Wednesday, May 8, 2013

From dirt and cinders we come, and thus return

My family spread almost all of my father's ashes along with the remaining ashes of his father in mid-April. There was barely a plan.

I had always blamed poor planning on my dad, but now can see that we all contributed. At any rate, I felt that spreading his ashes would help provide some kind of closure, whatever that means.

After the chaos of his sudden death last June and the durecho (intense summer storm) the night after he was found dead, I have to admit that I was a little on edge the week leading up to this event.

It didn't help that we had a dramatic shift from winter weather to temps in the mid-90's just days before the family gathering. I know the weather isn't personal, but it was unnerving. This was barely April! What else could possibly go haywire?

Somehow, we managed in our messy, poorly communicated ways, to pull off something that felt like something meaningful in memory of our dad.

Ingredients included a medium-sized box of Dad's ashes, a "sippy cup" with the remaining ashes of his father, four living generations, two vehicles, the farm, two railroad stations, bubbles, a white weeping cherry tree, a dead log, and assorted readings. Of course, there was the obligatory family meal. Humor. Dry as the ashes.

In two vehicles, the generations piled in and went to the Point of Rocks train station. A dead hawk was in between the eastbound tracks. We walked closer to the iconic station and flung ashes.

Pap, his father, loved trains and kept track of time by which train whistle blew in the valley. In his youth, Dad got off at the Point of Rocks train station from Washington DC to visit his grandparents on the farm he would later live and die on. Passenger trains pricked Dad's consciousness as he saw how people were treated based on their skin color. Trains were powerful. They were his ticket to  freedom.

As my grandson shook out ashes from a coffee scoop (both men lived on stiff, black tarry coffee), he looked the part as if they were casting for the Little Lebowski. We all took turns flinging the remains of these old men across the track so bits and pieces might hitch a ride back "home" - to DC - where both men had been born.

From there, we took the back roads to Harpers Ferry, WV and spread a few more ashes. Just as we got there, the eastbound Amtrak train pulled in. All aboard.

Back to the farm, we had lunch where generations of both sides of my parents' families ate in the very same room with a view of Sugarloaf Mountain to the east and the Catoctin Mountain to the west. The day was beautiful and not too hot or cold.

After lunch, my brother-in-law had prepared the site for planting the tree.

We read original writings from Dad and one of my sisters, Wendell Berry's Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, the Quanglewangle Quee and verses from Job.

More ashes were dumped in the hole and around the tree. Bubbles were blown. An old tree trunk cut to sit on was placed near the tree with the "Crumpity Tree" written on it - a phrase of the childhood poem from the Quanglewangle Quee that every child who grew up in the family or farmed out to stay with us heard him read.

As I watched my grandson pour out the ashes, I couldn't help but think that he didn't really have a clue as to what was going on. But then, I wasn't sure I did either.

Except, I felt like I could finally let go and that he could finally rest in peace. He wasn't sitting in a box on a shelf indefinitely. It was spring and he was outside. Maybe now his sinuses wouldn't bother him. No more ongoing angst about where the money was coming from for the next crop or bill. No more worrying about when or who or how we would get around to putting this man's soul to rest. 

So this was closure.

After a lifetime of tending fires on that farm to keep the house warm, of tilling and planting the soil, and of his own inner turmoils that kept him bound to struggle, perhaps he was finally at peace under the weeping cherry. As I saw the great grandson he called Alex the Great-Great, I could only hope that this be so for all of us.


  1. I find it refreshing to not know what is going on!

  2. And Susan playing Beethoven's 5th on the nose flute. Now that's classy!