I was back in my hometown in New Jersey this past weekend for my high school reunion, which was surprisingly wonderful. The town brings back all my memories of growing up with my mom and dad and sister. On my last visit I scattered my parents’ ashes in the river that runs through the town. They died within months of each other so that it was possible for a double feature, so to speak.
On this trip, I planned to do the same with my sister Linda’s ashes, which had been her request, but complications in getting the ashes and family together got in the way. It was the three-year anniversary of her death, and I thought it was about time for this final ceremony.
Cranford is a medium size town. I always thought it was small, but now that I live in a truly small New England town, it seems like a bustling metropolis. There are at least four restaurants, a movie theater and a new mall where the old school used to be. But the tone of the town remains the same. It’s a quiet, good walking town where we could walk to the park, downtown, or to the river. I didn’t appreciate the oasis quality of the place when I was growing up.
In lieu of having my sister’s actual ashes, I decided to do a ceremony at the river. It would be just my husband, David, and me but maybe I would finally feel some closure. A friend suggested writing a letter to Linda, burning it and scattering those ashes. It sounded like a good substitute. The letter I wrote apologized for everything I ever did that may have hurt her, like keeping my distance, not being present enough in her life, and my failure to carry out her last wish to finally rest in the same waters as our parents. And how much I missed her, our shared history and all our inside jokes. When I finished, the four-page letter was tear stained, my words running together with smeared blue ink. I ripped the sheets from my moleskin and stuck them in my pocket.
The day was hot and sticky. I picked a spot by the river where my mom and I had fed the ducks when I was a little girl, close to the spot of the previous scattering. We sat on a bench and I took out my guitar to play one of Linda’s favorite songs, “I Shall Be Released.” The other day I was thinking about this song and how my sister was finally released from a very difficult life on this earth. I hoped her trials were over as I sang to her. More tears streamed, but I got through the song like she was sitting there listening and wanting to hear me sing it. She was my biggest fan.
I put away my guitar and took out my letter and read it to myself. I was glad it was just the two of us here today for a quiet goodbye to my big sister. David let me have my silence. The tears that came then were my own release and I let them wet my cheeks and drip down my neck. I folded up the letter tightly and squeezed it into a cup that we had brought with us. This may have been my first mistake. With match after match I tried to light the pages, but they wouldn’t catch. They would start, then sputter, smoke and die out. When the matchbook was empty I looked up at David and shrugged, “Now what?” We aren’t smokers, so we had only brought one pack of matches for the ceremony. Leaving David to watch over our spot, the half burned letter, and my guitar, I made my way back to my car, muttering my frustration to my sister. “You aren’t going to make this easy for me, are you?”
I talk to dead people quite a bit.
It took me 10 minutes to come back with a lighter. Still, the damn letter wouldn’t catch.
“Maybe the cup is too small,” David offered. “It’s not getting enough air to burn.”
My practical husband. Of course he was right.
I took out the letter, now blackened around the edges, unfolded the hot sheets and crumbled them onto the cement by the bench where we sat. A wind immediately picked up, blowing away the small bit of ash that we had at that point. I looked up to the heavens to admonish my sister, “Come on sis, really?”
Gratefully, the lighter did it’s job and soon there was a tiny fire burning, ashes blowing, me trying to contain them with the matchbook cover, slapping down the ash bits as they skirted across the pavement. When the fire burned out, I scooped as much of the ash as I could into the cup and headed to the river. Bending down so I wouldn’t lose the rest to the wind, I let the ashes spread out into the water. They were carried very slowly upstream to a small waterfall. I laughed suddenly, realizing that Linda would have loved the comedy of this last act. She could always make me laugh—and I’m convinced she did it one last time.