My mother’s gnome: a memoir of death

After being diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, my mother’s wish was for us to scatter her ashes around a cheap, evil-looking gnome in the back yard.

‘I’m going to possess it,’ she joked.

Milestones marked her progression toward death: lost hair, flaking skin, swollen ankles. ‘These aren’t my feet,’ she said. A blood transfusion for her fiftieth birthday. ‘The best present ever, feels amazing.’

Well, for a week or two.

Lost appetite and a thinning body juxtaposed with a swollen stomach, jaundiced skin.

A hospital bed and pale walls marked the end of her journey. Morphine, bleeding from within—black patches on her back and belly. She was incoherent. Soft moans escaped her body. Death takes far too long.

One last pained, rattled breath.

Her eyes didn’t close, not like they do in movies. Her body the same, but different.

No tears.

Funeral arrangements began and a song needed to be chosen. Dad wanted a song about him, lyrics like ‘his love will go on’ or some crap.

Then came the tears. Unstoppable, endless.

‘What are you crying about?’ he snapped.

‘My mother died!’ I spat, shocking even myself. I’d never yelled at him before. I had always been terrified of my father. Still, I got my way with the song.

Dad ordered the flowers. ‘Whatever they reckon,’ he said. My mother was gentle, young, and kind—a pink lily. I rang the florist to change the order from the default red roses.

After the funeral, a neighbour who was uninterested in my father’s ‘poor me’ story temporarily lost the filter between his brain and mouth.

‘You killed her,’ he said.

My father was dumbfounded.

I was, too, but for different reasons. How did my neighbour know? My father had been killing my mother for the last 25 years.

Then my nightmares began.

She’d been buried alive. They dug her back up, but she was different now. For weeks, no one bothered to tell me she was back. Afterward, she went about her daily chores, looking straight through me. She didn’t love or miss me.

Waking, gasping for breath.

Instant relief when the memory returned—cremated. No chance of being buried alive. Her ashes still in paper bags.

‘Your dad said we’re going to spread your mum’s ashes tomorrow,’ my mum’s identical twin informed me.

‘Where?’ I asked.

‘Around the gnome,’ Aunty said.

‘Oh, she was serious?’

Dad tore open the first bag and shook its contents around the gnome. Then the second. Not much of a family affair, really.

Was that it? Was that all a human life amounted to?

‘Bye, Barbie,’ he whimpered.

Barbie? Must have been a pet name.

I stood a few steps behind Aunty, brother and sister as my father took centre stage, spreading ashes. There’s comfort in being slightly detached. Everyone thinks you don’t feel, so they leave you be.

The smell of my mother’s skin floated toward me—baby powder and roses. The scent didn’t follow the breeze – it meandered over and stayed a little while, a friendly visitor.

Did anyone else notice?

Twice weekly visits to my father seemed like the right thing. Exhausting, though. He met any talk of mum with, ‘Well how do you think I feel?’

Was this a competition? If so, what was the prize?

‘Dad is like a black hole,’ I told my brother. ‘I tear off pieces of my soul every time I see him, and I don’t know how many pieces I have left.’

‘You shouldn’t bother. He bitches about you as soon as you leave.’

No surprise, really. But I wondered if my smile and matching shrug were enough to veil the pain in my chest.

‘That’s good to know. I won’t go back, then.’

They say you can’t run away from your problems, but they’re wrong. My son and I moved two hours east, and my soul’s missing pieces began to regenerate.

Six years passed.

During a conversation with my brother, he mentioned my father had sold the family home a couple years earlier. I wondered if the gnome was still there, forgotten in the long grass.

‘I doubt he’d bother taking it with him,’ my brother said. ‘It wasn’t worth any money.’

I tried not to think about it. No point hunting down a cheap garden gnome, most likely smashed to pieces years ago, forgotten beneath piles of junk at the rubbish tip.

Twice a year I visited Aunty and my brother and made a detour past the old house. Sometimes, I’d stop the car in front of the house and form plans. Maybe I’d come back at night with a torch. Or I could knock on the door and ask?

No, that would be weird.

A martial arts tournament in my hometown led to an additional trip back home. After the tournament, I detoured past the old house, pulling up at the same time as the not-so-new owner. He labored out of his car wearing a stained singlet top, beer-bellied, and carrying a plastic bag full of pies.

It was now or never.

‘Hello! I am the daughter of the previous owner,’ I said. ‘I know it’s a long shot after all this time, but I was wondering if there was a gnome left behind? Just a cheap old thing …’ I was still explaining when he turned and disappeared into the back yard.

I waited. He’d thrown the pies back into his car during my rambling, so I reasoned he’d come back.

He reappeared within a minute and tossed me the gnome. ‘It would have been thrown out next week,’ he said. ‘We’re redoing the garden.’

The gnome sat on the floor of the passenger seat, and I wore a ridiculous grin the entire two-hour drive home.

Old and a little faded, the evil gnome sits in my back yard and observes the cows in the neighbour’s paddock.

There have been no possessions of late.

Image: Martin Knize


13556845_510177469191161_1224695763_n1Denise Mills is a freelance writer and life-enthusiast who blogs at


  • Stacey Trick commented on December 22, 2016 Reply

    Hi Denise, such a lovely story. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing such a personal journey that many of us can relate to in our own ways.

    • Denise commented on February 10, 2017 Reply

      Thank you Stacey 🙂

  • Rich Bowden commented on December 22, 2016 Reply

    An extraordinarily powerful article. Loved it!

  • Denise commented on March 30, 2017 Reply

    Thanks Rich! Much appreciated.

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