Aunt Helen’s Funeral

East Ocean View Avenue, Norfolk 1938.

There’s a house by the bay that has been there for over a hundred years.

It once had a rose bower over the front door, and black, wooden shutters with crescent moon silhouettes cut into them.  The house stood in a sandy fenced-in yard, surrounded by live oaks, trumpet vine, and sea grass. The cottage line bus went past once a day, headed for downtown Norfolk.

Now it’s sad, with it’s stucco falling off, and it’s window frames rotting. It’s packed in between new houses, cheap houses, houses with cracked driveways that are patched with tar, and blown over with sand. There are no trees in the yard anymore. There’s still a bus.

We are assembled to see my Aunt’s ashes thrown into the bay in front of this house. It’s where she and my father were raised, where lots of our family stories were born, which is to say, our home, although none of us present on this funeral day have ever lived in the house, and only one, Uncle Buddy, has even been inside it.

Two little boys, one red-headed and one blonde, are given the bag of ashes and told what to do. It’s bright, and sunny, and windy. They wade out into the frothy, green water. Their hair gleams in the sun like ours once did. I’m holding their shoes.

They put their hands in the bag, take out a handful and toss them in. Their hands get ashy, so they rinse them in the knee-deep water. When they reach back into the bag for another handful, the remaining ashes get damp and clump. The little one frowns and squints over his shoulder, looking for direction from the rest of us, the grown-ups, the ones who are supposed to know what they’re doing. No one moves. The surf plops against the shore, a killdeer whistles.

Then one cousin walks out to them, takes the bag and turns it inside-out in the water. She’s gentle with the boys. It’s been too much for them. They aren’t sad, since they didn’t know Aunt Helen well, but they are confused. They come back to the rest of us with my cousin’s long freckled arms around their shoulders.

She goes back to toss in petals picked  from Aunt Helen’s roses. They float, red and white speckles on the dark waves.

The last one to leave the beach is Uncle Buddy. He picks up a stick to write in the sand with.

He writes Buddy loves Helen.

He probably wrote that on the beach sixty-four years ago, and saw it washed away by the tide.  The beach sand is so transient.

  • mariannehvest

    leaving comment

  • Christine

    What a touching tribute to your aunt and your family. And what a picturesque family home near the ocean! Every family should have a ritual to help bury their loved ones with respect and honor. Thanks for writing!

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