Ashes to Dust

The service is over, the last eulogy read, the last organ notes fading away. All the cucumber horseradish sandwiches have been eaten or dumped into a potted plant, and the last tearful guest has been hugged and sent off.

You’re left standing there holding a surprisingly heavy receptacle, all that’s left of dear old Grandad or Susie or your husband of 37 years. Now what do you do? What’s next?

Grandad, Susie or hubby had chosen to be cremated upon their passing.  All well and good, the problem being now what to do with the cremains, as we respectfully refer to the container filled with the ashes. Where to put it? Where does it belong? It’s not exactly the sort of thing everyone has sitting around the living room or the family room.

You’re holding a beautifully decorated urn or vase or cloisonne box covered with silver and gilt, a real treasure chest. It probably cost as much as an ebony casket with handles of gold. Suddenly it looks to you like just one more thing that will need a whole lot of dusting. The more ornate, the more dusting. You hate dusting.

Maybe a centerpiece for the dining room table?  No, no one could possibly enjoy a meal with Grandad, Susie or hubby looking on. If you had a fireplace, the mantle would be perfect; unfortunately, your fireplace is a modernistic cone from the 1970s with nowhere to set a thing.

A friend of mine kept the cremains of her first husband, her second husband, her second husband’s first wife and her beloved Labradoodle, SNOOKUMS, all on the top shelf of the closet in her guest bedroom, having no idea where else to put them. Fine, as long as her guests didn’t get too nosy about all those jars full of sand stuck up there. At least the jars never needed much dusting, hidden as they were.

Me, I wouldn’t want to spend eternity on a shelf in a dark closet. Put me out on the coffee table where I can keep an eye on any of my replacements who might be trying to move in. I’d like to be in a lovely alabaster jar, tightly sealed, of course. I don’t want any celery sticks or potato chips dipping in, stirring me up. I’m afraid the taste would be  a bit gritty. Another drawback, I’d  need to be dusted several times a week or so. Or on the other hand, that might be a good job for the would-be replacements, the hussies.

Funeral urns and vases come in a large variety of imaginative shapes and materials nowadays. Some even cater to  hobbies or interests the deceased has enjoyed. My brother and sister-in-law actually saw one shaped like a duck decoy. Gives new meaning to the expression “dead duck.”

Think of the possibilities; an elaborately enameled largemouth bass with silver scales for the fisherman. An oversized golf ball, flat on the bottom, of course, otherwise the grandchildren would be rolling it up and down the hallway, keeping Grandad even more rattled than he had been in his final years. Maybe an old fashioned Bakelite telephone. That could be quite a conversation piece if it was rigged to ring once in awhile. “Oh, that’s just my mom, reminding me to dust her oftener.”

A new custom seems to be developing in our culture, sharing the ashes among those of the bereaved who were especially close. A beautiful, loving thought indeed; however, I can think of several drawbacks, splitting prsonalities being one of them.

How could you divide Aunt Susie among all the doting nephews and nieces?  A dab here and a dab there, but what if you ran out? You’d never get by with substituting Bisquick. And who would get the gold teeth?

I understand there are now pieces of jewelry such as necklaces and bangles with tasteful little containers that hold a tiny bit of the dear one’s ashes. Imagine walking around with a constant reminder of your nagging spouse hanging around your neck? It would certainly cut into any desire to ever have a good time again.

Or what if you put a teaspoonful of Uncle George’s ashes in an envelope and mailed it off across the country? The envelope splits and the next thing you know the F.B.I. has surrounded your house with drawn guns.

I’m afraid this is all much too complicated for me. I’ll go for a plain pine box in miniature for dear old whatsisname. I’ll set it right next to the refrigerator as a reminder that he ended up in the box because of his morbid obesity, a condition not to be taken lightly. If I remember, I’ll dust it off once in awhile as I’m reaching into the freezer for seconds on the “Chocolate Chunky Monkey.”

May he rest in peace, dusted or not.

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Contadora Island (from my memoirs)

I’ve been known to remark that the great old sport of sailing, especially in a small boat, leaves one either scared to death or bored to death. I have to admit that’s somewhat of an exaggeration. I’ve spent many, many hours sailing with my husband and our children, all of whom love the sport, and we’ve enjoyed ourselves enormously, only rarely either scared or bored.

Living in the former Panama Canal Zone for nearly twelve years, we had nearly perfect sailing conditions for a mode of transportation that was never intended for speed. Panama Bay stretched for about fifty miles in any direction, calm and serene, full of islands to be explored, with winds that rarely reached anything over twenty knots. True, we did have our moments when things got a little frantic and frightening but they were few and far between.

“Boredom” can also mean “relaxing and restful” So what if it took us eight or ten hours to reach our favorite island forty miles out in the bay. So be it. Plenty of time to unwind, read a book or just ponder the sky and the sea.

Lounging in the shade of the sail one quiet afternoon as we ghosted along in a calm sea, I happened to glance over the rail just in time to see a tiny sea-horse, bright orange against the deep blue of the water. It was wriggling along so earnestly I’ve often wondered where it could possibly have been going in that vast body of water. Truly, that sight was a glimpse of Mother Nature at her most benign.

We had a glimpse of her raw power the time we glided into our favorite anchorage at our favorite island, Contadora, and found the entire cove filled with giant rays. They looked huge and black against the shallow, sandy bottom and there seemed to be dozens of them although we actually only counted eight or ten. Nobody swam ashore on that trip. We all used our dinghies. Even that was risky; one flip of those giant wings could have sent us into the water with them.

Contadora Island was the largest of a group of islands in Panama Bay known as “Las Perlas” or “The Pearls,” totally undeveloped and uninhabited. Often our friends and we would take several boats down for a few days of swimming, picnicking and relaxation. We always had the place to ourselves with a shallow anchorage and a beautiful broad, sandy beach. No one but our fellow yacht club members ever used Contadora. Our children loved it, as we all did.

Our trips weren’t always family affairs, depending on school schedules and other obligations. If our good friend Pepe Ehrmann was along he could be counted on to provide “lunch,” liberal glasses of his secret recipe for Jungle Juice. Pepe’s idea of lunch definitely was not for children. Whatever he put in it called for long, long siestas afterwards, everyone searching for the shadiest spots on deck. The tropical sun and a few glugs of Jungle Juice and we were conked out for the afternoon.

We always anchored out in the cove, there being no docks or moorings. Barbecuing on the beach after dark was part of our routine. Sunset comes early and fast in the tropics and we liked to have a good bonfire going before it got dark.

There were always uninvited guests. The no-see-ems welcomed us and our bare arms and legs with sharpened teeth or whatever instruments of torture they used. We swatted and slapped and sprayed repellant which the no-see-ems seemed to thrive on, their own version of Jungle Juice, I guess. The only thing that really worked was a fire big enough to smoke them out, sending us into coughing fits, wondering which was worse, death by bug bites or by suffocation. Still, we loved being there.

At one time the government of Panama was offering to sell the island of Contadora at a cost of $6,000 Balboas or American dollars, both currencies being equal. Talk about coulda, shoulda, didna, $6,000 dollars for that bit of paradise! We blew that one!

We left the country in 1965 and by the early 1970s some enterprising group bought the island, made electricity and fresh water available and developed an enormous luxury resort right above “our” beach!  Contadora quickly became the “in” place for the world’s wealthiest. Even the deposed Shah of Iran, his family and entourage arrived in 1979 or 1980, having been granted asylum by the American and Panamanian governments.

The island quickly built up around the resort with enormous vacation homes, inns, B and Bs and other accommodations springing up. The resort itself flourished for only a few years before it lost its charm and fell out of favor. Nothing is left today, sadly, but acres of elegant ruins. Contadora has remained a vacation spot for the less affluent, but no longer has the glitz and glamour.

Contadora had one more fling with the big time. The television show “Survivor” was filmed there for one season. We had never watched the show but of course had to watch “our” island for the entire season. From what I could see, the no-see-ums were the ultimate “Survivors.”