I hear rummaging sounds coming from the backseat, where my daughter Essie is sitting. She’s brought a bunch of LEGOs in a Ziplock bag for the car ride and she’s fishing for pieces. It’s loud and annoying, but I don’t say anything. My mom gave her those LEGOs and a large LEGO idea book to inspire her. I’m happy for her to be playing with them. My mom always gave us the best gifts.
Essie and I are headed to a farm outside of town to pick blueberries. It’s an annual tradition I’ve managed to keep up, even after her dad and I divorced. Every June, I pick way too many berries and end up making an oversized crumble that, for some reason, Essie never eats.
“What’re you building?” I ask. I have the rearview mirror tilted so I can see her face—rosy cheeks and a constellation of freckles under a faded blue baseball cap—but not what she’s doing with her hands.
“A crypt,” she says.
I’d heard correctly. She’s building a crypt out of LEGOS. I’m pretty sure this isn’t in the idea book.
The GPS is routing us out into the county, past the lavender farm. I remember taking my mom there when she was visiting a few years back. It was a hot and humid morning like this one. That’s just summer in central Virginia, air like a soaked sweatshirt. My mom still had all her hair then. She could still make the long drive south. The three of us smiled for glistening selfies I cherish now and cooled down on small containers of blueberry lavender ice cream. I haven’t been back since.
“Look, Mama,” Essie says.
She wants to show me the LEGO monster she’s made to put inside the crypt. Its head comes off, apparently. I can’t look while I’m driving. I’m hoping this headless idea is related to the Scooby Doo episodes she’s been watching lately and not some latent plan to dismember me later on. I can see her hat bobbing in the backseat while she works at her creations. She sticks her tongue out when she concentrates. What an adorable little sociopath.
I wonder if Essie remembers that the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death just passed. Only seven, but she knows Gram had breast cancer, she knows Gram died, she knows what death is—at least as much as any of us do. Does she make a connection between all that and what she’s building?
After my mom’s death, I drove by myself to upstate New York to be with my family, to settle my mom’s affairs, to sort through whatever stuff I could. It was overwhelming, all there was to do. The funeral director tried to upsell me on everything. She talked to me like we knew each other. She kept calling me “honey.” My uncle, aunt, and grandmother avoided this phone call. They were too sad and not up for a battle. Well, I was sad too, but I guess they knew I’d be able to say no, which I did, to everything. No to a service in the middle of COVID, no to an expensive headstone, no to a fancy casket to put my mom in. What did it matter? It was all going up in flames anyway.
Back in the car, I try to start up a reminiscence with Essie about previous trips to the blueberry farm. “Remember the year of the drought? How small the berries were?”
Essie says, “Can you please stop talking so I can count?”
Count what? I’m scared it’s more headless LEGO bodies for the crypt.
“Fine,” I say, looking out toward the hazy layers of mountains in the east. I’d brought my mom there too one time, up to Shenandoah National Park. Even in her healthier days, my mom wasn’t exactly a hiker, so we took in the dramatic views from the side of the road, stopping at overlooks with names like Loft Mountain and Blackrock.
The time at the blueberry farm goes about as it usually does: Essie gives up after a little while and, after asking ten times when we’re going to leave, finds some shade to sit in while I pick seven pounds of fruit. The air smells so sweet amidst the rows of bushes. I buy Essie a cup of mint blueberry lemonade for the ride home, which she sips noisily instead of making more cemeteries.
Later in the day, after I alone consume the crumble we make together, Essie shows me the LEGO monster. It has pink flower petals for eyes. Its feet are black bricks. Its head, indeed, comes off.
“What’s the story?” I ask, as she twirls around the banister, her long dark hair dangling. “How does the monster lose its head?”
She reiterates that the head can come off.
“I know,” I say, “but, like, how does it happen?”
I realize, as if my own head has become detached and I’m floating above my body, that I’m now pushing my child to imagine the various ways people can get decapitated. What am I doing? Death has a way of unhinging you, I’ve learned.
So far as I know, my mom’s ashes are still where I left them, inside a brown burlap bag on the floor of my aunt’s guest bedroom. My family and I couldn’t figure out what to do with them before it was time for me to come home. Should we take her to the pond where the house her parents built still stands? Bring her to the national park and scatter her high into the air? Or, perhaps, the prospect I like most, bury her in the backyard of the home that her life insurance helped me and Essie buy—her finest, and final, gift? There will never be a gravestone to visit, a real concrete crypt. What we have is something different: LEGOs, a few ideas, and a daughter, or two, trying to make her way.
Emily O. Gravett mostly spends her days cycling around the counties near Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she also teaches at James Madison University. She lives with her daughter in a 100-year-old Victorian, just down the street from their favorite dairy bar, and writes in her “spare” time.
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