Saturday, March 28, 2015

Poetry Saturday: What to Do with the Ashes

It's strange to see Holy Week just on the horizon.  I am still in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind.  I am still wrestling with the idea that we do all we do, only to come to dust.  It does seem to be a bit late for this existential crisis.  Or maybe, here at midlife, it's a crisis come just on schedule.

I read Roz Chast's Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, about the decline and death of her very old parents.  At the end, she talks about deciding what to do with her parents' ashes.  They sit in their separate boxes in her closet.

She thought about dumping them somewhere, but she had problems with all of the possibilities.  I loved this sentence:  "Throwing their ashes off the side of a boat makes as much sense to me as tossing them into a wastebasket at Starbucks" (p. 227).

I've thought about this issue of what to do with ashes since my mother-in-law died.  We talked about tossing them into the ocean, but she never really went to the beach down here.  She had feelings for Indiana, but if we had driven back there, we would have been unfamiliar with her landscape.  In the end, my spouse buried them in the yard of our old house, and the bougainvillea tree that he planted always bloomed extravagantly. 

We decided that she was as fond of our house as any place.  And we liked the idea of her returning to the earth, instead of sitting in the gray cardboard box.

We are both Ash Wednesday and Easter people, always conscious of that Ash Wednesday message that we are dust and to dust we shall return--and yet, we are also resurrection people.

When we were discussing ashes and what to do with them, this poem came to me.  The people in this poem are entirely fictional.

Ash and Salt

For a year after you died,
I reread all those childhood books,
revisit Winnie, Madeline, Charlotte, and Wilbur.

I remember you reading
these books that provided us a private language
of blustery days, bad hats, and great pigs.

I make myself the foods that provided comfort once:
fudge, grilled cheese sandwiches, boiled custard,
pancakes with chocolate chip smiles.

I light the candle I find in a closet
of a house I won’t live in much longer.
The candle consumes itself.

I decide it’s time to let you go,
to set this yapping dog of grief free.
And so, with the full moon above,

 and the sea sucking my ankles,
I try. I hurl clumps
of ashes into the waves.

I trust that they’ll be gone
by morning, that no little children
will make a gruesome discovery at sunrise.

Lacking the proper language, with no sacrament,
I lick my fingers
that taste of ash and salt.

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