Monday, July 14, 2008

The Joy of Living

Immediately after the Gathering, our family of four drove to Colorado to join the rest of Lovely Wife's family -- two brothers, sister, spouses, nieces & nephews [except one] and partners: a total of 18 people. This reunion was planned last fall when we all gathered in Minneapolis for Lovely Wife's mother Barbara's memorial meeting at Twin Cities Friends Meeting. We so enjoyed being together that we planned to meet again in the summer, at which time we would attend to distributing Barbara's ashes in the mountains.

Both Barbara and her husband, Bruce, were born in Iowa but fell in love with Colorado and the Rocky Mountains when Bruce performed civilian public service in Denver during the Second World War. Later, after retirement, they bought a house next door to their eldest daughter and her husband, the Inventor, in Gold Hill, Colorado, a little mountain town about 3000 feet and 30 minutes above Boulder. The house was spacious and beautiful, facing east and south overlooking the cities of Boulder and Denver and the plains beyond. There they helped raise Sister Holly's three sons and hosted many family get-togethers.

When Bruce died in 1995, we all met in Gold Hill and buried most of his ashes in the town cemetery where we had a sweet and spontaneous family ceremony at the graveside. It was a beautiful, sunny April morning and we stood in a circle as we said a few words and sang a few songs after which Lovely Wife played her fiddle and led us in a procession down the hill and to the road. We then went to the Boulder Meeting's memorial meeting later that afternoon.

Later that summer, five of us (one son, Sister Holly's husband and two of their teenage sons, and me) took most of the rest of Bruce's ashes to the top of Gannett Peak, the tallest mountain in Wyoming, in the Wind River Range, which Bruce had never made it to the top of despite several attempts.

For Barbara, we originally intended to take her ashes to Mount Audubon, a 13,233 foot mountain that can be walked up in 3-4 hours without technical assistance (ropes, ice axes, etc.). But on Wednesday, the entire group walked up two other nearby 14,000 foot peaks -- Gray's and Torrey's -- and we realized that a 13,000 peak is a challenge to climb, even as a walk-up, especially for us flatlanders who hadn't gotten used to the altitude yet. All but two of the 18 made it to the top of one of either Gray's or Torrey's (one climbed both), but afterwards none of us were sure that we had it in us to climb Audubon just a few days later. (Photo on left is from the top of Gray's.)

So we changed our plans and decided to release some of Barbara's and some of Bruce's remaining ashes at Loveland Pass, on the Continental Divide that we would pass on our drive to Gold Hill. We arrived at Loveland Pass at about 11 o'clock and walked from the road up about 100 feet to the top of a nearby ridge.

As we had done before, we set the two boxes with ashes on a rock and stood in a circle around them and held what amounted to a brief meeting for worship. Everyone had the opportunity to say some words, and when that was done we each took a handful of the ashes of each and released them to the wind, which was very strong and immediately scattered them in the air along both sides of the Divide. (The family at Loveland Pass is on the right.)

Lovely Wife then led the procession down from the ridge playing "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain" on her fiddle. I brought up the rear of the line. As I got to the parking lot, there was a family there sitting on some rocks, and one of the little girls was singing "She'll be coming 'round the mountain" to herself as I walked by.

On Friday, after arriving in Gold Hill, we planned another ceremony in the cemetery. Lovely Wife wanted there to be a bench at the gravesite, which is at the upper end of the hillside cemetery, so that visitors can rest and contemplate after making the climb.

The plan was then made to go out and find a large flat rock plus two smaller ones to make a simple, rustic bench. The Inventor and I scouted for the rocks about 10 miles from town at a place where he had scavenged some flat rocks years ago, and he identified the right one for the seat -- but it weighed upwards of 300 pounds and the two of us couldn't carry it the 200 yards to the road. So we went home and brought back a crew of six or seven men and a wheelbarrow, and together we carried it (and two smaller but heavy granite stones for the upright supports) to the car and brought them to the graveyard.

While we got the stones up the steep hill, we dug and found the box that contained the urn that held Bruce's ashes and pulled it out of the ground. The rest of the family joined us and once again we had a spontaneous ceremony. We poured most of Barbara's remaining ashes into the urn to be mixed with her husband's, and then we poured out tears and words of remembrance, gratitude, and love. After a while, we closed the urn, put it back into the ground, closed the box, and filled in the hole. One again, Lovely Wife played her fiddle as she led everyone down the hill back to the road.

Some of us men then re-climbed the hill and dug the holes and assembled the stone bench. As it happened, one end of the stone has two small, natural depressions exactly the size of the average human buttocks making it amazingly comfortable to sit on. By the end of the day, it was done and was deemed satisfactory by all.

Here's the view from the bench:

There was something very blessed and sweet about these two ceremonies. The pattern was set spontaneously thirteen years ago after Bruce's death, which Lovely Wife found surprising at the time because neither parent talked much about death (each had lost their same-sex parent while teenagers) and they were never "taught" what to do when a loved one dies. But somehow -- mainly through deep and abiding love -- they taught their children just what to do, and how to do it themselves without professional assistance. It was a blessing to be part of it.

Thirteen years ago, I sang a favorite song by Ewan McColl, "The Joy of Living", at Bruce's graveside and at the memorial meeting. Bruce, like Ewan, was a large, hearty man, and the song perfectly matched his spirit. This year, I just sang the fourth and final verse for Barbara on Loveland Pass:
Take me to some high place of heather, rock, and ling,
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind.
There where I will be part of all you see,
The air you are breathing.
I'll be part of the curlew's cry and the soaring hawk,
The blue milk-wort and the sundew hung with diamonds.
I'll be riding the gentle breeze as it blows through your hair,
Reminding you how we shared,
In the joy of living.
(Listen to Ewan and Peggy Seeger sing the whole song here. Better get a hanky first.)


Robin M. said...

The hanky was a good idea. And from there, the other Ewan McColl songs just made it wetter.

Liz Opp said...

How beautiful. How perfect.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Linda said...

Of all the beauty in this post, my favorite part might be the bench. There is a real lesson in that bench. I'm glad this journey was what it needed to be for all of you.