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Black Lamb

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Fan on the water

... and ashes to ashes

January 1st, 2016

BY TOBY TOMPKINS

My father died in 1996 in Tucson, Ariz., where he had spent his last years at a rehabilitation facility for addicts of all persuasions. He’d been an alcoholic for many years, but he got Clean and Sober in Tucson, and mostly stayed that way. But he never told me or my brother Mike about a colonoscopy that had revealed the worst. By the time we found out, he was in hospice care, already damned-near dead. He was too stoned on morphine when I finally got to his bedside to talk much, although he gobbled all the chocolates I had brought immediately. The hospice nurse had told me that flowers depressed him, and that he no longer ate anything but sweets, so what the hell.

Dad hadn’t wanted to see me at all when I arrived at the hospital. It took a full day and a sympathetic orderly for me to get into his room and deliver the chocolates. The sugar hit roused him briefly and he told me, mouth pasted with chocolate, that I was a “good son.” I'm not sure he knew which son I was. He died a week or so later.

My brother Mike dealt with the details, flying out from his Transcendental Meditation Center in Washington, D.C. to take charge of Dad’s body and effects. He found the least expensive crematorium in Tucson, fended off the blandishments of its directors pressuring him for a Pharaonic send-off, and got a no-frills deal.

sailboatMeanwhile he and I had contacted our family and Dad’s surviving friends for a memorial service in Falmouth, Mass., to be followed by a scattering of Dad’s ashes into Buzzards Bay. Mike had the crematorium send the sealed plastic box, in my name, to my wife’s art gallery on the east side of Manhattan, because at the time the mail carriers in our home nabe were careless about delivering packages.


Unfortunately my wife had stepped out of the gallery for a moment at the time the package arrived, and one of her colleagues went down to the lobby to accept delivery. He had no idea what was in the package, and when my wife told him, he went into the bathroom and washed his hands for a long time.

I kept the plastic package on a bookshelf behind my desk in New York City during the weeks that followed, as Mike and I communicated through phone calls and letters (Mike didn’t have email) to work out the details of the obituary in The New York Times, the letter to Dad’s Yale Class Secretary, and the memorial service. I got rather fond of the ugly thing. My father had been an elusive son of a bitch throughout most of his life, but for once I knew exactly where he was. Shortly before the memorial service I bought a small urn, a rough-glazed, graceful spheroid fired in the ancient Japanese style that incorporates dried grasses and pine needles in the clay before it goes into the kiln, producing very subtle variations in color and texture.

My wife and I traveled to our vacation cabin in New Hampshire a couple of days before the memorial service, and on the evening we arrived I took a bottle of wine, the box, and the Japanese urn out to my work shed. It was a warm summer evening, and I uncorked the wine and used a box-cutter to open the container. I had a big cooking spoon, and I took a slug of wine and started decanting Dad. The cremains weren’t exactly the pristine white ash I’d anticipated. They were decidedly chunky, with dark, dense, weighty clots that must have been incompletely-burnt bone fragments. In the woodstove of the New Hampshire house, when I shovel out the firebox there are always a few larger chunks in the ashes, so I tried to regard what I was doing as a form of stove-emptying, which, of course, it was, basically. I worked very slowly and carefully, and it took me the whole bottle of wine, and quite a few breaks to leave the shed and wander around feeling peculiar, before I finished transferring the stuff in the box to the urn.

I had the doors to the shed wide open, and some of the matter was indeed fine ash; the breeze lofted a small cloud of the powder each time I poured another spoonful into the urn. The dust of my father settled in the cracks between the shed’s planking, and to this day every time I enter it I know I’m stepping on a little of him. I still use the cook-spoon.

But I finished the job (and the bottle of wine), sealed the Japanese urn with its clay stopper, and staggered to bed, giggling a little insanely. My father had more or less died of alcoholism, and I had to get drunk to put what was left of him into a container dignified enough to be displayed at his memorial service.

One thing my brother told me about his time at the crematorium, however, raised some doubt about exactly what was in the urn. Crematorium officials swear up and down that each corpse is burned individually. In fact, as Mike learned, cut-rate crematoria often don’t fire up their furnaces for each Dearly Departed unless the Bereaved pays for a top-of-the-line casket, foots the rate for a Viewing and a Memorial Gathering in the facility’s chapel, buys one of its urns, and generally sends the body off first-class. If, as Mike did, the Bereaved asks only for the cheapest box (nowadays it isn’t even pine, but some sort of reinforced cardboard), with no Viewing, no Gathering, no urn, the stiff is simply stacked up with the others that have arrived that week, to be burned en masse the way deceased Fidos and Fluffies are disposed of by vets (who also lie about the practice).

Mike made me swear I wouldn’t say a word at the memorial service about the possibility that Dad might not be all there inside the urn, and that he could have equally partial company. For some reason a Mrs. Nussbaum popped up in my mind: a fussy teetotal Reform Jewish woman who suddenly found a good bit of herself intimately commingled with the leavings of an alcoholic, anti-Semitic WASP. And as if that wouldn’t be enough to rile the woman’s ghost (to say nothing of how my father’s spirit might feel upon finding his earthly remnants imbedded with those of an old Jewish lady), Mrs. Nussbaum would be horrified when she learned that her residue was destined to be scattered at sea. She even had a voice, and I heard it the whole time I was decanting the cremains: “Feh! What’s going on here? I never liked the sea! For me, it was always the mountains! If I wanted the sea, I would have died in Florida!” It occurred to me only much later that of course no Jew would ever have allowed herself to be cremated in the first place, for reasons both of tradition and horrible recent history.

I told Mike about Mrs. Nussbaum when we finally met again on the Cape on the weekend of the service and the scattering. He gave me what I had come to recognize, in the years since he had taken up TM full-time, as his Patient Wisdom Look. “Toby,” he said, “it doesn't matter what's in the box.”

Okey-dokey. We met at the Big House. Most of our uncles and aunts and cousins were there, with a few of Dad’s oldest friends (his old girlfriends didn’t show up, thank the Jesus, although they had been duly contacted). Some of the company hadn’t seen one another — or us — for years; a few of them didn’t really like us much and disapproved of Dad’s dissolute life. But Boylston Adams Tompkins, Junior, faults and all, had been a powerful presence in all of their lives, so they all showed up, some to mourn him, some to heave a sigh of relief that he was gone for good this time.

The plan was to display the urn at the memorial service, and next day take the Wheelers’ Herreshoff 12½ out into the bay and pour Dad into the water a quarter-mile or so beyond the harbor mouth, more or less where the start and finish marks for the Quissett Yacht Club races were set up. Uncle Hank Wheeler, an honest lawyer, had named his boat Due Diligence, which is what Mike and I hoped we were practicing in the matter of Dad’s final disposition.

But at dawn on the morning of the service the marine weather forecast was calling for a nor’easter ramping in by afternoon and continuing through the next day. So we had to do things backwards: scatter the ashes first thing, and take the empty urn to the service. And there was a bit of a glitch. Because the Big and Little Houses were full, Mike, Patsy, and I were staying at Patsy’s mother and stepfather’s house in Cataumet, and early that morning I got a phone call from Aunt Sis Barnes. She was in tears. She hated the notion that all of Dad’s residue was going into the drink, and she begged me to save a little to be buried at the family plot in Falmouth, where her mother and father were already interred.

I didn’t tell her my Mrs. Nussbaum fantasy. Falmouth was on the way to Quissett anyway, so I borrowed a cook-spoon from Patsy’s mother Sally Cody, and the three of us drove to the cemetery. We strolled into the place, trusting it was early enough that cemetery workers wouldn’t be around, and when we reached the plot I cut out a little square of turf with my Swiss Army knife, opened the Japanese urn, and ladled a spoonful of Dad into the ground. I tried to be properly respectful, but I was on the verge of demented laughter, thinking that this was the second cook-spoon I’d had to use to decant my father. Patsy seemed a little unhinged as well, and even Mike lost his air of Patient Wisdom for a moment. But we sobered up. I tamped the square of turf carefully down over the dollop of Dad, which reminded me of replacing a divot on a golf course and almost brought the giggles back. We got back to the Quissett house in plenty of time for the trip into the bay.

I hadn’t anticipated that many people would want to come out with us for the scattering, at such short notice. A bit of a sea had already made up, with a strong breeze. But our Wheeler and Preston cousins, with Aunt Judy’s oldest daughter Randy Compton, remembered Dad in variously complicated ways, and they all wanted to sail out to consign his remains (or whoever’s) to the deep. The result was what used to be called a drowning party: far too many people crammed into a small sailboat with no engine, heading into the bay in dicey weather. The only thing that was missing, to make it a perfect final cruise for Dad, was beer. He always called it ballast when I crewed for him, and kept it in the bilges to stay cool. It was only about nine in the morning, and although I wouldn’t have minded a beer or three, I was skippering a boat that didn’t belong to me, and I was nervous about the load and the wind and the sea.

In the event we scudded out into the bay cleanly on a beam reach, and the only person who got wet was Nick Wheeler, who lay on the tiny foredeck snapping photos of the rest of us and getting slapped on the back by the occasional splat of spume. Served him right: I don’t think any of us much wanted our pictures taken. We cleared the light buoy and passed the starting mark. I brought Due Diligence into the wind and let her rock among the big rollers with her mainsail rattling like rain on a tin roof. My wife took the tiller to keep the boat luffed up while I uncapped the Japanese urn, for the second time that morning. Mike and I raised it, bracing ourselves in the heaving boat, waited for a trough in the waves, and emptied it slowly. The lighter ashes floated for a while on the surface, dispersing very gradually. Julie Preston had brought a bouquet of summer flowers, and she tore the petals off and strewed them over the pale pattern of ash on the dark, gleaming bosom of the sea. I remember that Nick Wheeler took several shots of the ash-and-petal pattern. The ashes finally rolled under, but the petals persisted, spreading into a fan of fragile colors. Patsy kept Due Diligence into the wind until the petals finally folded their fan and disappeared.

Coming back could have been interesting, with so many people aboard, if we’d had to beat in. But the wind shifted just enough that we were able to come back on a single tack. I didn’t really think about Dad until after I’d threaded the Herreshoff through the maze of moored boats in the harbor and was setting up to shoot her mooring. When I’d crewed for him in races he’d always made me shoot the moorings, and he was scathing if I came up short, or overshot, having to come about and try again. He wasn’t aboard anymore, but his urn was. I swept the boat at a good clip down alee of the mooring float and about twenty feet away, and as I brought her smartly into the wind I said under my breath, “OK, Dad, help me out here, for once.” Sweet Dewy Dee came up perfectly, with just the right amount of momentum to send her on a glide that petered out exactly at the float, and Nick, back on the foredeck, grabbed the mooring line and secured it. Thanks, Dad.

The memorial service was a bit of a blur. I spoke, my brother spoke, other family members spoke. The young Episcopalian minister didn’t know Dad from Adam, but she delivered the Service for the Dead from Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer in a gracious, heartfelt manner, and the organist soothed us with Bach. There was a reception at the Big House and we all got a little drunk and told Dad stories. The threatened nor’easter rolled in by early evening, and Patsy, Mike, and I left with Sally and Bill Cody to spend a second night at their Cataumet house. I gave back the cook-spoon to Patsy’s mother, but I’m not sure she kept it.

I’d resented Nick a little for taking photos of us on the way out, as if we were going on a picnic. But I’d forgiven him when he photographed the strange, beautiful pattern of bright petals fanned over the floating ashes. He was a professional photographer, and although his specialty was architecture, I knew the pictures would be beautiful. But although I’ve seen his shots of us all in the boat, Nick insists that he never took any of the flowers-and-ash pattern. I trust his word. The whole day had been extremely weird, and although I’d been stone sober, I was tired and not in a normal mental state. Quite possibly I invented the memory of Nick carefully framing the lovely fan on the water, because I wanted him to have captured that moment. Memories can be friends, but sometimes they’re false ones. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: 13th Anniversary Issue, Tompkins | Link to this Entry

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