Nov 142012

by Neil Mathison



Were it not for the ash spreading it would be glorious.  The harbor silver; crabs steaming in stainless cookers; a bald eagle circling figure eights above the ferry landing.  Walt and Ian here to pick up their younger sibling, Robert Douglas, his wife, Mary Catherine, and their two daughters, Zoë and Tracy.  As the ferry pulls in, Robert Douglas, wife, and girls huddle on the car deck like refugees forlorn amid a coterie of happy day-trippers.

 “Jeez,” Walt says as he waves from the pickup window.  “Do they look depressed, or what?”

“It’s an ash spreading,” Ian, the oldest, answers.  “What do you expect?”

The girls greet their uncles shyly.  They are lithe, golden-haired, ten years old, twins.  Mary Catherine, their mother, smiles her tight beauty-queen’s smile, hair fair, eyes blue, figure fulsome.  Robert Douglas solemnly shakes his brothers’ hands.  He’s wearing chinos, a white polo shirt, and leather boat shoes, compact and neat, prematurely bald, quite unlike his older brothers who have shambled into middle age lumpy, broad-shouldered, big-bellied, hairy, or, as Walt liked to say, “Comfortable.”  They are three of four siblings: Ian the oldest; Walt two years younger; Cecile (the family calls her “Cecie”), three years younger than Walt, Robert Douglas a year younger than Cecie who is back at the cabin with Mother.  Mother likes to call Robert Douglas “the family baby,” certain to trigger his ire.  As does calling him by his nickname, “Lispy,” a name garnered from a childhood lisp.

“I would have thought by now,” Robert Douglas says as they load suitcases in the truck bed, “you’d have gotten rid of this jalopy.”

The “old jalopy,” is much beloved by Walt and Ian, the site for many long-ago assignations with the island girls.

 “I should think you’d w-w-worry more about safety,” Robert Douglas says.  He seems to be inspecting the tires.

The girls and Mary Catherine climb into the back.  The brothers wedge themselves into the front seat.  Walt guns the big V-8.  The truck slowly lumbers into the off-loading ferry traffic.  They fall into an uncomfortable, though not atypical, silence.

“Cecie’s already here.” Ian says, trying to break the ice.

“Who’s she sleeping with now?” Robert Douglas asks.

 “Cecie’s become quite modest,” Ian replies.

 “You weren’t around when she was in high school.”

“Jesus,” Walt says. “How many years ago was that?”

On the way to the cabin Robert Douglas complains about Homeland Security.  “It’s MARSEC 3,” he says.  “They inspect walk-on-passengers. Ignore the cars.  Trust the government to screw things up.”  Screwing things up is a theme with Robert Douglas, attuned as he is to incompetence and malice.  There may be some rationale for this view.  Back when they were kids, Walt and Ian imitated their younger brother’s lisp.  When Robert Douglas sought solace with his stuffed bear, Blinky, Walt and Ian kidnapped and mock-executed the bear.  Cecie was a cheerleader, Walt a football star, and Ian a Student Council Vice-President; Robert Douglas joined the Chess Club.  In a blue-collar neighborhood where it was best to be an athlete and worst of all to be smart, Robert Douglas was smart and never hid his smartness.  His lack of coolness troubled his siblings, perhaps even troubled Mother, attuned, as she was, to the social graces.  Only Dad hadn’t cared about coolness.


It has been six months since Dad’s death.  A month ago Mother asked Ian to pick up Dad’s urn.  What she had in mind, she said, was a ceremony.  Spread Dad’s ashes, somewhere he loved, sometime later in the year.  Mother’s track record with urns was spotty: Grandmother had sat on the laundry-room shelf five years.  “Even dead,” Mother joked, “Grandma can’t get out of the laundry.”

Dad’s urn was the size of a large thermos, rust-red like a flowerpot.  Ian took the urn up to the family cabin, where he placed it on a shelf above the garage workbench among the rolls of duct tape, tubes of calking, paint cans, trowels, and plumber’s helpers that had been Dad’s companions in life.  “Hello, old man,” he’d say, when he entered the garage.  Then he’d tell the urn whether the salmon were biting or whether he’d been out sailing or whether it looked like it might be a wet summer.  Ian figured the urn would be there for a long time but Mother called the first week of August.

“We’ll spread Dad’s ashes on the seventh,” she announced.

“But Emily, Nathan, and I will still be on our sailing vacation,” Ian protested.

“It can’t be helped. It’s the only weekend Robert Douglas is free.”


At the cabin, Mother, Cecie, Muriel, who is Walt’s wife. Nathan, who is Ian’s son, and Emily, who is Ian’s wife, are waiting for Robert Douglas.

Fresh-cut gladiolas adorn the front porch.  Shucked oysters lie on an iced platter. Nathan, nine years old, has chalked a WELCOME HOME UNCLE RD AND AUNT MARY CATHERINE AND TWINS on the porch blackboard.  A pitcher of martinis frosts on a picnic table.  Mother is elegant in cream-colored slacks, her silver hair neatly coiffed.  Red-haired Muriel, Walt’s wife, who would look good in a burlap sack but who prefers jeans and flannel shirts, is even wearing a dress, as is Ian’s wife Emily, a floral shift that shows off Emily’s great legs.  Cecie, who is nearly as tall as her brothers, has hair black as a raven’s feathers.  She’s wearing rubber boots, garden gloves, a halter-top, and white shorts – not having time to change, she explains, after shucking oysters.

What fine-looking women they are, Ian thinks as he hauls suitcases into the cabin, so full of life; a shame the family doesn’t get together more often.

Mother embraces each new arrival.

Cecie offers Mary Catherine an oyster.

Mary Catherine looks at her in horror.

“We don’t do raw,” Robert Douglas says.

“How about a martini then?” Cecie says.

Mary Catherine smiles her radiant, Miss Arizona smile.  “Oh, I couldn’t.  Though I might take a glass of white wine.”

You could forgive anything, Ian decides, if Mary Catherine smiles that smile.

“How about you, Lispy?’ Cecie says.

Robert Douglas glares at his sister.  “Anything,” he says.

“Don’t be rude, dear,” Mother says.  For Mother, indecision is always rude.

Robert Douglas shrugs. “Okay, a martini then.”

Mother begins to dispatch everybody to their “sleeping accommodations” – Emily and Ian are to be displaced from the upstairs bedroom in favor of Robert Douglas – but Robert Douglas announces that he and Mary Catherine have brought their own tent, because they don’t want to inconvenience anybody, and besides, it’s too noisy in the morning with everybody else in the family being such early risers.  In the ensuing debate, Mother and Emily and Muriel attempt to change Robert Douglas’s mind and the tension rises, but perhaps the tension has been rising all along, maybe as soon as Robert Douglas stepped off the ferry, or maybe even before that.  But Ian doesn’t want this afternoon spoiled.  The weather’s perfect, the smoky fragrance of charcoal rises from the barbeque, the dinghy outboards buzz out in the harbor.  The bright, white, August light silvers every leaf and every needle to pearly luminescence.

In the end, Robert Douglas prevails, although only after Mother insists that Ian dig out the old army cots from the garage, and after Robert Douglas promises to use them, and also promises to allow his girls to camp out in the living room with their cousin Nathan.  Robert Douglas, Walt, and Ian struggle to put up the tent – Robert Douglas doesn’t seem to have a clue how to pitch the thing, which is a sort of geodesic dome sprung suspended by a web of aluminum poles.  When they finally finish and after Walt has gone on to barbeque the salmon, Robert Douglas pulls Ian aside.  “What,” he asks in a whisper, “is the agenda?”

Ian answers that he has no idea what the agenda is because, as Robert Douglas might recall, Ian has just arrived that morning, on a sailboat, from an interrupted sailing vacation.

Robert Douglas flashes Ian a skeptical, disgusted look.  “I’d hoped we could spare Mother the burden.”

Ian shrugs.

But actually, Ian does know the agenda.

He knows that Mother wants to hold the ash spreading on Ian’s sailboat and he knows she wants to pass out Dad’s things because all spring she has insisted Walt and Ian clean out Dad’s workshop so that his things might be “disbursed” to the “children.”  The things in Seattle have been taken to Friday Harbor where they have been combined with the things that are already in Friday Harbor and then earmarked to each according to a list she’d prepared: Dad’s salmon rods and Shakespeare reels to Walt, his woodworking tools to Robert Douglas, his sailing charts and hand-bearing compass to Ian, his aluminum canoe to Cecie.  Some things she has left undesignated – you kids, she told Ian, will have to decide, and what better time to decide than when we are all together with Robert Douglas.

But Ian doesn’t tell any of this to Robert Douglas.

What makes him not tell it?  Is it because Robert Douglas insisting on the ash spreading here, and now, has ruined Ian’s vacation?  Or is it something else?  In the bedroom the three brothers shared, they were like opposing armies: on one side, Ian and Walt, sweat socks, athletic tape, jockstraps encamped like pup tents, the walls enflamed by Playboy pinups in defiance of Mother’s pinup prohibitions.  And on Robert Douglas’s side, chessmen marshaled in neat rows, photographs of his high school glee club, a Harvard College pennant, a Simon and Garfunkel poster, rows of shoes, canvas to the left, leather to the right.

But Ian is also thinking how in Father, Robert Douglas had what he and Walt and Cecie didn’t have, a father who loved what Robert Douglas did – chess; Thelonius Monk; building shortwave radio kits, kites.


It’s one of those nights when summer lies gently on the island.  Seawall creosote tangs the air.  The sun is blood red – “Old Testament red,” Dad would have said.  How can you see this evening and not see life’s underlying goodness?

The kids are upstairs watching a video.  Emily has brought out a fourth bottle of wine. Mother suggests a game.  “Trivial Pursuits?”  Ian is quick to second the motion followed by Walt and Muriel and Cecie.  Emily begs off, saying the way this family plays Trivial Pursuits makes her feel dumb.  Mary Catherine says she’s feeling “pooped,” maybe from too much wine.  Do you drink this much every weekend?  Robert Douglas, who is sitting on the steps that lead down to the dock, says nothing.

The family does play an aggressive Trivial Pursuits, as though not knowing an answer says more about one’s intelligence than one’s IQ.  It’s the way the family plays all games.  Fiercely. No holds barred.  Always to win.  Long ago they abandoned segregating teams by gender.  As Walt says, winning at Trivial Pursuits isn’t worth a weekend of celibacy.  They divide up: Muriel, Mother, and Ian against Walt and Cecie and, they presume, Robert Douglas.  Mother knows all the entertainment questions; Muriel is excellent at history; Ian is a geography whiz.  A strong team.  But they’ll have to watch Walt on sports and Cecie, who is an autodidact in every category, especially the Baby-Boomer category.  When Cecie asks Robert Douglas to sit closer so their team can strategize answers, Robert Douglas says to count him out.  But rather than following Mary Catherine out to the tent he sits on the steps watching.

The game gets loud as everybody drinks more wine.  Mother sings fragments of the Broadway musical Into the Woods, which she has just correctly guessed is by Stephen Sondheim, Walt wonders when he’s going to get a “truly tough” sports question.  “Bring ‘em on,” Walt growls.  Muriel has answered questions about the Thirty Years War, who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, and Guy Fawkes Day.  Cecie identifies five Beatles songs that were number one on the charts in the sixties, after which it is discovered that she has palmed a Baby-Boomer card into the regular Trivial Pursuits deck.  All the while Robert Douglas watches in silence.

How does he see us, Ian wonders.  Mother as out of touch?  Cecie as a tramp?  Walt as a bullying buffoon?  Ian as an older-brother martinet?  The more Ian thinks about this, the angrier he becomes, although Robert Douglas hasn’t actually said anything, but after Ian correctly guesses the five former Soviet Republics that are now independent Central Asian countries he begins to feel more charitable, and besides, the night is beautiful and the stars are out and the ferry is coming into the harbor and it’s lit up like an electric-light layer cake and he’s probably imagining Robert Douglas’s disapproval anyway.

Finally, Mother announces that maybe Mary Catherine was right, maybe we did drink too much wine.

At which point Robert Douglas stands up and says, “It’s not just the boozing.  We’re here to honor Father and you’re singing and carrying on like you’re at a frat party.”  And then he walks off into the darkness, bound, they assume, for his tent.

“Oh dear…” Mother says.  She suddenly looks old.

“Pompous little prick,” Walt mutters.

“Maybe from his perspective,” Muriel says, “we were being irreverent.”

“He’s right about one thing,” Cecie says.  “It’s time to go to bed.”

Everybody helps clean up.  Emily loads the dishwasher.  Walt and Muriel head off to their room above the garage.  Mother to hers on the first floor.  Ian tells Emily he plans to stay up a few more minutes so that he can count the stars and enjoy what’s left of the evening.

But the real reason he stays up is that Robert Douglas has upset him.  His brother’s determination to pass judgment on everybody is one more thing Ian doesn’t like about Robert Douglas.  When had that begun?  When had their bullying him changed to him bullying us?

But it doesn’t take long before the sound of waves breaking on the gravel below the seawall calms Ian.  He begins to think about what Dad’s brother, Uncle Frank, said at Dad’s memorial service.  “A week won’t go by,” Frank said, “when you won’t remember your dad.”

 And Frank is right: he does remember Dad.  But the trouble is he remembers Dad dead.

The day Dad died, Mother had asked Ian to come out to their house.  It was February.  The Olympic Mountains – you could see them from his parent’s front windows – were snow covered, and it was a time of year the Salish people call Bright and Shining because the light is low and hard, reflecting from Puget Sound and the Cascade and Olympics summits.  Mother asked if Ian wanted to see Dad.  Ian didn’t.  Not dead.  But he went to see him anyway.  Dad’s bedroom was cluttered, as it always was, with Dad’s maps and Dad’s Popular Science magazines, and Dad’s New York Times clippings and Dad’s Fodor’s travel guidesA partially disassembled radio sat on the TV tray next to his bed.  He lay under his covers, his head uncovered, his teeth out, his jaw slack.  When Ian kissed his forehead, his father’s forehead was cold.  “Goodbye, old man,” he whispered, although he’d never called him old man when he was alive.

A breeze cools Ian’s cheeks.  A heron croaks.  The stars to the west have vanished.  There’s weather coming.  Ian rises from his chair, closes the porch doors, and heads up to Emily and bed.


In the morning it drizzles.  Emily and Muriel are fixing breakfast.  Mother sits in the leather chair by the window, staring out at the leaden harbor.  She’s wearing a bathrobe and slippers and although her hair has been brushed and pinned back in a bun, she has not yet put on her makeup and the lack of makeup makes her face look gray.  Lately, because of a bad hip, she has begun using a cane.  Does time take a harsher toll on a woman so beautiful as Mother?

“I hope it won’t be too wet for the ceremony,” Mother says.

 “Rain won’t be a problem,” Ian replies.  Although wind might.  He decides to check the forecast before mentioning this to Mother.

“Before the ceremony I guess we’ll disburse Daddy’s things,” Mother says.  “Once Robert Douglas wakes.”

The rest of the family, except Robert Douglas, shows up for breakfast.  Nathan begins teaching the girls how to skateboard.  Mary Catherine says that it’s good for the girls to hang with their cousin.  Muriel and Emily, both teachers, are commiserating about No Child Left Behind.  Walt and Ian are debating the merits of different salmon lures.  Everybody is renewing connections, strengthening ties.  For a moment the cares of the world seem distant: terrorists, meltdowns, global warming.

By ten o’clock, Robert Douglas still hasn’t emerged from his tent.  The rain is falling harder. Mary Catherine sends Zoë out with a cup of coffee. Zoë returns and says that her daddy wants breakfast but he wants to eat in the tent.

Ian recognizes this as an all-too-familiar gesture.  They have offended Robert Douglas.  He’s making certain they know it.

 “For heaven’s sake,” Mother says.  “What’s gotten into Lispy?”

 “I’m so sorry,” Mary Catherine says.  And maybe she really is.  What a trial it must be to live with Robert Douglas.

“I’ll help you put a tray together,” Emily tells Zoë.  She steers the girl into the kitchen.

 “Maybe one of you should ask him in,” Mother says.

Cecie, who is reading the morning paper, mutters something incomprehensible.

“What’s that?” Mother says.

“He’s tormenting us,” Cecie says.  “It’s vintage Robert Douglas.”

“Do any of you,” Mother says, “think we might be responsible?”

Walt says, “Is it ten o’clock already?  I need to check the fish.”  He scoots out the back door.

What, Ian wonders, does “check the fish” mean?

“Are we responsible for what Lispy said last night?” Cecie says.

“Well I don’t know …” Mother says.

“I’ll talk to him,” Mary Catherine says, “after he’s had something to eat.”

“Mention that he should look over Dad’s stuff in the garage,” Ian says.

Five piles.  Fishing poles and life jackets and pup tents; hammers and coping saws and monkey wrenches; binoculars and mooring lines.  Five piles labeled per Mother’s instructions. One pile for each sibling.  The fifth, the largest, labeled “Undecided.”

The rain continues to fall.  Small-craft warnings have been hoisted.  Walt and Ian confer, decide Walt’s boat, a motorized trawler, will be a better option in case the weather deteriorates (gale warnings are already up in the Strait).  Mother, who long ago lost all interest in boats, acquiesces. S he seems listless and distracted.  Has this extended mourning taxed her spirit? But, as Mother likes to say, there’s no such thing as spirit, only attitude.  Mary Catherine brings the breakfast tray back from the tent.

The family is discussing whether to leave the kids ashore for the ash spreading when the front door swings open.  Robert Douglas stands in the doorway.  His figure blocks the light. He cradles Dad’s urn to his chest as if it were an infant child.

“What,” he says in a hollow voice, “is the meaning of this?”

They all fall silent.  Does anybody besides Ian, Ian wonders, recognize Dad’s urn?

“What is it?” Mary Catherine asks.

“It’s Daddy’s urn,” Mother says.

Robert Douglas takes three slow steps into the cabin.  His lugubrious pace reminds Ian of a casket bearer, which in a way he is.  Although Ian finds this amusing, he manages to keep a straight face.

“I found it,” Robert Douglas says, “next to a can of epoxy glue.  On a garage shelf.”

He’s now standing only a step or two away from where Ian is sitting.  The color has drained from Robert Douglas’s face and his hands are trembling.

“I guess,” Cecie says, “Daddy’s just carrying out the family tradition.  Grandma in the laundry room.  Daddy above the workbench.”

“That’s not funny,” Robert Douglas doesn’t take his eyes off Ian.  “Mother, how could you so dishonor father?”  He holds the urn in one arm and edges toward Ian.

Mother looks confused.  “I haven’t dishonored anybody…”

“Should we be grateful you didn’t let them use Father to block up the truck?”

“Take it easy, Lispy,” Walt says.

Take it easy – that’s your answer for everything.”

For a second or two the room remains silent, pregnant with Robert Douglas’s allegations.

“If you’d all paid more attention to Dad’s care,” Robert Douglas continues, “maybe Dad would still be alive.”

The blood rushes to Ian’s face.  “You weren’t here,” he says.  “You never are.”

Then, in a move so quick nobody can stop it, Robert Douglas slaps Ian across the face.  Ian’s glasses clatter to the floor.  Ian struggles to get to his feet but Walt’s hands are already pressing down on his shoulders.  Ian feels his cheeks sting.  He hears the children laughing upstairs.  He sees the urn in Robert Douglas’s arms.  He sees Mary Catherine pulling Robert Douglas out the door.  He hears Nathan asking from upstairs, “Mom, what’s going on?”  He hears Mother asking, “Is he okay?”  And then he hears her saying that she “wished to God she never suggested this.”  He feels Muriel taking his arm, and placing his glasses in his hand – one of the lenses has cracked – and she is whispering to him, “Jesus has already forgiven him. You will too.  It’ll just take time.”


What would they do without their women?  Their women feed them.  Their women love them.  Their women mend them.  Muriel takes Ian down to the dock where she allows him to blow off steam, commiserates with him that the ash-spreading was a bad idea, allows him to suggest that “we can’t forget we’re doing it for Mother,” until he is calmed enough that’s okay to bring him back up to the cabin.  Cecie, Emily, and Mary Catherine make gentle deputations to Robert Douglas until, in so short a time it’s almost unimaginable, they all find themselves aboard Walt’s boat, outbound to the ash-spreading ceremony.

Mary Catherine volunteers to stay ashore with the kids.

The rain has stopped but left fog in its wake.  Streamers of fog rise on the breeze and drop down into the harbor in long cottony arms, embracing the anchored boats, wafting through the red-barked madronas and the blue-green Douglas firs.  Out in the channel a horn sounds.  Walt and Ian stand side by side in the trawler cabin.  Robert Douglas crouches on the foredeck, clutching Dad’s urn to his chest like he used to clutch his Blinky-the-bear, the bear that Walt and Ian took turns mock executing.

Do the crimes committed against siblings last a lifetime?

Robert Douglas makes his way to the foremost point of the bow, holding the urn in one hand, and steadying himself on the teak rail.  Ian imagines his brother rehearsing whatever pompous sentiment he plans to offer.   But the urn, which only a little while ago brought forth so much anger, is to Ian’s mind no more than a jar and ashes.

It’s breezy and there’s a strong tide in the channel and the boat is rising and falling in the chop.  Mother is slowly making her way forward.

“I’ll take the helm,” Ian says to Walt.  “You help Mother.”

“Thanks,” Walt says.  “Keep her on a steady course.”  He slips out the side door and takes Mother’s arm.

Ian is happy at the helm.  Despite Muriel’s ministrations, he’s prefers to avoid proximity to Robert Douglas.

Emily, Muriel, and Cecie, the three women who are most dear to Ian, are standing behind Robert Douglas.  Wind blows their hair.  The sun, which has just come out, gilds their faces.  They are as beautiful and slender and graceful as any daughters of Neptune.  Ian wants to remember Dad in these women, in how the wind caresses their hair, in the keening of gulls above the boat, in the sun that glows through this gauzy fog and that warms your skin, in the smell of seaweed drying on the tide.  It is these things that are the monuments to Dad.  Not his ashes.

The wind is brisk, right on the bow.  Walt signals Ian to back off the throttle.

 The family has organized themselves into a semi-circle.  Robert Douglas is saying something.  Ian can’t hear him over the diesel’s rumble.  Now Robert Douglas is unscrewing the top of the urn.  He raises his hand to check the direction of the wind.  He steps to the port side.

Is anything ever forgiven?

Ian spins the helm to starboard.  The boat swings dead into the wind just as Robert Douglas upends the urn.

Ashes blow back in Robert Douglas’s face.  He drops the urn.  It plops into the water with a quick splash.  Emily screams.  The three women dance out of the path of the ashes.  But it’s hopeless.  Ashes are flying everywhere.  Across the deck.  Down the scuppers.  In everybody’s hair.  Then Mother starts laughing and the women start laughing and Walt is laughing and Ian is laughing.

The only one not laughing is Robert Douglas.