Sunday, 10 April 2011

Scattering ashes

When my mother died in 2007, I did not fly out to Cape Town for her funeral. It would have been an expensive trip for a very short visit, and I felt that I’d said my goodbyes the last time I’d seen her. Well, that’s one version of the story. The other would be that I’m not very good at social rituals. I find them discomforting and I probably try to avoid them.

She was cremated, and Mike (youngest brother), kept her ashes in the hope that there would be an opportunity for a family gathering to scatter them at Noordhoek Peak – the same place my father’s ashes were scattered when he died in 1999. With our visit to Cape Town and David (middle brother who lives in Pretoria) able to come down for the weekend, this seemed like a good moment.

Tony and I, Mike, Alison (Mike’s daughter), Bridget (Mike’s wife), Neil (eldest brother) and David set off from the parking lot at Silvermine dam at 8 o’clock this morning. The peak is about a two hour walk – we took it at a leisurely pace in the 30 degree heat. When we got to the top, Mike produced a cardboard box, in which there was a small plastic bag containing a couple of pounds of grey grit. “I really don’t do ceremonies very well,” I thought, looking at it, and struggling to connect these firegrate scrapings up to the memory of someone who I had (mostly) loved. As if reading my thoughts, and taking charge of the situation, Mike cleared his throat, and announced, “Our family doesn’t really go in for ceremonies, and we haven’t prepared anything for this occasion. It’s up to everybody to do this in whatever way they’d like.” There was a lengthy pause, punctuated by a few conjectures about wind direction, and speculations on likelihood of being joined by other walkers. The silence was eventually broken by Neil, looking across the bay and idly wondering about property development above the fishermens’ cottages on the slopes of the Sentinel. The conversation wandered on to Imizamo Yethu, the township in Hout Bay where there was a measles outbreak some years ago and Neil had responsibility for the immunization programme. He remembered that there was a group of helpful women volunteers who he had thought were being very kind until he discovered that they were Mozambican prostitutes touting for business.

Thinking that the conversation was taking an odd turn for a wake, I decided to investigate the ashes. How do you scatter ashes, anyway? One has this romantic notion that it’s a gentle process, with little feather-weight particles being carried away on a balmy breeze. The reality is somewhat different. The ashes are a thick, heavy mass which (in this case) landed in a rather solid heap on a rock.

My brothers reminisced for a bit. I learned that my grandfather – who I’d previously thought to be a sober, hardworking family man – was, in fact, a chess-obsessed philanderer who'd made my grandmother’s life a misery.

Much as I may not like them, rituals and ceremonies have a purpose. They provide a script, making it easier to negotiate unfamiliar, awkward situations that we might find emotionally challenging. On the way down, I asked Mike whether he would have preferred a more structured ceremony. We debated the pros and cons. “Ultimately,” he said, “exactly what we did doesn’t matter. What’s significant is that all of us are here, able to do this together.”


Mike & Biddy said...

Your picture pauses the lovliness from the peak, and the indescribable warmth of being together as four children whose parents lifted up their eyes to the hills - and beyond, to the maker of heaven and earth - for their help.

Debbie said...

It sounds like a lovely moment and really nice that it happened and you could all be together for a moment in time to reflect and just be... xxxx