Ashes cast upon water in closure

October 12, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- It was on a beautiful fall day that we committed the earthly remains of Carol Donaldson to the Susquehanna River.

Carol was 73 when she died last summer, in the nursing home where she'd been ever since Alzheimer's disease, or something much like it, began to undo her. She had asked to be cremated, and that was done, but she had left no other instructions. Except for a stepdaughter and an elderly cousin, both of whom lived out of state, she left no family, either. It fell to her local friends to make funeral arrangements.

For the better part of 15 years, Carol had worked part-time for my wife Irna and me on The Record, the weekly newspaper we used to publish here. She edited copy, read proof, handled the obituary notices, and wrote what we called "the Havre de Grace column" -- a weekly, often personal compendium of local happenings that wouldn't have found other space in the paper.

After we sold the paper, she worked until her retirement for Homestead Publishing, The Sun's Harford County newspaper division. There she brought her careful, and sometimes fussy, and crabby, attention to the work of other writers. They didn't always appreciate Carol, especially when she interrupted them at inconvenient times to explain why she had removed that comma, but they respected her.

She was to some degree a local character, of the sort which used to be common around weekly papers when they were more resolutely local institutions. Her incessant smoking, her unpredictable driving, her mysterious domestic history (no one was quite sure how many husbands there had been), and her somewhat bonkers love of animals were all part of her aura. When she retired, she left a void.

Faithful friends

By the time Carol died, although she certainly wasn't forgotten, she had lost contact with most of those she had known, other than a few faithful friends who visited her in the nursing home. She had once been confirmed in the Episcopal Church, and admired Rory Harris, the Episcopal minister at St. John's Church here, but she hadn't been a churchgoer and it wasn't clear what sort of service might be appropriate.

Eventually, after consultation with her stepdaughter, Valerie, we decided on a ceremony along the riverbank, followed by the committal of her ashes to the water. She had mentioned to friends long ago that she liked that idea. Joseph L. Davis Post No. 47 of the American Legion, where Carol had many friends, kindly made its property available. Rory Harris agreed to conduct the service.

There were a couple of other complications. Carol's parents had been dead for decades, but she had been close to them -- so close that she had kept their ashes in a container in the trunk of her car, with the idea that when she died they could be buried with her. So it would be, in fact, a funeral for three.

And then there was the environmental question. Although the Legion officers expressed no hesitation at having the ashes committed to the river from their dock, the idea made some of us apprehensive. If the pollution police were ever to come after anyone for unauthorized discharge into the Susquehanna, we didn't want it to be the Legion. So we got a boat.

On the morning of the service, a couple of dozen of Carol's friends gathered on the green grass at the riverside beneath the Legion's American flag. The flag was brilliant in the sunshine, and it snapped gently in a cool northerly breeze. The ceremony itself was brief and not especially formal, which Carol would have liked. Rory read the prayers. Together we recited the 23rd Psalm and the Lord's Prayer.

Then I took Valerie, Valerie's husband Tim, and Carol's old friend Marion out onto the river in a small boat. The surface of the water was glassy. There was no sign of the small rockfish that are abundant there right now. A passenger train clattered past over the Conrail bridge.

Valerie, who had been a brick through it all but was now a little teary, sprinkled the ashes over the side. I couldn't help noticing that Carol's were seashell-white, and those of her parents, which had been mingled, were a dark gray. Marion and Tim threw some flowers from the funeral bouquets into the water, and we went back to the dock.


Afterward, several of us went to lunch at the Crazy Swede, a local restaurant run by the son of one of Carol's good friends. It was a nostalgic and easy-going occasion. After coffee, Valerie made the mistake of lighting a cigarette, but was quickly told by the restaurant staff that that was forbidden. You could almost hear Carol hooting.

There's a lot of talk at times like this about "closure." I've never been sure just what that's supposed to be, but with Carol's last rites her friends made a pretty good stab at it.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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