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Sunday journal

A stream of memories

Published April 10, 2005

Because it didn't seem appropriate, I hadn't brought my camera. My sister-in-law and her three grown children were standing knee-deep in the Mississippi, silhouetted against the bright evening sky. They looked out across the water, holding hands. It would have been a lovely photograph.

The ceremony was over. My brother-in-law Aaron's ashes had been scattered on the river he loved. Everyone had been told to dress casually and be prepared to wade in the water. We were following Aaron's wishes.

The day before, Aaron's son Paul scouted the riverbank for an appropriate site and found a clearing by a bend in the river. It was near the ramp Aaron had used to launch his boat. Paul waded in to check for rocks and potholes. The bottom was smooth and sandy, with no obstacles.

The family - wife, children with spouses, brother and sister-in-law, nieces and nephews - assembled at a daughter's house and drove in a convoy to the river. We parked the cars, then walked into the woods along the sandy riverside path. The minister was with us. When we reached the chosen spot, he discreetly kicked a few discarded bottles and cans, litter from an early morning fisherman, into the bushes. We formed a circle.

After reading several passages from Scripture, we all shared some of our thoughts about the man we had come to bid goodbye. Everyone remembered Aaron as a good man, an unusual man, energetic and enthusiastic, full of curiosity. There were funny stories and revealing anecdotes. We were celebrating his life. Mosquitoes joined in, and there was some slapping of arms and legs. A few of us had wisely sprayed ourselves with Off.

The time had come to set Aaron free.

Paul held the ashes in a dark brown, smooth, rectangular container about the size of a shoe box. I had seen Paul take the box from the car trunk. Because his mother had been nearby, I could sense Paul's hesitancy as he unlocked the trunk and slowly reached for the box. He seemed very sad and held the box gently all through the ceremony.

The minister then attempted to open the box, but couldn't do it. He handed it to my husband and a son-in-law to deal with, and they struggled, too. No one could figure out how the box had been sealed. Someone even pounded on the end of it, then gave it a good shake. Suddenly, the snap lid broke free and the ashes, in a twisty-closed plastic bag, dropped to the ground. Paul quickly stuffed the bag back into the box and handed it to the minister.

Opening the bag, he solemnly invited whomever wanted to be first to take a handful of ash and scatter it in the water. Aaron's wife, small and brave in a white blouse, tucked up her brightly colored skirt and waded out to the minister, who stood in the river with trousers rolled. She carefully took a handful of ashes, waded farther out into the current and tossed. The ashes lifted on the breeze, then dropped into the Mississippi. She stood watching for a moment, then rejoined the group. Everyone took a turn, with Paul standing very still after his toss, looking up into the twilight sky.

Aaron's middle daughter, the pretty one in snug red jeans, took off her shoes and tight-roped over the water along a fallen tree to cast the ashes. Later she said, "I don't know why I was so silly. They're only jeans. The water wouldn't have ruined them."

After each of us had scattered a handful of ashes once, we did it again. There was so much ash, gray and slightly gritty to the touch. We rinsed our hands in the river.

At last Aaron's wife took the plastic bag, still half-full, and tipped the contents into the water. The bag slipped from her grasp and submerged. Quickly, the minister pulled up his sleeves and fished it out, then poured the rest of Aaron's ashes into the river.

We stood in the mosquitoey evening and watched as a huge barge plowed downstream. Two brightly lit paddle wheel tour boats passed each other along the opposite shore. The bridge lights came on, and the factory smokestack beyond the bridge lit up. Rock music poured from pontoon boats moored upriver.

Paul's wife had brought a cooler and paper cups. We lifted our cups of chilled white wine and drank a toast to Aaron. No one had thought to bring towels, so we brushed the sand off our bare feet as best we could, untucked skirts and unrolled trousers, everyone feeling that it had been a good ceremony. An event that Aaron, who hated ceremony, would have enjoyed. It had been loving, awkward, surreal, humorous, profound. An appropriate and necessary rite. We do not need a photograph to remember.

- Janis Benson is a writer in Treasure Island.

[Last modified April 7, 2005, 09:36:03]

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