“How about this tree?” Fran asked, pointing to the pine tree that was currently throwing shade our way.
I set down my can of Diet Coke beside my beach towel and shrugged, standing up. I approached the tree, giving it a quick once-over. “I guess it’s okay,” I said, but upon closer inspection, I realized it wouldn’t do. I pointed at the base of the tree. “Someone left a bag of dog poop. So…maybe not.”
Fran laughed, seeing it now. “Yeah, I guess not.”
I spotted another, smaller tree, right at the end of the rocky outcropping we always just called “Cantwell Rock.” I imagine every other family that went there called it after their own family, but to us, it was Cantwell Rock, where we had at least one family picnic each summer at Pinecrest Lake. “What about that one?”
Fran nodded. “Looks good. As long as there’s no bags of dog shit under it.”
“So we’ve agreed on the minimum requirements for a final resting place.” I picked up the two jars containing my share of our Mom and Dad’s ashes and we walked over towards the little tree.
“Keeping the bar low is always a good idea,” he nodded. My brother was like that: keep it light. Don’t expect too much. Actually, that could have been the family motto: Don’t be too serious and don’t expect too much. You might end up pleasantly surprised. Okay, so it’s not as cool-sounding as the Stark family’s “Winter is coming,” but on the plus side, at least we’re all still alive, unlike the Starks.
It was a cute little tree. It was easy to spot if you were approaching by boat, and therefore easy to remember for future visits. “Yeah, it’s a good tree.”
My original plan for Pinecrest this summer was to spread Mom and Dad’s ashes with the whole family there, like some faintly creepy family reunion. I’d imagined all eight of my brothers and sisters there at the cabin on the lake, each of us holding our unmarked pickle relish jars filled with each of our shares of Mom and Dad’s cremains, sitting on the porch with cocktails and telling the old stories for the millionth time.
We’ve told the stories so many times that the actual telling of the tales is more ritualistic than informative; it’s not like there’s someone new who hasn’t heard about the time Cathy and John wandered off onto the fire trail and got lost until Cathy made John go up to strangers and cry pathetically until they asked what was wrong. Or the time that Fran was ten and got left behind at the gas station in Oakdale, and the old man who worked there gave him an ice cream cone and patiently waited for the Cantwell family station wagon to return. Or when Dad packed the luggage on top of the car so high that he couldn’t back it out of the garage. Or the year that we had a reunion and someone came up with the awesomely inappropriate idea of printing up t-shirts for everyone reading (unironically!) CANTWELL CLAN. Yeah, there was a reason I never wore that shirt outside of the cabin that year – CLAN is definitely not something you want to have plastered across your chest. It’s just wrong. I couldn’t even donate the shirt to Goodwill; the homeless have enough problems without associating themselves with a clan.
In retrospect, I guess it was kind of ridiculous of me to think that all of us could actually clear our calendars for the same three days in August. Only my brother Fran showed up, sporting his awesome Brad-Dourif-as-Doc-Cochrane-in-Deadwood ‘stache. I hadn’t really known Fran too well growing up, since he’s about 12 years older than me and had already moved out of the house by the time I was able to retain memories. And for a while, he’d been the black sheep of the family, a motorcycle-riding hippie with a genius IQ, the fourth child in a family of nine, while I was the baby of the family, the good kid who craved everyone’s quiet approval. But as it turns out, we probably have the most in common of any of us.
Anyway, there we were: only two of the remaining nine Cantwell kids, looking for a proper place at Cantwell Rock to spread my parents’ ashes. Oh, sorry – my share of my parents’ ashes. Fran didn’t have any because he never collected his from my sister Gail, who somehow ended up with the job of Parental Ash Distributor. Gail and Chuck somehow always get stuck with the jobs like that, although I have no idea how that happened. And Fran probably just thought that someone else would want them more than he did. I could see his point: it’s kind of a weird feeling to just carry home two unmarked jars of your parents’ ashes after having Thanksgiving dinner at your sister’s house. Leftover turkey and stuffing? Sure. Ashes…not so much.
“So…who’s who?” Fran asked, nodding to the jars I’m holding.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I used to know. Um, I think this one is Mom.” I held up the jar filled with lots of white ash. “I remember thinking it was odd because there were more ashes of her than there were of Dad.”
“Yeah. That is odd.” He squinted at the jar that I suspected held our mom’s ashes. “Oh, maybe Pauline got half of Dad’s ashes, and so there was less to split up?”
“Oh, yeah!” Why hadn’t that occurred to me? Of course our stepmom would have taken half the ashes for the Naval Ceremony they had back in New York. Yeah – the one that nobody told anyone about. I didn’t really mind, since that was typical for our family and not something done out of spite. It just doesn’t occur to us, when we hear about things like weddings or funerals, that someone else might actually give a shit. It’s honestly like we’re a whole family full of absent-minded professors, bumbling our way through other people’s emotions.
Without asking my brother if he had parting words, I unceremoniously dumped the ashes at the base of the tree, careful to wait for the breeze to stop. “We don’t want to pull a Big Lebowski, do we?” I add, tapping out the ashes first from one jar, and then the other. I knew he would get the reference, and he laughed.
I stood up once I was finished and the ashes were settled, already mixing with the dirt at the base of the tree. I placed some pine needles over them, as if that would keep them from blowing away. “Um, so yeah,” I said finally. Neither of us were religious. A prayer would mean nothing. So instead, I said, “Sorry, guys. I guess you’re stuck with each other, now. But you’ll like it here, I think. Thanks for giving us Pinecrest. And Cantwell Rock.”
It felt weird saying those words instead of an Our Father or a Hail Mary. Or even a “Peace be with you,” like at the end of all those visits to church as a kid. But by the same token, as a family, we had never done funerals for anyone in our family. We’d do kind of a memorial party; I guess you could call them “celebrations of life”, but no funerals. So it made sense that we’d not really know what to say when dumping the ashes of our divorced parents who’d just happened to pass away six months months apart from one another, at the ripe old ages of 91 and 93.
“Want me to take your picture?” I asked, putting away the empty jars and coming back with my iPhone. Fran was instantly game, and immediately took up a pose. He made imaginary guns with his hands and pointed towards the tree, grinning broadly under his straw hat. “What is that supposed to be?” I snapped a few photos even though I had no idea what his pose was.
“Isn’t this the pose from those photos at Abu Ghraib?”
I rolled my eyes and had to laugh. Leave it to a Cantwell to hilariously send up your parents’ ash-disposal with a touching recreation of infamous torture photos. “Oh my God, Fran!” It really was perfect. I loved my big brother more in that moment than I ever had before. It felt really good to laugh just then, and he joined me. We’d never actually say we loved each other, but we didn’t need to. We were forever unified in finding the inappropriate hilarity in horror and the macabre. We were Cantwells; that’s just what we did. It was in our DNA. It was what made us who we were.
We packed up our picnic things, including the empty jars that were now lined with the ashy residue of human cremains. Later, I put them in the recycling bin. I understood that to some people, this may seem uncaring or harsh. But the thing I think both I and my brother understood was that it didn’t matter how a thing might seem. What mattered was the take-away. And that day, we exorcised the gravity of death from the beauty of the life. Who needed empty jars? Who needed prayers and words, when we had love and laughter?
Not us. Not the Cantwells. And definitely not me.