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[whitespace] Urn Niches
Photograph by Skye Dunlap

Good Grief: The 'Community Niche' section of the Lima Family Mortuary in Fremont, where the author visited his father's urn.

Ashes to Ashes

How does a young man honor his father's life without winding up just like him?

By Justin Berton

WE WERE INSIDE my apartment above the Mission Ale House on the corner of Santa Clara and Third Street, and the only window in the place was wide open because it was the middle of July, three summers ago, and the fan wasn't working, I can remember.

We were on my bed kissing, rolling around, using the webs of our toes to push the leather sandals off our feet, gnawing at each other's necks, laughing and snickering, feeling silly because we were running late for something important and somehow we started talking--on the level--because we had been going out a few weeks now, and that's what people do after a few weeks: they start talking on the level.

We told goofy stories about our childhoods. We talked about our parents. And we talked about who we thought we really were, as people, and she told me about her father, a roaming motorcycle man, and I told her about my father, a stationary family man, and I started to share--really share--the story of how my father died, on the Saturday morning before Father's Day, back when I was 11 years old.

I was about to tell her one of the darkest secrets of my life. I was the one who found his body. I barely remembered him at all. After he died, no one ever visited his gravesite. I still had not been there myself.

"How'd he die?"

"A heart attack."


"He was a smoker," I said.

Our faces were two inches apart. We shared breath.

"A smoker?" she asked. "But you smoke, don't you?"

I grinned.

"You're a fucking moron!" she screamed.

More silence.

Then she laughed some more, right in my face.

    You remember the small things first. The day I asked him to take off the training wheels on my bike and he didn't even use a wrench, just his bare hands. The day I came home with stolen baseball cards from 7-Eleven and he made me return them. The day I asked him for a sip of his beer and he said yes.

I GREW UP THINKING my dad came from a planet named New Jersey.

He had no brothers or sisters. He had no parents. He had no friends. I didn't know where he came from or how he landed in my house, but this guy, he spent a lot of time sitting on the porch smoking cigarettes.

He had to have a story. This is what I learned. In 1920 a woman named Angela Teresa Giustina left San Vito de Cadore, a small mountain town in northern Italy, to come to the United States. Her brothers had already made the journey, bypassed the East Coast and settled in Oregon. Why Teresa left is uncertain. Some rumors followed her here; rumors that said she was mischievous and was forced to leave. Others know that food was so scarce in San Vito de Cadore during winter that Teresa's father carried the key to the bread box in his pocket.

Teresa met her brothers in Oregon, but after two years decided to go back to Garfield, New Jersey, where other Italian immigrants had forged a community. There she met a man named Angelo Bertoncin, a recent widower who was raising two teenage sons. On Sept. 27, 1927, Teresa married Angelo. And eight months later my father was born, named Egidio Santi Bertoncin.

In 1930, with her new son just 2 years old, Teresa died, reportedly of tuberculosis. Then, in 1932, Angelo died in a sanitarium--according to his death certificate, of tuberculosis, too.

My father was 4 years old and he, along with his two older half-brothers, was delivered to a "church home."

After a short stay, the three boys were given away to two women, sisters, who owned a nearby farm. There are no adoption papers left behind, and it's widely believed by family members that the two older boys were happily taken as farmhands and my father was tossed into the deal because he was cute. The two sisters also changed my father's birth name to Edwin Henry Berton; their father's name had been Edwin Henry as well.

The only experience my dad had on the farm that I can remember hearing about had to do with dogs. Dogs, my father said, were used to herd animals. They weren't meant to amuse people, and that's why our family wasn't allowed to get a dog. Dogs weren't supposed to be kept in backyards. They needed to run free.

According to some oral accounts, an Italian uncle named John took a train from Oregon to New Jersey to search for his nephews. When he arrived, the story goes, there was no paperwork and no leads. The uncle returned to Oregon.

When my father came of age, the sisters who owned the farm gave him an option: study agriculture at Rutgers University or move on.

My father studied for two semesters and moved on to San Francisco.

Justin and Edwin Berton
Dad Company: Author Justin Berton (left) with his father, Edwin, two years before his death.

    You remember the big things, too. The time he said he wouldn't go to my baseball game if I got a bad grade, and when game day arrived, preceded by the bad grade, I looked up from the pitcher's mound in the middle of the fifth inning and saw him hiding behind a tree. He had a smoke cupped in his hand.

HE GOT TO San Francisco in 1947 with no money, lived on crackers and peanut butter, then found a variety of jobs: bank teller; mechanic at United Airlines; maintenance guy at Shasta Water Company. He served in the Korean War, behind a desk, then came back to the city and took accounting classes at USF.

At Shasta he met my mother, Josephine Martinez. "All the ladies were saying, 'That Ed Berton, he's so handsome,'" my mom recalls. But at first glance she wasn't impressed. She didn't think he was Catholic. "He looked Protestant."

My father asked her out several times until she finally agreed to go bowling with him. On the big night, he arrived at her flat prompt and polite. "And by the time we got to the bowling alley," my mother told me, "I knew I'd marry him."

They moved to San Jose on Halloween night, 1965, and started a family; my sister Edi, my sister Joanna and then me, in 1971.

Growing up, I was curious about my dad. He acted different from the other fathers who lived in our cul-de-sac in south San Jose.

Other dads had briefcases. My dad had a toolbox. Other dads wore ties. My dad had shirts that said "Ed" on the front pocket. Other dads got home just in time for dinner. My dad got home at 4:30pm and started dinner. Other dads had clean hands. My dad's hands were always dirty.

Other dads were young. Mine was old.

My dad had gray hair that he swept over to one side and lots of wrinkles. He got tired easy and went to bed early. He didn't like to toss the ball much.

My dad wore fishing hats, but he didn't fish.

Instead of a front lawn, like everyone else, my dad tended to his fluffy dichondra.

When energy prices soared, my dad boarded up the living room with sheets of plywood. He turned the room into a walk-in freezer and was very proud of the accomplishment.

When he drove the car, sometimes he kept a can of Burgie beer smoothly tucked in between his legs.

He once brought home a huge cable spindle, turned it on its side and used bits of tile to make a mosaic table.

When he poured concrete around an olive tree in the backyard, he used a light color mix and added in round stones. The backyard looked like cement ice cream with bubble gum chunks.

He built bookshelves in my sister's room and painted them avocado green with gold trim.

He collected stamps, coins.

He was quiet. He smoked all the time.

By day, he worked for a vending business, tending to cigarette machines, pool tables and, sometimes, video games. Our garage had a few cue balls and air hockey pucks lying around, and every once in awhile a busted video game with a blank screen appeared. When it did, I'd pull on the joystick and press the buttons and wonder if we could keep it.

When I was 9 years old, my dad went for the big score. He bought his own vending machines and spotted them all over the Bay Area. He named his business J.E.B. Enterprises, for the first letters of all our family members. But my father didn't sell smokes or good times on a pool table. He sold horoscopes.

There was a time, before Rob Brezsny, when horoscope seekers had to find a machine, usually in a Denny's lobby or at the entrance of a video arcade, plop down a quarter and get their sign's monthly scroll.

These one-legged black machines filled the edges of our garage like terra-cotta soldiers. Inside our house, white boxes stamped "Libra" and "Capricorn" were scattered around. Each white box was filled with scrolls for the month. The scrolls sold well in the East Bay, he said.

Every Saturday and Sunday morning my father headed out on his route to fetch quarters from his machines. When he returned in the late afternoon, he'd empty sacks of coins into a pyramid on the kitchen table. Our family would gather around to count and roll quarters for the bank.

I was happy to see him. He always smelled like he was burning.

Edwin Berton

    You remember the strange things. The time I was playing baseball across the street, at Erikson Elementary, and a line drive smacked me straight in the mouth, dropped me like I had been shot, and when I opened my eyes, mouth full of blood and tears, he was above me, and he picked me up, furry arms, and he carried me home. I could feel him run.

ON SATURDAY mornings, before he left on his route, my father woke up early and came home with a box of Winchell's doughnuts. Old-fashioned, glazed, jelly-filled, cinnamon twists. One Saturday he didn't get out of bed.

I slept on the top of a banana-colored bunk bed in a room in the back of the house. My father snored so loud, my parents told me, that he wasn't going to sleep with Mom anymore. So, for a couple of months, my father slept in the bunk below me.

I had offered him the top bunk many times. I was scared of rolling out of the bed during my sleep and falling to the floor. Also, I thought it would be funny to see my dad sleep on the top bunk. He always declined, and every night I went to bed--he turned in early, even before me, an 11-year-old--I found him passed out, snoozing and gasping for air, and I'd pass right by and crawl up top.

When my father left in the mornings he made no noise and I never woke up, never peeked, never even stirred. When morning came, I'd look down to find the bunk below empty. It was like magic. Every morning.

One night, I heard something loud from below and it was my father's snoring again. I punched my pillow and yelled, "Shut up".

The snoring got so loud it shook the wooden bed. I rolled over on my stomach and pulled my pillow over my head really hard. "Shut up" I yelled, this time into the mattress.

When morning came, I awoke on my back. I could see the white specks of asbestos on the ceiling. Like cottage cheese. Or the moon's surface. Whatever.

But something was not right; I could feel it. I wasn't alone. I looked to the door. It was closed. A "Happy Birthday Dad" sign was still there from last month. The night before my dad turned 55, my sisters and I had made happy birthday signs and hidden them everywhere he would find them: in his car seat; in the pockets of his blue bath robe, the one that was bleached in the front from chlorine; in the refrigerator on top of his six pack; on the bedroom door.

I glanced to my right, toward the clock on the dresser. It was 7am, 8, maybe?

I gripped the side of the bed and swung my head over the side. My head hung upside down.


He was still in bed. My father's eyes were open slits, his mouth wide open. Yellow teeth, gold cavities. He wore a white V-neck t-shirt. Curly chest hairs. Boxer shorts. Hairy legs. Why did he wear shorts under his pants?

I jumped down from my bunk. I got on my bare knees and knelt next to him. If you want to check if someone is dead, I'm thinking, put a mirror up to their mouth. I saw it on TV. I shook his body.


I put my open palm over his mouth. I wasn't convinced. If you want to know if someone is dead, touch them: they'll be cold. My dad told me that. I asked him, out on the porch one day, what was the grossest thing he had ever seen in his entire life. He said when he was driving out to California he passed a car wreck and the driver's body had been thrown into a ditch. There was some blood. But how'd you know he was dead? I had asked. His body was cold.

I put my right hand on my dad's cheek and it was cold, stubbly. It wasn't that cold, though. I put my other hand on his neck. It was cold. But no blood.

I put my ear on his chest and shook him by the arms. "Dad? Dad? Wake up. Wake up?" His chest was empty.

I ran out of my bedroom, into the middle of the hallway. The door to my mother's room was open. She was getting dressed, still in her underwear.

"Mom!" I shouted. "I think Dad's dead."

Screaming. "Honey don't say that."

She ran past me into the bedroom. "Ed, Ed, Ed, wake up. Wake up, wake up!"

    You remember the funny things. The way he held you up and did his Donald Duck impersonation into your ear. The way he always, always, burned the hamburger buns. The time he walked in the house, straight-faced and dripping wet, after he had fallen in the pool.

MY DAD never did wake up. The ambulance driver could only take one other family member besides my mom, and my mother picked me. My sisters stayed home and cleaned the house. I put on the blue tracksuit I got for Christmas.

At the hospital they let me and my mother see him one last time before they took him away to wherever they take dead people. I sat with my mom in a beige room with a large round table while we waited for a doctor to come get us.

They led us into a bright room and my father was lying on a gurney with his head propped up, a white sheet covering his body up to his shoulders. His hair was combed back. He looked like he was still sleeping.

I went to one side of my father and my mother went to the other. My mother, weeping, used the palm of her hand to gently lift my father's eyelids. "I want to see his blue eyes," she said. "Do you see how blue his eyes are?"

My father's eyes were like polished blue rocks, looking straight up into the light. After a minute or two, my mother slid her hand down his face and his eyes were closed again.

We got to cry for a while and then they said we should leave. My mom and I got a ride home with the coroner. He had gray and white hair, like my father's, and he pushed it over to one side, just like my dad did. I sat in the front seat. We drove north on Santa Teresa Boulevard, back to our home. The coroner didn't talk much. But he did say, "This day will change your life."

    You remember hard things. The time he made me return my trumpet after I ditched lessons. The sobbing in the car on the drive to Reik's Music, the begging and pleading, the promising that I wouldn't skip anymore lessons. The solid tone in his voice when he just said no.

I STARTED SMOKING at age 14. We found a cigarette in the gutter. It was crinkled a little bit in the middle. We rode our bikes to the park and bent down under the wooden table. We lit it with matches and tried inhaling. We both coughed. And when one of the big kids showed up, he said if we wanted a whole pack, we could go up to the Laundromat next to Alpha Beta and get them from the machine for 75 cents. Since I was the only one who could go to Alpha Beta without asking my mom, I rode up there, waited until no one was standing by the machine, and bought a soft pack of Marlboro reds like it was a soda pop. When I got back to the park, we coughed for an hour before we got it right.

By the time high school came, I was proud to be smoking Phillip Morris. College was a time for Marlboro Reds and afterward came Camel Lights. Cloves were somewhere in between.

I had the most fun smoking on cold days. I liked smoking at night, too, with drinks. I didn't smoke much in the morning, but I did if I drank coffee.

I smoked one in my car and when I got where I was going. I smoked one after meals, of course, and then, after a few years, started smoking one before meals, too.

I learned how to blow smoke rings quite well. I also learned how to do the slight-of-hand trick that magicians do, where it looks like you're smashing a cigarette up your nose. I always exhaled out my mouth. I didn't like how it looked when it came out someone's nose.

Once, I smoked while I showered, with one hand hanging out the curtain, just to try it. It worked.

I smoked until my teeth turned yellow. I smoked until my fingertips were stained. I smoked until my lungs hurt.

But I wouldn't smoke in front of my mother. She had started smoking again the night my dad died, when the house was full of people crying and smoking. And then she gave it up a few years later. My sister Edi was already smoking before my dad's death. She was smoking strong. My sister Joanna, the jock in high school, started smoking in college. That was a surprise. But when it came to holidays, I'd hide, walk around the block, do it where they couldn't see me.

Yet every time I bought a pack of smokes, I briefly thought of my father. I couldn't remember what his voice sounded like anymore, but I could see his face, buried under his blue fishing hat and hidden behind his tinted glasses. Each time I unwrapped the cellophane from a new pack, I saw him. I always unwrapped fast.

One afternoon, I bought a pack of Camel Lights at a 7-Eleven and started unwrapping the box as I walked out. I tried to toss the wad of cellophane into the trashcan, but I missed.

In that one moment, my mind imagined the cellophane drifting into the wind, away from me and around the corner, and landing in my father's grave. I knew he wasn't buried.

Josephine and Edwin Berton
Smoke Gets In: The author's parents, Josephine and Edwin Berton, circa 1955 when a cigarette was a fashion accessory.

    You remember the smoking things. You can feel the scrunching of a soft pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket when you sat on his lap and hugged him. You can see the mounds of butts tossed over the wall near the porch. You can smell his wiry mustache with nicotine stains under his nostrils, like a dragon.

ON A FRIDAY night in July 1999, after 12 years of smoking, I tried to quit. I had thought about it, frankly, every time I smoked. But every time I smoked I thought about my dad, which was about the only time I chose to think about him. And I was reluctant to give that up.

I was living in Denver, Colorado, and a colleague at the newspaper asked me to house-sit for the weekend. He lived up in the foothills at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and I thought it might be a good place to kick my habit.

I recalled an interview with Burt Reynolds on Entertainment Tonight where Burt confessed that whenever he wanted to kick a prescription drug addiction--and, according to Burt, he had many--he'd go up to his cabin for a weekend, lock all the doors and come back Monday morning healed. Here I sat: I wanted to be like Burt Reynolds.

The house was a well-worn mountain home, not unlike the kind in the Santa Cruz mountains. I was welcome to enjoy myself, but I was also there to help feed a small zoo. My friend's three children had several animals: three guinea pigs, two dogs, a hamster, one parakeet and one very rare African frog.

The frog, I learned, needed to be fed crickets through a long tube. Guiding the tube into the frog's mouth took a good amount of skill and grace. I found a note on the kitchen counter from the 8-year-old owner of the frog, explaining the physics of feeding the frog. I was terrified every moment I stayed in the house that I would flub the ritual and starve the frog to death. For inspiration, I assume, the frog's owner left behind a cupcake, baked just for me.

That night I took a walk around my colleague's house. Here he was, author, respected journalist, father of three. His children's toys were thrown around, their art projects taped to the refrigerator.

I browsed his bookshelf and instantly recognized the names of the first three authors. Not because I'm fabulously well read, but because I worked with them at the newspaper. All of them, I noted, nonsmokers.

I walked outside to the wooden balcony in the silence. The darkness of the mountain air swept into me. I took a seat in a white plastic patio chair and listened.

And then I wanted it. I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to breathe. I wanted to keep breathing as long as I could breathe, great big breaths, forever and ever. I wanted to breathe so long that I could teach my children--children?--yeah, children--to breathe right along with me. I didn't want these children, my children, to find me dead, in my underwear, in a bunk bed.

I sat in that patio chair for an hour or two, wishing such a wonderful fate upon myself, puffing smoke after smoke, and then I realized, Hey dummy--quit smoking.

By the time I came down the mountain Sunday night, I had told my dad, several times, this is where we had to take different paths. I wanted to live now. I wanted to remember him, to honor him, but I didn't want it to come when I was busy unwrapping a new pack of cigarettes.

On the way home I stopped at the only music store in town and bought a used Yamaha trumpet for $150.

And the frog lived.

On Monday morning I announced to all of my co-workers, especially the ones I took smoke breaks with, that I had quit smoking. After work they said, "Cool, let's go out for drinks." Sure, I said, smacking on a ball of cinnamon chewing gum. "I quit smoking."

Two cold pints later, I asked my friend Laura for a cigarette.


Give me a cigarette.

What about quitting?

What about it?

I took one cigarette, then another. Winstons. Smoked all night. Drank all night. I couldn't stop.

Humiliation woke me up the next morning. I lay in bed, my mouth and throat scorching as if I had sucked on a roasted tobacco leaf while I slept. I glanced up at the ceiling. Cottage cheese. Moon's surface. Whatever.

That was my last cigarette. I knew I was finished. There was no grand announcement or final proclamation to make. I don't remember what it tasted like or what it looked like when I snuffed it out. It was a slow murder getting to that last cigarette.

I had been trying to smoke it for 12 years.

YOU DON'T SMOKE for two years. You write about your father's death and you feel like a schmoe. You suddenly notice everyone else's memoirs popping out at you. It's like a car you're thinking about buying. They are everywhere. You obsess on it. You read other memoirs; you read memoirs about memoirs, memoirs inside memoirs, memoirs outside memoirs.

You say every inch of the way: "I'm sorry, Dad-- I never meant for your life to be a memoir." You say: "I apologize for everything; I apologize for nothing. This is where we had to go."

You look at old pictures of him and he looks so young, like a man you don't remember at all. You wonder what he was like with the other guys in the photos, his friends and family. You wonder what he was like when he was your age.

Every night you try to write about your dad, you dream of smoking again. Long, fragrant white sticks of anesthetic, curling underwater hair of smoke. You believe, somewhere, that writing abut him will bring him back to life, like a match to a cigarette. You hope it will.

And one morning you realize, after having all these thoughts, why you decided to write this story in the first place.

You have to go visit him.

THE SATURDAY BEFORE Memorial Day, I call to make sure he is really there. The lady on the other end of the phone, in a sweet voice, says, "Oh, yes, he's here. Edwin H. Berton. He's in our Community Niche. I'll show where that is when you get here."

That morning I awaken with a sharp pain in my back, between my left shoulder blade and spine. It is if an intruder had come in during the night, stabbed me with a dagger, twisted it one half-turn and then knocked off the handle. Hours later, I cannot get the blade out. I walk hunched over and frozen.

We get in the car and she drives. She being the one from the beginning of the story. She drives north on 680, such a wide freeway, and the green foothills to the east look like they are hiding behind sheets of tracing paper.

I had never gone to Fremont on my own because it always seemed so far from San Jose. It seemed like I'd have to make a whole day out of it. It was like when people asked, "How long ago did your father die?" I always said, "Twelve years ago." At first I was adding a couple years to give them comfort in the distance. And then I just got used to it. It came to me as we drove.

My dad's been dead 18 years. Eighteen years. Where have I been?

And then Scott Creek Road. We have arrived, even though it seems like we have just gotten in the car. And then we are inside the lobby and the lady with the sweet voice recognizes mine. "You called earlier," she says. "Come with me. I'll show you."

I had always imagined a giant slab of swirled marble block with a solid bronze plaque that read: Edwin H. Berton. I had always assumed they'd misspelled his last name, put in a U where the E belongs. They always do.

The lady with the sweet voice leads us down a peaceful hallway, soft carpets, and we walk toward one of those bright rooms with the swirled marble blocks and bronze plaques, just like I had imagined, just like I had seen in the movies. And before I can follow her any further, she stops.

Just past the entrance, she points to a piece of marble down near the floor. The marble is crowded with tiny little nameplates, nameplates the size you find on a bowling trophy. They are all jumbled, too, silver ones mixed in with gold ones. Some plates are missing.

"This is the Community Niche," she says. "Now let's take a look." We all bend down to our knees and look. And look. And look. "He should be here," the woman says. All of us scan once more. "I don't see him, do you see him?"

I don't see him.

"I'll go get some help," she says.

And just then, there he is.

Off to the far right. Just below Ralph I. Curtis, and just above David Hunt.

Edwin H. Berton. Spelled correctly.

I sit back in a chair and notice for the first time that there's a big fat W in the middle of my dad's first name. And his name on the plate--it isn't centered. It's a little higher than the rest. My sister, a graphic designer, will notice that right away. I wonder if my other sister will come visit now that I have done this. She lives so far away now. I hope my mom comes here. She's never been here either. I wish they were all here, right now. This is where he ... lives?

So this is the Community Niche, I think to myself. He's been here 18 years. "Niche" sounds so cozy. He hated crowds. He wouldn't like it here ...

What is this thing, I think again. It's ridiculous is what it is. After he died, we had a family vote to decide what to do with him. Two of us wanted to keep him in an urn or a box, and the other two wanted to spread his ashes, maybe in the waters off the Marina, that piece of San Francisco he so loved. With the vote split 2-2, my mom vetoed and my dad landed here, in the Community Niche. But now I'd like to change my vote. I want him out of here.

I can feel the pain in my back tighten. It says I was wrong not to wake up when I was 11 years old, sleeping in the bunk above you and you were dying, Dad. It says, I knew you weren't snoring, somewhere in my being, and I should have done something. It says I should have awakened you, to save you.

It says you'd be alive right now if it wasn't for me.

Tears run from eyes. They jump off my cheeks and onto the floor with what seem like loud splats, a whole bunch of them. I did not know what would happen here today. But like the coroner said to me on the morning after my father's death: my life will never be the same again.

Let's free him, I think wildly. Let's bust him out of this place right now. This is ridiculous. He's not really back there behind that slab of marble at all. I bet if I open it, there's nothing in it at all. I'm strong enough now. I can breathe right. I want to open it--goddamn it. I could open it if I wanted to.

But I don't feel him here. That lady was wrong. My dad, I realize, is not here at all.

    You remember where he really lives, but it takes some time. You remember the day he took you to get your hair cut in downtown San Jose, at Stanley Warner's barbershop on Second Street. You remember sitting in the chair first, and then him going second. You remember him making funny faces at you while he sat in the chair with his hair combed backward. You remember all the guys joking around, laughing. You remember wanting to run away, outside and into the street, for no good reason at all and every good childish reason in the world. But you jump into his lap instead, and sit there forever.

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From the June 14-20, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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