcheesi, she let me win. And they had a dog, a German Shepherd, who always brought me a present when we came to visit, a stick or a stone.

I did not want to go to Aunt Sarah's funeral, but go I did. Under duress. And I hated every minute of it. My hateful cousin was there, and her mother, who smelled bad. There were other children there, I suppose; I don't recall. Maybe not. I am the oldest of the grandchildren on my mother's side, so perhaps we were the only ones.

I remember standing in the parlor of the house in a forest of black trouser legs. The women were preparing the food, and the men were standing around doing nothing. I clung to the leg of my father's pants until he told me to stop it. "Go play," he said, but what was I supposed to do? I had left my toys behind, and there was nothing there for me to play with. I did not want to investigate the barn; I was afraid of farm animals. Sheep were okay, but poor at games I had previously discovered. And chickens were not interesting in the least.

So I stayed inside in the gloom and doom. Then it was time to eat. That was okay. I got to pick and choose what I wanted to eat; at home you ate what was put in front of you. I loaded up on olives and bread and butter. Unfortunately, my mother spotted me and made me eat some potato salad and vegetables. I have never been of fan of potato salad. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now.

Beforehand, of course, the white-bearded preacher had to say grace. I wondered who had invited him? And after the meal, it was time for the members of each family present, one by one, to go into the anteroom where the open casket was and say goodbye to Aunt Sarah. I was shocked by what I saw. Aunt Sarah didn't look like Aunt Sarah at all. Her face was powdered and as white as paper. Her nose seemed huge, like a beak. It was awful. I vowed not to die for a long, long time, if ever; I didn't want to look like that.

True to form, my cousin found a way to torment me before the day was over. When she returned from the viewing, she smiled sweetly, and announced to the assembled mourners that Aunt Sarah wasn't dead, she was just sleeping. Several people smiled and nodded their heads. I was outraged at the lie. Dead was dead. I knew dead when I saw it. So I piped up and said, "She ain't sleeping; she's dead!" The adults who were standing nearby turned at me and scowled. My father picked me up and clapped his hand over my mouth.

Helen Marie and her mother rode back to town with us in our car. On the way, my cousin fell asleep. I sat between my parents in the front seat; the others were in the back. I looked back and saw Helen Marie with her golden curls resting on the sleeve of her mother's black coat, her eyes closed, and her thumb in her mouth. It made me happy that my older cousin was still sucking her thumb.



JACK SWENSON shares...

JACK SWENSON is a California writer and teacher.  His third book of stories Local Hero is available from the publisher at and at Many of his tales have appeared in online and print journals including ken*again, Pindeldyboz, The Smoking Poet, Flash Flooding, Underground Voices and Taj Mahal Review.   JACK's  work has been on SHINE! before and you may see it here.


Writing "Ashes To Ashes" was an attempt by JACK to rid himself of an unpleasant memory.  "It ended up as a joke at my expense," he says.