On Sunday, we said farewell to my mother at St. John’s Church on Floral Avenue. It was not a sad event but one in the spirit of a woman who, over decades of tennis, won many trophies but was always proudest of winning “Best Partyer” seven times. Hundreds attended along with more members of my immediate family than I’d seen since her hundredth birthday and whom I know I shall not see together again in this life. My mother was the last of the World War I generation and the last with enough spirit to draw us all into the same town. Her ashes were there with us beneath a cloth at the altar.
At the reception, stories were told and memories shared as is the way of such things. At one moment I stood back from it all and, looking on, thought of Christopher Wren’s epitaph in the middle of the great St. Paul’s cathedral that he had built in London:
“Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (“If you seek a monument, look around you”)
And there we all were; not for the first but certainly for the last time. And after a bit, we all dispersed, friends and family alike, back to our separate lives as is the way of such things.
Last week while helping my family sort, box, and clear out her apartment I’d opened a locked panel in the desk that was by her right hand whenever she rested in her chair. Inside was a small clear container of coarse ash. On top was a nameplate with my father’s name on it. He’d died over 40 years before but was never replaced in her heart or her life and was, as I had just learned, never very far away from her.
* * * * *
On Monday it was a fine and cool morning in Chico and Tom and Jeff and I went to a place in Bidwell Park where she used to love to picnic with us and with my father. There we blended the ashes of our parents and, taking turns, spread them onto the grass and under the oaks and upon the stream.
And then we were orphans. But not, we know, for long.
I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you. — Whitman
When my father died I took his ashes to a place in Paradise where I put them into a stream higher up in the same canyon system…
The place we have come to is where the pines lean out
from the rounded boulders lodged above the stream;
where what the stream saves builds up in the backwater,
making in the mounds of matter an inventory of the year:
Rusted tins slumped under the fallen sighs of weeds,
diminishing echoes of the blackbird’s gliding wings,
laughs buoyed in the hollow belly of stunted trees,
gears, tires, the bones of birds, brilliant pebbles,
the rasping whoosh of leaf fall crushed to dust,
the thunk of bone on bark, the thud of earth on wood,
the silence of soft ash scattered on chill waters.
Is this life all that is and, once life lost,
the end of all that was, with nothing
left to be, with no pine wind to taste,
nor sun to dapple mind with dream?
Is all that is but ash dissolving,
our lives mere rain in circles falling?
Or are we still the center of such circles,
our fall a rise above the shawl of night,
where all shall shine contained within
that single soul, that heart of stars;
that interface where souls and suns
and Earth’s far scattered waters meet?
Meet in that one hand whose palm
still remains held out forever,
held out and for forever holding us
even in the coldest light of day. — For My Father
So long for now. See you both a little further down the road.