Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air . . . Ralph Waldo Emerson
From the start, it wasn’t a somber affair. The air was calm and sweet, and a soft bank of clouds had rolled in over the ocean on this early Sunday morning. And, as we three siblings stood on the ramp at the water’s edge, waiting, our big brother, Richard, steered his twenty-foot lobsterboat, the one that he had built himself from strips of oak, into shore and picked us up at the high tide mark. Richard directed us to our seats, me in the bow, Auralie in the middle, and Ernest in the stern with his brother. It was fitting that Richard should be the one steering; after all, he had moved back to this land in Maine and he had carried on Daddy’s love for lobster-fishing and he had been the steady daily presence in our mother’s life all these years.
You can taste the salty breeze and feel the ocean settle into your hair and you can’t help but smile when you head out of Fish House Cove on an early morning boatride. It’s always been that way, a tonic for happiness, and it was like that this past Sunday for the four of us. “It feels good!” Auralie exclaimed. “It’s perfect!” I added. And it was, to be heading out to sea, out toward the ledge that lies at the tip of Hermit Island. Ernest held a bottle of fine white wine and Auralie held onto the box, the box molded of cream-colored handmade paper and flecked with dried flowers and leaves, the box that Joannie, Richard’s wife, carefully, mindfully, had chosen last winter as the one that our mother would have loved. Auralie had been adamant the night before. “If you want to look into the box, you need to do it now!” she had said to her siblings and her children and her nieces and nephews. “I’m going to glue it shut.” So here she was, on her middle seat of the boat, clutching the sealed box, the eco-friendly biodegradable box, certain that its contents would stay safely secure. And here we were, speeding now, past Sister Point and Cat Cove, speeding toward Hermit Island’s tip and that ledge and the raft of eider ducks swimming in the ocean swells in front of us.
And then Richard turned the engine off and the boat rolled in the gentle swells and he said, “This is the spot!” And I thought, this is the spot, this is the spot, right here, where Daddy’s ashes ended up thirty-nine years ago, on this ledge off of West Point in Casco Bay. This is the spot, I thought, where we’re going to toss this handmade biodegradable box filled with our mother’s ashes into the sea. And although it wasn’t a somber affair, it did seem as though there should be a level of formality. Auralie and I both took a turn, cradling the box in our laps, and speaking from our hearts to our mother, and Ernest stood up, ready with the bottle, and Richard, now holding it in his hands, leaned over the side of the boat, placed it into the water, as Ernest smashed the bottle against the boat’s wooden railing, and let it fly, the wine and the glass and the “God’s speed, Annie!” that the brothers called out. And the box, the box that was supposed to disintegrate, that was supposed to make our job neat and tidy and easy, it just bobbed away on the ocean’s surface like a cheerful buoy, and we watched it and we waited, waited for it to sink. But it didn’t. It just floated with the breeze.
“I thought you put the rock in it, before you glued it shut!” Richard exclaimed. And Auralie cried back in a convincing tone, “I did! I know I did!” “Well, we just can’t let it float away!” one or all of us added. “We’ve got to haul it in!” So Richard handed to Ernest the long pole with its metal hook that he must use to pull in the ropes and buoys attached to his lobstertraps. And he started the engine and we chased it down, the bobbing box. Once it was caught, Auralie leaned over the side of the boat. “It just needs a good shove,” and that’s what she did; she shoved that box right under the water’s surface and held it there for a good long time, long enough to sink something that is supposed to disintegrate immediately. And we watched and we couldn’t help it – when it shot back up to the surface with gusto, we just couldn’t help it, we began to laugh, big and boisterous. And then I shoved it down and it shot back up again. Any formality went out to sea when Richard hauled out his rusty fishing knife and began to poke holes in its cream-colored hand-made surface. And then I just ripped it, the carefully glued on cover, and the ocean started pouring in, and the ashes, in their clear corn starch biodegradable inner bag, they rose up, and what was so hidden from view was right there in our sight, our mother’s body, now sandy and fine and looking like the ocean’s floor. And we set it free, with a minimum of words and fuss, we just let it go, the bag containing the ashes, and it swam its way down to join the sand and the sea and the fish below. And we were left with the box, still floating and bobbing about.
“Let’s sink it out by the Wood Island’s bell buoy!” Richard called from the stern, already starting the engine. And once again, the stick with hook came out, and once again the box was hauled in, and once again, Auralie sat, on her middle seat, holding the box, now wet and warped and filled with rusty holes. It was a perfect morning, still, more perfect than ever. Our mother loved a good boatride. Our mother loved Wood Island where we picnicked and collected cranberries, where she painted with her watercolors. Our mother loved the bell buoy that rang its chime on the island’s open-sea side. “Do you mind if I straddle the bow?” I asked my brother, and I hopped up onto that bow like I did when I was a teenager and I dangled my feet in the water and we all laughed as we picked up speed. It was wonderful, the wind and the salt air and this added adventure.
And that’s when someone hollered out to me to look around. And there they were. That’s when we all saw them. And granted, I haven’t been out beyond Wood Island in a very long time. But, in all those years of childhood boatrides, on all those picnic Saturdays and evening escapades, on all those lobster-fishing-with-Daddy-early-mornings, I’ve only seen them once, and that was in a bigger boat far out to sea. But there they were, in front of us now, three of them, flying, buoyant and free, up into the air in their sleek dolphin bodies and diving back down again, flying up and diving down, again and again. I couldn’t believe it and yet I could. Of course I could. There she was, our mother, laughing and playing right along with us. And the box, it sunk down with ease as the bell buoy rang in its steady wave-like rhythm.