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What's In Here?
Mike Newland's young daughter becomes curious about the contents of a family urn.

By Mike Newland

"What's in here?" My daughter has pulled down an ornate brass container the size of a plum from our entryway shelf. I look up and see what she has. I'm exhausted and ready for a hot shower and bed. She holds the vessel, looking at me, waiting.

"That, Boo, is your brother. The ashes."

My daughter looks at it. She asks if we can open it.

"No, Hon," I say. "That is not for opening."

She chews her lip. She looks at the photo next to the urn, of Alex, his hand draped across my pinky finger. She asks if it's her brother. I look at the photo and back at her. "Yes," I say, "it is." I tell her to hold onto my pinky. "See how big your hand is? Look how small his hand is. Tiny."

She wraps her warm, sticky hand around my pinky, looks at it, and looks at the photo.

I consider turning away. I can't help it, tears are streaming down my face. I watch her, her strong, sticky little hand, giant, at age five, compared to her brother's. I don't turn away. There are times when it is good for your children to see you cry, that there are things that even parents weep over.

If she sees me crying, she doesn't say it. She gently puts the urn back, and pokes through the dish next to the urn, the small pebbles from the beach, pieces of red abalone shell, the onesie with the blood stain on it. She silently inspects it, making her own small inventory, and climbs down.

We do this, now, the introduction of difficult topics, she circles them like a young lioness sizing up a wounded wildebeest. Her brother. The divorce with her mother. Where her sister's biological parents are. The dead cat in the nearby empty lot. She grazes them, tests the strength of them, tracks them. We let her ask. Each new question reflects an absorption, an understanding, not full comprehension, but an awareness, the pull of the hide under her paw.

With a Perspective, this is Mike Newland.

Mike Newland is an archaeologist at the Anthropological Studies Center at Sonoma State University.

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