Richard G. Stern, writer and educator, died on January 24, 2013 at age 84.
The protagonist of Stern’s story “Packages”—who closely resembles the author himself—travels from Chicago to New York for his mother’s memorial service.
An out-of-town friend has offered the use of his apartment. After the service, when the narrator returns to the apartment with the “package” of his mother’s ashes, wrapped in brown paper, he notices the trash ready for collection lining the street. No one else is around. He leaves the package in a carton, goes to the door of the apartment, returns to the street and covers the package with a newspaper, heads to the apartment again, changes his mind again, and returns to the street yet again. He unwraps the package and tries to open the “silvery can,” without success. He puts it back in the carton, covers it with newspaper again, and adds “a plastic sack of rinds and fish bones.”
Much of the rest of this short story consists of memories of the protagonist’s mother and father at the end of their lives, especially of his mother—his exasperation mingled with grudging affection. At the end, carries on a one-sided conversation with her:
And: why not?
You were a child of the city. Born here, your mother born here. If I could have pried it open, I would have spread you in Central Park. But this way is better than a drawer in that Westchester mausoleum. Foolish, garish anteroom to no house. Egyptian stupidity.
And it was the practical thing to do.
Wasn’t it, Mother?
Richard Stern is a marvelous writer. His books have traveled with me on many moves, making the cut when others had to be left behind. But when I read this story again, for the first time since it appeared in a 1980 collection, I felt a chilling sadness. Anteroom to no house. So don’t be a chump. Toss the can in the trash. Cover with a plastic sack of rinds and fish bones. Why not?
Is something more going on? Does the narrator protest too much, perhaps because he knows what he did was wrong? And at the end, he is talking to his mother. So one question leads to another, and the books of one year to the books of the next.
Or is it, as Kurzweil imagines, to next year’s digital texts—and beyond texts, to our own transformation into pure information? For now we read through a monitor darkly, but one day we shall read face to face.