He would be faithful to his position, to the deceased protectors of the United States, to their families. He would allow the funerals to progress. Then he would take his punishment for the loss of Michael Stanley Smith’s urn box. One way or another.
He called to the gate and let the guard know it was time to allow mourners to enter. There were ten cars waiting, all lined up at the entrance wondering if our country was under attack. The first one in the queue was Janet MacDonald, Jerrold’s wife.
Janet sped to the office, grabbed her flowers and the favorite sandwich she’d brought to Jerrold off the passenger seat. She dashed inside as Jerrold looked up. He was just getting ready to walk over to the commitment shelter. She dashed up to him, placing the things in her hands on his desk and wrapped her arms around him. “Are you alright? What has happened today? I’ve been worried sick about you.” She hugged him close to her, damn the protocol.
Jerrold was speechless. He wanted to take her outside and spill everything he’d been thinking, tell her about the missing urn, about losing his job and ask her forgiveness for being such a loser. His head throbbed from the nitroglycerin he’d just taken, but his heartbeat had settled down and his arm quit aching.
Tears formed in his eyes as she looked at him, then hugged him again. She’d never seen him cry and knew this was a significant point in their marriage.
“I have a funeral,” he said quietly.
“I know. We’ll talk after. I’ll wait here for you.”
“There are eighteen today.”
“Maybe Mr. Greevy could step in for you just for today.”
Cherrie, who couldn’t help overhearing their words, said, “I’ll find Harold and I know he keeps slacks and a dress shirt in his truck for emergencies.” She dashed out the door.
At eight thirty, every car had parked, every cushion held a mourner for Mrs. Rene Christophson, wife of Lt. Commander Richard Thomas Christophson, USN.
The minister stood to talk about the deceased as an attendant held the urn that would be interred in the same crypt as Richard Christophson.
Natalie, who had been waiting two hours for this moment, fidgeted, annoying the people in the third row where she sat. At last she stood, walked up to the minister and announced, “This funeral cannot continue. It is a fake and must be stopped.”
The minister said, “I’m sorry for you loss, but why don’t you sit down here next to me and I’ll continue. We cannot deny this fine woman the last wishes of herself and her husband, the Lt. Colonel.”
“Oh yes we can,” Natalie blurted out with her voice raised. She shoved her hand into her purse as several people flinched. She pulled back her hand holding a sheaf of papers.
“I saw the obituary notice in the newspaper about this woman’s death.”
From stunned silence, the congregation of the somber men and women registered bemusement, chagrin, irritation and hostility on their faces as Natalie continued. “I have for a long time been studying the genealogy of my family to find where I placed in the world. I am an adopted child whose birth mother died when I was four years old. All of her papers were kept for me by my mother’s sister. In those papers I found my birth father’s Last Will and Testament.” Natalie placed a set of papers on the minister’s podium. You will see highlighted here that my father mandated in his will for my mother to be interred with him in this military cemetery. My mother was a military wife who moved all over the world as my father was deployed to Alaska, to Argentina, to Germany and Korea. She bore hardships you cannot imagine while hauling her five children with her to all these countries and adapting like an octopus to homes without bathrooms, without running water, without vegetables, for heaven’s sake, so she could keep our family together during the time my father was irreverently sent all over the place by his government. She ultimately died of malaria contracted in Panama in the 1950’s.” Natalie laid down a death certificate for her mother, Martina Louise Christophson.
“Meanwhile,” Natalie continued, “my father was captured in North Korea and left in a camp until his apparent release sometime around 1960, but nobody knew where he was. My brothers and I were separated and raised by various relatives and adoptive parents. My father apparently was released and either did not want his family or was so damaged that he forgot about us. In any case, he remarried this woman lying here today.
However, he never bothered to be divorced before marrying Rene Christophson.
Natalie found the death certificate for her father, Richard Christophson and laid it on top of the podium with her other paperwork.
“Then he died.”
Jerrold, who’d been standing to the side of seating benches spoke up. “Ms., the woman being interred here today was your father’s legal wife, and her name appeared in his will as being buried with him in this veteran’s cemetery."
“But, don’t you get it? So was my mother’s name. Yes, my father was apparently a bigamist, probably through no fault of his own. But my mother is the one who deserves to be buried with him. She went through fifteen years of hell with and for him, all out of love.”
Natalie turned to the grievers in the first row that was dedicated to the immediate family members. “I have nothing against your mother. But my mother was Richard’s legal husband and in the Federal Benefits for Veterans book, you will find that it’s my mother’s right to be buried next to her husband as mandated by his will.” Natalie added the benefits booklet to the stack of paperwork she’d set before the minister, who now stood with his mouth open.
At first the silence was overwhelming. Then a bereaved woman in the front row stood up with a tall man, turned to Natalie and said, “That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. My father was not a bigamist and you obviously have contrived to malign the name of a wonderful human being. Now you get out of here and let us continue in our grief. My mother died. Can’t you see that?”
“If your mother is buried in the same crypt as my father then my attorney will sue the Veteran’s Administration and I’ll go to the newspapers, the television media and anybody else I can find. Everybody will know he was a bigamist. Even though he was my father as well.”
Chaos reigned after that.
Jerrold was not responsible for the Natalie Christophson issue. The Veteran’s Administration would have to hold the ashes of the second Mrs. Christophson in an unmarked crypt until the matter was settled.
Jerrold was grateful this was not a decision he had to make himself--he was uncomfortable with conflict, though he managed to get the people who had come to the first funeral of the day under control. He told them he’d hold the ashes until a decision was made about how the problem could be legally solved.
VA did everything possible to accommodate families. He returned to his office with only a few minutes to spare before the next funeral and gave the paperwork provided by Natalie to Cherrie to duplicate, write an explanation and send to Washington, D.C.
“I admire how you are handling the problem with the two Mrs. Christophsons,” his wife told him. She had waited in the office for him during the first funeral and discussed the missing urn box problem with Cherrie. It broke her heart to know the missing box may be the end of the only job Jerrold had ever loved. It had made him feel valuable. She realized then what a fine man he was and how he didn’t deserve what was sure to occur.
Janet didn’t know what they would do when Jerrold no longer had the job as funeral director. His military retirement would cover their financial needs, but she knew her husband would never overcome his humiliation, and dreaded what the next few days would do to his fragile state of mind.
Natalie, vindicated, made her way back to her Toyota, which she had left unlocked in the seclusion of the cemetery since her purse had been with her at the sham funeral. She saw a forgotten book she’d left on the car seat as she sat inside and slung her purse off her shoulder and placed it on the floorboard.
It wasn’t a book--it was a ceramic box, and larger than most books. She looked around outside to see if somebody was near her car, had mistakenly set the box inside. Could it have been left there intentionally? She recalled disaster movies involving car bombs, which at first frightened her. But this would be the first designer bomb in the universe. She considered if some admirer/stalker had left it for her. Nobody knew she was coming here. Besides, there was a sticker note on its side. “Michael Stanley Smith,” it said, with a bunch of numbers. It looked surprisingly like the box holding the ashes of the sham woman trying to be buried with her father. Rene Whoever.
Natalie watched the mourners of Rene Whoever return to their cars parked along the only drive into the cemetery. A woman in a gray suit with black edging walked with a tissue held to her face. The woman who’d spoken up at the committal shelter turned the opposite way up ahead. Her face was red, hair disarrayed. Two teenagers were crying together as they walked, arms wrapped around each other.
A dark cloud settled over Natalie. She knew she’d added to the grief of the mourners. Three minutes before, she’d felt vindicated. She’d been responsible for bringing justice to her long lost mother that atoned for the years of abandonment she and her four siblings had endured. But that had only lasted three minutes and now she felt bad again, now for those people who’d lost their mother, usurper that she was. Would it ever go away? She sat with her head against the steering wheel. She was tired of hate.
The box in her car was obviously an error. If it was an urn, and it certainly had to be one, somebody had made a terrible mistake. It could be her father in that box, left through somebody’s stupidity in the wrong car. This wasn’t the same as finding a lost wallet.
Her feet felt like cement as she started her car and drove up to the cemetery office
Cherrie was in the middle of filling out a form for an exhumation. She looked up at the woman who stepped through the doorway. The woman was small boned with black curls sprouting around her face, probably caused by the mist outside. Cherrie’s second child’s hair had the same reaction to humidity. “May I help you?”
“Yes. I found this on the seat in my car. I think somebody mistakenly left it there.”
It was not unusual for urns to be carried into the office. But her heart leapt when she saw the box. Could it be the one? She practically ran to the counter. She read out loud, “Michael Stanley Smith.” Tears sprung in her eyes.
Natalie back pedaled to the door, frightened.
On Jerrold’s return from walking Janet to her car, he opened the office door into Natalie, bumping her with the knob. “Oh, sorry. I thought you’d gone. We’ll follow through on your request...”
“Well, I came back to give you this box I found in my car.” Natalie reopened the closed door as she pointed at Cherrie standing behind the urn with a huge teary smile on her face.
“Is that what I hope it is?” He said, and hurried over to the counter. “Oh, thank God, it is.” His mind turned liquid with relief. He looked back at Natalie, standing with a question mark on her face. “You have no idea how important this is.” He knew he should capture the box for fingerprints, call the FBI to question Natalie about the possibility of her taking the box. He quickly weighed that against the publicity the cemetery didn’t need, that VA couldn’t sustain. It seemed like there was no way to make some people happy. The exhumation in progress today was at the request of a woman who had moved her departed husband three times already to improve his “view.” The media had seen fit to deplore the VA’s tactics for mistreating the deceased’s ashes on the third move.
If he called in the authorities, the jobs of all the employees would be at stake, along with an investigation that may run for years. If he did not call them and the issue came up again, the jobs of all the employees would still be at stake. “Would you please give me your phone number and let me verify your address with your driver’s license?” he said to Natalie. “I am quite sure we will be able to rectify the issue with your mother’s burial site. Do the papers you have left us include where she is buried at this time?"
When Harold came by with a donut he’d brought for Cherrie, she shared the news of the found Michael Stanley Smith urn, which Jerrold had returned to its proper place in the columbarium wall. He asked Cherrie if he could take her and her children to Mission Bay park on next Saturday afternoon. He had some toy sailboats the children might enjoy sailing around the bay. If Michael Stanley Smith had not gone missing, he would never have had the opportunity to ask Cherrie this question.
Jerrold went home for lunch. He hadn’t done that in forty five years. He wanted to share the returned urn news with Janet, euphoric, relieved, restored. Still shaky though. He hoped he hadn’t made the wrong decision by not contacting Washington DC.
As they talked about it, she thought how fortunate that Michael Stanley Smith had gone missing
long enough for her to realize what a fine man she’d married. “Sometimes you just have to do what’s practical instead of the letter of the law,” she told him. She recalled a magazine she’d read with an advertisement for hang gliding lessons and rides. Jerrold’s birthday was next month.
Vincent had looked under every shrub along the northwest fenceline from the kiosk to the wilderness area which was inaccessible by car. He saw Harold approach by foot across the grass between the headstones. Suspicion, on a low setting inside him raised to medium heat.
“Vince, they’ve found the missing urn box inside a woman’s car.” He still couldn’t get his head around it.
“Why’d she take it?” Vince snarled.
Harold didn’t seem to notice Vince’s reaction. “Nobody knows. The woman said she found on the front seat of her car and took it to the office. I wanted to catch you before you turned over every leaf on the peninsula. I know how thorough you are.”
Could this be a compliment? “Where were you when it showed up?”
On the other side of the columbarium complex, looking for it. I didn’t want to interfere with the funeral.
“When are the authorities going to show up?” So we can all get fired.
“Well, that’s the thing. Jerrold and I don’t want to lose our jobs, and don’t want you to lose yours either. You’re too valuable to this place.”
Suddenly glad he hadn’t raised his speculation about Harold taking the ashes, Vince didn’t remember the last time gratitude had been in his mind. Harold could be a good guy sometimes. Vince wondered if he’d feel this way about Harold if Michael Stanley Smith hadn’t gone missing. Or been found. Maybe he wouldn’t have to start job hunting again after all. Maybe he wouldn’t have to endure being under suspicion of taking the ashes out of the wall. He knew people would think he’d done it.
Jose finally understood what Vince had told them. The urn had been found so his job was safe. He still had peace in his life to look forward to. While he was looking for the box, he’d decided to take his relatives with him and go to the night school where they could all learn to speak English. His relatives would be able to find jobs if they could speak this language. His own English was not very good. But they all could not continue to live together in this country. They needed peace. The loss of the urn and possibly his job helped him make up his mind about this.
Mitchie was Alejandro’s hero. He wanted to be just like him when he grew up. He would do anything Mitchie told him to. So when Mitchie told him the urn had been found and it was all because of such a thorough search, Alejandro was proud of himself.
He hadn’t felt proud of anything in a long long time. If Mitchie hadn’t told them to search hard for the urn, it never would have been found, even if none of them had actually found it. Mitchie said that sometimes the harder you work the luckier you get. And the luck could come from a direction you never considered. Perhaps from the vanished urn of Michael Stanley Smith.