On The Beach

The sun was high in the sky, and the weather was warm, even for May.

My brother, sister and I were in my sister’s minivan, her daughter and my son strapped into carseats in the back.   It was Mother’s Day, 1993.

My mother had asked to have her ashes sprinkled on a beach outside her favorite restaurant “up North”.  The beach overlooked Lake Huron, and my mother would come up there during the summer with her girlfriends to eat All You Can Eat Crab Legs and drink white wine spritzers and listen to live music.  She would watch the sunset there and forget for a while the difficult times that peppered her life story.  It was, she told us, her favorite place in the world.  She didn’t want a gravesite where people would go to be sad to remember her.  She wanted, she told us, to be laid to rest on the beach where she’d walked so many times, where she’d had so much fun.   This way too, she reasoned, if anyone did want to go up to her final resting place, they could order a drink and a good meal and at least enjoy the occasion some.

I chuckled at the logic when we hatched the plan, but my mother passed away in February.  February in Michigan is known for its snow and cold and it is predictably unpredictable.  Unanimously my siblings and I agreed that the ashes would have to wait until the weather improved before they could be laid to rest.  Which is how we all came to be pulling up to the Castaways Restaurant on the shores of Lake Huron with two toddlers in tow on a sunny Sunday in May.

We walked around the restaurant and out beyond the outdoor patio area to the beach.   It was quiet and empty this early in the season; after Memorial Day, this same stretch would be full of sunbathers and revelers from the restaurant inside.   The little ones started picking up rocks and shells and messying themselves in the sand while the three of us discussed what to do.

“Well,” I offered, “I suppose we just do it.  There’s not too many people around; I guess each of us just reaches in and goes for it.”  I held the cardboard box containing my mother’s ashes.  It was heavy in my hands, though surprisingly small considering it was all that was left of a five foot two tall human.   We hadn’t bought a fancy urn or thought to keep a portion of the ashes with one of us.   This moment was going to be it, and now that we were standing here it seemed surprisingly unofficial and anticlimactic to be standing on a beach holding a cardboard box containing a small plastic bag of ashes.

“We should say something,” said my sister.  “A prayer or something.”

My brother looked around uncomfortably at the few tourists walking up and down the beach around us. “Go for it,” he intoned.  My sister and I might be practicing Catholics, but my brother wasn’t; like my mother, he’d never found much comfort in the realm of religion.

My sister awkwardly started a small speech about my mother and how her last wishes were to be here on this beach, and that our Lord was holding her and keeping her close to our hearts while she was away from us physically.  I added a “We miss you, Mom.  Happy Mother’s Day,” before opening the white box.

I was unprepared for the ashes.  Everything I’d ever heard or seen depicted in the movies showed human ashes as soft and light gray and floating on the wind; something beautiful, something spiritual, something that gave you a sensory peace that allowed you to believe this was all a good thing.  But when I put my hand into the plastic bag to scoop out a handful of ashes with my hands, I pulled it back out, quickly.

“They’re…hard.” I explained to my siblings, looking to me to start the process.  “They’re not like regular ashes.  They’re more like small pieces.”  There were hundreds of small pieces, solid pieces with sharp edges.  All of a sudden I realized; these were my mother’s bones, her teeth.  Those things were hard, and they didn’t just prettily dissolve away for us to have a beautiful moment on a beach three months later.

I stood there, frozen for a minute.  The kids were wandering down the beach some; we were going to have to move to catch up with them.  My sister and brother looked at me for direction; were we doing this or not?  I had to pull it together.

Tentatively, I reached into the box again, now prepared for the tactile onslaught.  I pulled out a fistful of the material and let it slip through my fingers on the sand.  The pieces did not resemble the sand at all, and they did not blend in.  I wondered, would they blow away?  Would she not get to stay on this beach?

I reached in again, my siblings following suit.  I sprinkled more now, some in the water, some more near the shoreline, where the water would take some of the pieces and combine it with the sand and rocks and algae below to make it one.  We repeated the process, mostly in silence, over and over and over, until the box was empty.  My right hand was dirty from the ash pieces, and I reached into the cold lake water to rinse it.

“I guess that’s it.  She’s finally where she wanted to be,” my brother said, trying to give the moment some finality.

I looked out at the glittering water, lapping quietly against the shoreline and tried to feel something:  peace, closure, satisfaction at honoring my mother’s wishes.  But nothing came.  The waves still came, and nothing spoke to me as a sign that she was here, she was smiling down on us.

“Let’s go have a drink,” I said, motioning towards the restaurant.  “If Mom is here, she’s on that patio having a drink.  Let’s join her.”

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