Ashes Under the Sun

*Trigger Warning: Suicide, Mental Illness*

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Ashes Under the Sun

Melissa E. Beckwith


I get small glimpses of her in the shadows through the trees or in the ever-changing, sinuous movements on the horizon of the ocean.  I’d see her dark hair falling past her shoulders, usually in frizzy disarray.  But my thoughts of her always join with thoughts of my father also.  As constant as my father’s stoic, no-nonsense expressions are, my mother has an inexhaustible repertoire of ever-changing moods that roll and rumble like a thunderstorm through a dry valley.

I start out thinking about some silly camping trip memory, or maybe the time we went out gold mining with Uncle Jamie and Aunt Rose and after hours of panning through dirty water the only one who found any gold was my big brother who had just happened to spot a gold ring in the parking lot lying forgotten under the hot Southern California sun.  That was a good day.  We had a lot of good days.  But we had bad days too.

I have pictures in my head of my mother ridiculously dancing around my father trying to get him to agree to some outlandish thing.  Her child-like pouting and prancing and my father’s resolute stare that inevitably caved into giving my mother what she wanted.  It was typically a victory for my brother, sister and I as well, since the outlandish thing my mother would usually ask for involved us kids.  However, as I think back my little sister seemed to benefit more than my brother and me, I’m not sure why—she cried more I guess.  And I’d feel sorry for my father too, after all, he had to pay for everything and money was always an issue in my family.

I have the dark pictures too.  The ones where my mother’s pretty face is not so pretty anymore and my father’s handsome faithful expression is crumpled into heartbreak.  I have plenty of those memories.  More than pictures, those memories wrap me in sound, smell and taste like a heavy blanket smothering me as I struggle to get free.  My mother’s sharp screaming falls down on me like shards of glass cutting me right through the strangling blanket.  My father’s pleading fills the room like an ill played symphony that knows it will not win the audience, but keeps trying anyway.  Like a gong I hear something smash against the wall or the floor, I am hit by the concussion through the air and feel the reverberations below my feet.

I look over at my little sister.  She’s sitting on her bed, her skinny knees tucked up under her chin, her wild, blond hair trailing over her curled shoulders.  She looks scared but isn’t crying yet.  I’m sure my brother is outside, he probably doesn’t even hear them.  Finally the screaming stops, it’s played itself out like a vinyl record spinning on an old player.  I hear my mother sobbing and my father’s tearful voice trying to calm her.  I finally get the courage to peer out of my bedroom door but I see nothing so I crawl out of the room.  The old stiff carpet scratches my knees like a scouring pad.  I can smell the bitter sweet scent of wine clinging to the air and something else: fear; sorrow perhaps?

I see them now.  Mother is sitting on the floor rocking back and forth and father is crumpled around her, hugging her in his arms so tight as if he thinks she might be taken away at any moment.  Her long hair is covering her face and half of my father’s as well.  I see the broken wine bottle lying by the front door as if it had committed some heinous crime and had to be punished.  I can see my father’s glasses lying discarded nearby.  If there had been a violent struggle I did not hear, but my father was blind without them.  My little sister slowly walks by me, squats down to pick up my father’s glasses and timidly hands them to him.  He takes his glasses from her small hand and starts to sob.

I need to go now, I have a long drive ahead of me and my parents would like a trip to their favorite spot in the mountains.



            I don’t see why we have to do this.  Don’t they know how busy everyone is?  But it’s all about mom, it always has been.  I remember the last time I saw her.  She was crying, as usual, begging me not to move away from California and not to take her grandsons away.  Like I was leaving just to hurt her.  God, why is everything always about her?  Here I am exhausted after a five hour flight and I wait almost as long in a line to pick up my stupid rental car, and now I have a long drive up into the mountains.  I take a deep breath, close my eyes and try not to think about anything, especially my parents.

Inevitably, though I start dreaming about our yearly camping trips to that remote patch of forest at the end of a narrow dirt path curving away behind huge pine trees, standing so straight and tall.   My parents love that spot.  You can hear water rushing by in the distance, taste the pine as it hung in the cool air and feel everyone’s moods lifting, everything was just right.

Daddy was busy putting up the tents, his face serious and bent to his chore.  Mom was merrily unloading the car, her face open and smiling so bright it reminded me of a full moon.  My sister had her Gameboy clutched in her hands, finger flying, head bent down, her brown hair pulled back tightly into a pony tail as she sat on the picnic table.  My brother was jumping from boulder to boulder with a stick in his hands violently whacking anything unlucky enough to be in his way.  The trees and rocks were unyielding to his blows but an angry squirrel chattered at him from a safe distance.

After a dinner of hamburgers, potato chips and Pepsi my stupid brother sat brooding on a folding chair because daddy took his stick away after he hit me with it.  I looked over at him with a hateful stare.  He was always hurting me.  Giant tears rolled down his dirty face leaving shiny streaks.  He deserved that spanking dad gave him.

I watch my mom now as she skips through the pine trees, her long brown hair wafting out behind her on the crisp air.  She’s wearing a bright colored sun dress with long frills that she takes in her hands and whips about her thighs as she sings out to daddy to come and join her.  The sun is setting and she seems to glow in the red light.  When daddy refuses to dance with her she calls out of us come and play hide and seek.  My brother is the only one who wants to but that’s only because he’s in time out and daddy tells him not to move.  Daddy’s face, as he watches mom, is a mask of seriousness, but I can see how much he loves mom and how pretty he thinks she is.  Finally she flits over to where my dad is sitting on the bench and plops down next to him, she’s out of breath from her idiotic dancing, she throws her arms around daddy and giggling like no grown woman has a right to.  Daddy kisses her forehead and hugs her close to him.  A seen played over and over throughout their 30 year marriage.

I take a deep breath, punch the location into the GPS, put the car in drive and start out on my journey.



I kiss my wife and daughters goodbye, climb into my truck and head towards the forest.  This is stupid!  One more idiotic thing my mom pulls and my dad just allows it, like always.  Its bad enough I have to be a part of this mental hospital field trip but my bitch of a sister is flying in.  Now the pity party can be complete.  Thank you mom and dad!  At least I brought enough beer and weed to get through this circus.  I have my sleeping bag, I’ll just crash in the truck tonight after this charade is over.

The road stretches out in front of me and my mind drifts back to my dad assembling my new bike.  I guess I’m about ten and my excitement reverberates through me like a tuning fork.  My dad’s stern face is concentrating on his task.  His big hands grip the socket wrench as he waves it back and forth with the ease of a skilled mechanic.  I can see myself in the reflection of his glasses.  I look so small.  Small but so eager to ride my new bike that I can already feel the wind in my face.  My stupid sister calls out to dad asking him to watch her as she skates by the driveway, her fuzzy blond hair cotton-balled around her head.  She’s always trying to get his attention, usually when he’s doing something for me.  I know she does it on purpose.  She’s already his favorite so why does she keep trying?

Mom walks out of the house and hands my dad a beer.  She has a glass of tea.  She just stopped drinking; something about her doctor telling her that alcohol and her medication for the crazies don’t mix. Whatever, I don’t care.  All I care about is my new bike.  My blasted sister is calling out to dad again, I turn around and call her a name so my dad stops what he’s doing and gives me a swat.  Mom calls out to Sophie and tells her how great of a skater she is.  Sophie tries to smile but I can see the disappointment on her stupid face because dad isn’t watching her.  I smile.

Mom leans over and gives dad a kiss, her long, brown hair falling in waves over my dad’s face.  He kisses her back of course, he always does, then turns back to my bike.  I take a moment to watch mom; her blue eyes are sparkling as she watches dad hard at work.  I know she saved up to buy me this bike and dad wasn’t too happy that she spent the money.  They got into a huge fight last night.  My dad called her manic, whatever that means, and she burst out in tears, like always.  But now she’s got that silly grin on her face.  I hope she goes back in the house and leaves dad alone so he can put my bike together quickly.  I really want to ride it!

That wonderful bike.  The same bike that my mom ran over with her car in a rage two years later.



He’s looking at her.  He’s watching her sleep.  I am too.  In and out, her sour breath’s rhythm was the only sound in the room.  The only sound that my father heard, I’m sure.  But I could hear the hard pounding of my heart pulsing in my ears and shaking my body.  My breath was not as relaxed as my mother’s as she slept.  No, my breath came in quick secession dancing to the tempo of my excited heart.   I watched as he wiped a spent tear from his stubbled chin then tenderly ran his fingers through the wild mess that was my mother’s hair.

He took my hand then and we quietly left the room.  Left my mother to her medicated sleep.  My father had come home early after I called him crying telling him mother was ruining the house.  It was Saturday and mother didn’t like it when father had to work on Saturdays.  She missed him…

It’s ten o’clock in the morning and mother hurls an empty beer bottle onto the kitchen floor.  At the sound of smashing glass Daniel and Sophie look up from what they are doing.  A warm feeling creeps through my belly and starts my heart pounding.  I know what’s coming next.  Mother needlessly announces that there is broken glass in the kitchen and we all need to go to our rooms now.  Daniel complains, of course, so mother throws a wooden spoon at him and screams at him to leave.  The spoon harmlessly lands three feet away from him, she’s always been a bad shot.  He slowly gets up and goes to his room.  I hear another crash and see a stack of plates, or what was left of them, in a heap on the floor.  Mother starts to sob as she runs her arms across the kitchen counter sending everything sailing off into the air like a runaway kite.

I grab the phone and Sophie’s hand and quickly head to our room.  Just before I close the door I see a potted plant spinning through the air like a pinwheel spraying out dirt as it flew by.  Hastily I call father’s cell phone as Sophie starts to cry.  I tell father that mother’s gone crazy again and he needs to come home.  Of course he will.  I sit down next to Sophie and take her small hand in mine.  The skin on my hand is much darker than the creamy white of my sister’s.  Her light complexion and blond hair has come from father’s mother.  My dark skin and hair are my mother’s.  Dread takes me as I wonder if I will become crazy like my mother.  I start to shake and I hold Sophie’s hand tighter as we listen to mother’s screaming from the living room.  I know no one is there but mother screams anyway.  Hurry father!



            My food had been stomped, my fists are clenched, my jaw is jammed shut and my eyes are frowning so hard I can hardly see mom’s face.  She just told me that her and dad volunteered to be chaperons for my senior prom.  Could there possibly be anything worse than all my friends being exposed to my crazy mom?   For the hundredth time I wonder how Naomi could have gone off to college and left me here alone with her.  I can’t wait to leave too and I tell her so.  She folds her arms across her chest as tells me how lucky I am because she never went to prom because when she was my age she was married with little baby Daniel to take care of.  I think she shouldn’t have been a slut then.  Then I feel bad for thinking that, mom and daddy have been married for 21 years now, after all.

Suddenly mom does that little twirl thing that drives me mad then announces we have appointments this afternoon to get out hair done.  I start to calm down and while I know daddy will blow a gasket, at least I’ll look perfect tonight.  I take a deep breath and try to smile as I ask her what time our appointments are.

Prom was as hideous as I thought it would be.  Mom insisted that we get our hair done in the same style which is stupid because our hair is so different.  Mom even bought this ridiculous prom dress the same color as mine!  I look over at daddy and I can see he feels sorry for me.  He walks over and as the band starts to play a slow dance he takes my hand and we dance across the floor.  Dressed up in his dark suit, with his new hair cut my daddy is easily the most handsome man here, even for an old guy.  I’m glad he came even if it meant that mom had to come too.

He tells me how pretty I am and that he loves me then hands me off to my date.  When I look by he and mom are dancing close, gazing at each other.  My mom’s dark hair is up and she insisted on wearing a dozen tiny rhinestone hair pins so that her hair looks like it’s sparkling in the low light.  A few chosen dark curls cascaded across her bare shoulders.  She would always tell us she had magic hair and tonight, in this light, with the way daddy is looking at her, I believe it.




I take the last drag and throw the butt out the window.  Fleetingly, I hope I don’t start a brush fire.  But then I remember that I don’t care because I’m in a bad mood because my parents are making me drive out to the middle of nowhere.  We made this drive every summer since I can remember so at least I know the way; straight up the mountain, turn left at the barking dog, go about three more miles then make a left at the burned out stump then continue on for another mile, then you have arrived at hell…

My dad is trying to teach me how to fish but even I know he’s better suited to the underside of a car than a fishing pole.  The sun is setting on the still water of the lake; it doesn’t look like any fish live under the cold surface.  Suddenly I miss the worm and impale my finger.  It starts burning right away and I look at mom but she’s crying so that makes me cry.  I look at dad and he says I’m going to be okay and it’s just a little hurt.   Looking at my mom I can’t tell since she’s whispering loudly that we need to go to the hospital.  Her brown hair is tied back in a ponytail and her face is scrunched up in concern, or panic.  So this makes me panic even more.  The doctors were able to remove the hook that day but I still bare the scar; inside and out.

Why am I only able to remember the bad things of my childhood?  I know there must have been good memories—the camping, the Monday night burgers and Sunday morning French toast, the family BBQ’s with Uncle Jamie and Aunt Rose and various cousins.  But for some God forsaken reason I can only remember the bad things.  So I pull over and light a little blunt.  I hold in the breath as long as I can, then let it out slowly… I remember mom’s meatloaf, I remember her dancing in the rain, and I remember her and dad kissing on the couch.  I remember her coming to school and trying to explain to the principle why I beat other kids up or why I tore down the Christmas decorations in class or why I threw such a big fit my whole class had to be evacuated.  Now that I think about it, she was always at school.  So I pull out onto the road as soon as I can and head up the mountain.



I am later than I think and we pull up next to my brother’s truck and my little sister’s rental car.  I get out of the car and try to smile.  I haven’t seen my brother in months and I haven’t seen my sister since she moved away from California last year.  I walk up and greet them as if they were strangers.  Sophie had dark crescents under her eyes and it doesn’t look as though she’s had a chance to brush her hair yet today.  Daniel is high, as always.  We can always count on his consistency at least.  Sophie says she wants to get this over with and that she has a plane to catch later that evening.  Daniel just laughs.  I try to lighten the mood by interjecting small talk but the tension between my brother and sister is so thick I almost choke.  Some things never change.  I glance at my car then back at my siblings.


“I think we should talk about it.”  I start out timidly.

“What is there to talk about,” Sophie says coolly.

“Uh, maybe the fact that our parents hated us so much.”  I was glad Daniel finally started to engage in our conversation, then almost immediately was sorry.  “Yeah, some parents, huh?”

“Well that’s one way to look at it,” I said, trying to smooth over my brother’s words.

“It’s true,” Sophie said, as if she was the final authority.

“Mother was sick—”

“Woopty doo, so am I!” Daniel spits.

“Look, all I’m saying is mother was sick and dad could never live without her.  Those are just the facts and we’re here to honor their last wishes, okay?  Can we just get along long enough to do that?”

“Yes, let’s be done with this.”  Sophie threw Daniel a look of disgust when he nonchalantly pulled out a marijuana cigarette and started to smoke it.

“Really, Daniel?  Do you have to do that now?  Have some respect!”  Even I was starting to get angry.

“Our parents didn’t have any respect for us, otherwise they wouldn’t have ordered us all up here to spread their stupid ashes in the woods!”

“They did the best they could!” I blurted out, not knowing if I truly believed that.

“The best they could?” Sophie asked incredulously.   “Do you call putting a bullet in your brain and driving into the grill of a semi at 70 miles an hour the best they could have done?”

“Under the circumstances…”  I shrugged suddenly feeling the crushing weight of the situation.

“Mom was a crazy bitch, but what was dad’s excuse?  My girls are still asking about them.  I shouldn’t have to explain to my little girls that their grandparents were such crazy pricks that they decided to just end it all!”

Sophie looked down as a tear slipped down her cheek.  I knew she was thinking about her sons.  Mother had an especially close bond with those boys.  I think Sophie felt guilty now for taking them away from her.  “Can we just please get this over with,” she whispered.

“Maybe we can all stop for dinner somewhere on the way back down.  We can talk about this.”

“What the hell is there to talk about?  They made their choices, both of them!”

“Us!  We need to talk about us!”  Now I was crying and I was mad at my parents for making me cry.  I was angry at my siblings, angry at God, angry at the world.

“I think I can spare a few hours before I have to get back to the airport,” Sophie said quietly, shocking me into silence.

“Yeah, whatever, okay.  I can go for a few beers.”  That was all we could expect out of Daniel.

I turned and went to my car and retrieved the single urn that held what was left of my parents.  The sun was just starting to set; mother’s favorite time of the day.  Holding my macabre offering out in front of me, I slowly walked towards the giant granite overhang and looked down on the forested valley below.  Silently my brother and sister came up on either side of me.

“Mom and daddy loved this place.”

“We have a ton of memories here,” Daniel whispered, almost as if he were afraid of waking a sleeping giant.

“Mother is finally at rest and father is where he chose to be, where we all knew he’d want to spend eternity: with her.”  I carefully opened the lid of the urn and as if right on cue a warm breeze rolled up from behind us and gently took my parents ashes, spreading them out into the golden light of a setting California sun.