Avatar photo

Sifting Through the Ashes

Grant that these ashes may be a sign of our mortality and penitence ….

—  “Ash Wednesday Liturgy,”  Book of Common Prayer



I return to my pew, ashes feeling like paste on my forehead, past the smattering of people scattered throughout the church, their faces already smudged between their eyes. We all wear winter coats. At 7:00 a.m. the old furnace in Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church wheezes and coughs as it labors to heat the sanctuary to a dank 60°. I think of my father rising in the winter at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings in February, trudging up the hill from our house to the First Congregational Church to stoke the coal furnace for the 10 o’clock service. With something approaching reverence, I remember how hard he worked to provide for his wife and three children. But as our rector intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I hear Dad’s voice, slightly slurred from several double shots of Old Crow and raspy from his Camels—“I may be just a dumb carpenter, but I don’t see the point of sitting around in a cold church with shit on your face”—and all my irritation at his endless negativity returns.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my father lately. Twenty years after his death, I wonder if I’m finally grieving. When he died, I’d just left my wife for another woman. In the following months, I moved back to my hometown, remarried, became a stepfather to two sons, and changed teaching jobs twice. Two years later, my daughter was diagnosed with a rare and virulent cancer, and her death has overshadowed almost everything in my life since. Now, however, at sixty-six, the age Dad died, I find myself remembering him, trying to sort through feelings which range from admiration to exasperation, pride to shame.


Through [cremation] … the body is reduced to its basic elements, which are referred to as the “cremated body” or “cremated remains.”… Depending upon the size of the body, there are normally three to nine pounds of  fragments resulting.



After twenty years, what remains of my father? I have a wooden platter on the wall I can remember him carving before the days he fell asleep in front of the television. In the bedroom, I have a footstool he helped me make when I was a kid. In the dining room, I have a candle box and some cup holders he made after he retired.

I have a few newspaper clippings describing his athletic prowess. One refers to him as Lester “Bullet” Wile, after he anchored North Yarmouth Academy’s winning swim team and set a Triple C Conference record in the backstroke. Another article tells of how, even though he gave up eight hits, he pitched NYA to a 2-1 victory over Standish, “bearing down in the pinches ….”

I don’t recall ever hearing him brag about these accomplishments, and I never saw him exercise. “I get my goddamn workout climbing up and down ladders every day,” he’d say. Still, he had an easy, even careless athleticism that I always envied.

I remember him playing catch with me with a cigarette in his mouth, and pitching me batting practice in his overalls and work boots. When I got to high school, he’d occasionally put down his Blue Ribbon and shoot baskets with me, flicking his two-hand set shot into the basket he put up for me on the garage he’d built almost single-handedly a few years earlier.

As part of my sixteenth birthday celebration, I decided my family should go bowling. My little brother Roger cried after his third ball rolled in the gutter and said he didn’t want to play any more. My sister Jaye and my mother each managed to knock down three pins. Nervous, I bowled a 5 for my first frame. Dad butted his cigarette, shuffled to the lane, picked up a ball, took three smooth strides, and bowled a strike. “Not much to this game, is there?” he said.

I have a photograph of Dad in his baseball uniform, and several of him from when he served in the Army during World War II. In one of these he’s smoking a pipe and wearing his sergeant’s stripes; in another, he leans against my mother by the side of a car, one arm around her shoulder, the other on his hip, his elbow thrust out confidently.

In photographs taken after the war, he usually appears standing with his wife and three children in the yard, or sitting at a family dinner table—his hair cut ever shorter, his stomach ever bigger, as his appetites begin to bloat his body. I remember my embarrassment on his birthdays when we’d go out to eat and he’d order the largest meal on the menu, if possible the two-lobster special, which he’d consume with single-minded determination, never talking, simply demolishing the lobsters, leaving nothing behind but a few shells.

I have a photograph of him from after he retired, when he’s dressed in khaki—everything from his long billed cap to the rubber soled canvass shoes that he bought at Kmart for $15 a pair. This is about the time he was topping off his breakfast with a glass of Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy before moving through the day to Pabst Blue Ribbon, finishing with the Old Crow and falling asleep on the couch at 7:00 p.m.

In the last picture I have of him, taken about two months before he died, he wears horn-rimmed glasses and although he and my mother stand in shadows, he squints as if the sun were in his eyes. Loose pasty flesh hangs from his jowls and his neck. He looks eight months pregnant.


You can flush my ashes down the toilet, for all I care.

—Carolyn Heilbrun



Every Fourth of July, my father shoveled shit. At least that’s what I remember, although our septic tank probably didn’t back up more than three times in the twenty-five years we lived on Bridge Street. Still, in my memory, my father’s shoveling shit is as much a part of Fourth of July in the 1950’s as the intermittent popping of firecrackers during the day or the town fireworks display at night.

Nine or ten or eleven years old, I would watch Dad methodically dig down three to four feet through the rocks and clay that lay under the grass in our back yard: stepping down on the shovel, lifting the dirt, pausing, turning the head of the shovel to drop the dirt where he wanted, then reversing the arc downward.

He talked to himself in his cigarette-smoke-cured voice: “Goddamn septic tank (step down) … What’s the friggin’ use (lift up) … Work all week for chicken shit (turn) … Shovel more shit on the holidays (drop) … Some goddamn life” (swing down) …. He cursed his high school for not preparing him for a trade after he graduated, cursed World War II for taking five years from his life, cursed Frank Wilson who’d stayed home during the war and made money in real estate and who, according to Dad, was probably lying in the shade right about then, drinking beer.

When the sun rose to the top of the maple trees in the front yard, my father peeled off his sleeveless undershirt. When the sun got directly overhead, he ran water on the undershirt and tied it around his head. When he reached the septic tank, he pulled a pint of Old Crow from the pocket of his overalls, and took several swigs before using a crow bar to pry open the rusty cover of the tank. Standing in the shade of our apple tree, away from the smell, I heard my father’s distant, dry voice—“Jesus H. Christ from Baltimore! How much toilet paper do you kids use at one time, anyway?”—felt my face flush with shame because it was my fault my father had to shovel shit on his only summer holiday, just as it was my fault for needing new shoes, my fault that we ate fried bologna while Frank Wilson’s family ate steak.

Yet what strikes me now is that in some weird way my father was, if not happy, then at least content, as if shoveling shit confirmed his conviction that God and Circumstance had conspired to make his life as shitty as possible.

Dad’s father, Lymon, immigrated to the United States from Nova Scotia to work in a Marlborough, Massachusetts shoe factory. Nobody in my family ever talked much about him, because he and Dad’s mother, Edith, divorced when Dad was three or four years old. For the next eight years—years Dad never talked about—my father lived in what 1920’s Massachusetts called “A Home for Wayward Boys,” while his mother worked at a W.T. Grant’s department store. I gather she visited him on weekends. In 1931, Edith married Leon Lufkin, a thirty-eight year old Hardshell Baptist, and she and my father moved to Yarmouth, Maine, where, because of having had little education, he was placed in classes two years below other students his age.

“I remember one of the first times Dad and I went out together,” my mother once told me. “We went to a high school dance. He walked me home afterwards and I said, ‘I had fun, I like you very much.’ He was quiet, and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’

“He said, ‘No one’s ever told me that before.’”

So perhaps, when my father shoveled out the septic tank, he knew his family loved him, and if he had to clean up their shit, well, that was better than living in the Home for Wayward Boys or in an Army barracks.

Or maybe he was simply jacked up by half a pint of Old Crow.

Whatever the reason, I remember my father half muttering, half singing—“Over hill, over dale: we have hit the dusty trail. And those Caissons keep rolling along”—as he and I carried the shit down the hill from our yard to a ditch that ran to the river. And I remember the smell dancing in waves over our buckets and the sweat burning my eyes and the pride I took in helping him.


… I marle what pleasure or felicity they have in taking their roguish tobacco. It is good for nothing but to choke a man, and fill him full of smoke and embers.

—Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour



I grew up surrounded by ashtrays. I recall square ashtrays and round ashtrays, glass ashtrays, wooden ashtrays, metal ashtrays. I remember a bumpy white ashtray in the dining room, and a small clear glass ashtray on the toilet tank in our bathroom and a matching one beside the bathtub. In the living room stood a metal stand holding a huge glass brown ashtray beside Dad’s chair, where, on Friday nights, he sat and drank Blue Ribbon and ate Spanish peanuts and smoked his Camels, watching The Life of Riley, Boston Blackie, and The Gillette Friday Night Fights on our black and white Philco. Sometimes his friend Dick Loomis, who always wore a fedora with the brim turned up in front like Ed Norton on The Honeymooners, came over to cheer on Kid Gavilan or Tiger Jones. I sat on the couch, eating my bologna sandwich, aware at some level of being initiated into the male world of razor blades and cigarettes and beer and violence.

My senior year in high school, the day after my last varsity basketball game, I filched a pack of Dad’s Camels from the carton he always had in his bedroom closet. I spent one afternoon in front of a mirror imitating Dad when he smoked—wedging a cigarette into the V between my index and middle fingers so that the cigarette seemed part of my hand, casually raising my hand to his mouth and inhaling slowly, drawing the smoke deep into my lungs, trying to exhale with a satisfied sigh as smoke seared my lungs and tears rolled down my face. But I got the hang of it, and the next day I bought my own Camels. After about a week, I was smoking a pack a day, just like Dad.

But eventually I quit, and so did my mother and my brother and my sister. That my father couldn’t or wouldn’t, I’ve always felt, demonstrates a serious flaw in his character. He switched to a pipe for a while, but instead of puffing at it like you’re supposed to, he inhaled the same way he did his cigarettes. He developed a racking cough and doctors told him he had to quit. He said, “Alright, goddamn it, I will,” and began sneaking cigarettes like a teenager in the bathroom and on daily trips to the town dump.

One Saturday morning three or four years before he died, my family and I drove down to visit my parents, and found ourselves in what felt like a parade of cars up Main Street behind this one vehicle crawling at 15 miles an hour. I eventually realized that the lead car belonged to Dad—old Bullet Wile—smoke wafting out his rolled down window. When I told my mother, she said she’d stopped talking to him about his smoking because at least this way he didn’t smoke as much. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t show a little self-discipline, at least with something that was obviously killing him, but I never said anything to him, either.


Ashes. Having sex

e.g. “Getting your ashes hauled.”

“She said I could haul her ashes better than any other man, she said I could sow my seed anytime in her ash can.”

—from “Ash Can Blues”

A Dictionary of Hipster Slang


There’s a woman at my church who grew up in Yarmouth and who remembers being in the sixth grade when she saw my father for the first time. “I can still see him swaggering into the class,” she tells me every August when I have flowers put on the altar in Dad’s memory. “The guys were all afraid of him and we girls thought him the best looking kid we’d ever seen.”

I’ve always thought that as a young man, my father looked like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and that with his looks and his athletic successes, he could have had as many women as he wanted; but he started dating my mother when he was seventeen and she was fourteen, and Mom once told me she doesn’t think he ever looked at another woman. My sister, however, says that Mom once confided to her that shortly after returning home from overseas, Dad woke her up in the night calling “Yvette!” Which doesn’t prove a thing, of course, but having committed adultery myself, I have this part of me that wants him to have had an overseas affair just so I can feel I understand him a better. I can appreciate the loneliness and longing that drives a man to adultery more easily than I can comprehend whatever it is that turns him into a sofa cushion.

I want to say it was Dad’s fault that I was forty before I understood what sex is, but I know that’s unfair: I’m the one who stole into his bedroom and found those pictures. I was probably thirteen and the week before, my friend Jerry had told me he’d discovered where his dad kept his condoms, so the next night my parents were both out, I went searching. When I pulled open the drawer in the knotty pine headboard that my father had built into the wall behind their bed, I found not only the red and white foil packs I’d been looking for, but a series of smudged, gray and black postcards of a naked man and a woman engaged in a variety of amazing acts that set my heart racing and sent a shiver from my stomach to my groin. Thinking of those pictures now, I remember the participants as fat and hairy and that some of their activities involved animals, and I wonder if those postcards weren’t at least partially responsible for my years of seeing the act of love as some grimy peepshow.

But that’s my problem, not Dad’s. As far as I know, his dirty pictures didn’t affect his marriage. No, what I realize I’m angry at is that he never talked to me about sex. Or love. Or much of anything else, for that matter.


Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns …

—Robert Southwell


Home for Christmas break during my sophomore year at the University of Maine, I sat in the living room with Dad, watching television after supper. That fall I’d switched my major from forestry to English, and after Chet Huntley and David Brinkley had said their goodnights, I said I’d like to watch a public television production of Dylan Thomas’s poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” When Dad didn’t say anything, I changed channels.

As the television screen filled with black and white photographs, and Thomas’s melodic voice recounted Christmases rolling “down toward the two-tongued sea,” and “ice-edged fish-freezing waves,” and “wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays,” my father grunted through his nose. As Thomas finished describing the fire in Mrs. Prothero’s kitchen—“She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, ‘Would you like anything to read?’” —Dad flicked the ashes of his cigarette into a long green ashtray and muttered, “Good God. What kind of dumb question is that?”

I had a hard enough time trying to understand the poem without his interruptions. “Sshh,” I said.

Dad groaned as he pulled himself out of his chair. I heard ice cubes rattling in the kitchen. He thumped back into the living room, lit another cigarette, and groaned again as he lay down on the couch, resting his Old Crow on his stomach. In a minute or two, he was mumbling again, until Thomas’s catalogue of Christmas presents—“mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarves of a substance like silky gum that could be tug-o’-warred down to the galoshes”—when he barked, “Oh, for chrissakes! What a faggot.”

I looked at this lout lying there like a dying dogfish. I pounded my fist on the arm of the chair and stormed upstairs. As I slammed the door to my bedroom, I heard Dad call to my mother, “What the hell’s wrong with him?”

Over the next twenty years, it seemed to me that my father became more and more cynical, anti-social, and self-absorbed. On my parents’ annual visits to our house, he seemed anxious to leave from the moment he arrived—checking his watch, heaving long sighs, leaving in the middle of a conversation to go outdoors and sneak a smoke, returning to say that whoever had hung the front door to my house had done a piss-poor job. I remember taking him fishing once, but after complaining about how far we had to walk to get to the river, he lost his lure on the first cast and spent the rest of the evening with his shirt pulled over his head, waving his arms to ward off the black flies.

During visits from my family and me, he’d fall asleep on the couch while we were talking, then wake us at 4:00 the next morning with his coughing. One weekend he stayed in bed the entire time with some kind of flu. His throat bothered him, so he lay there with a bell, which he’d ring every time he wanted my mother’s attention—usually every thirty minutes or so. Once when Mom left to see what he wanted, I thought, “How does she stand that man?”

I grew determined not to become like him. Because he kept his hair cropped as short as possible, I grew my hair long. Because I didn’t remember him going a day without shaving, I cultivated a beard. I stopped smoking and took up long-distance running. As his waistline burgeoned, I subscribed to health food magazines. As he showed more and more signs of alcohol dependency, I stopped drinking. Most of all, I tried as much as possible to ignore him.


After all that work!

A bucket of ash

and smoke


into the air.

—David Budbill, “Smoke and Ash”



When my mother called to say that Dad had been diagnosed with oat cell carcinoma—a highly malignant form of lung cancer that occurs only in smokers—I drove down to see him. He spent that weekend lying in bed or on the couch in his faded blue bathrobe, while I sat in his recliner watching football, and thinking about a woman in Colorado with whom I’d recently spent the weekend. I couldn’t believe Dad was really sick. Ever since I could remember, he’d suffered from cramps and diarrhea, moaning in his bed and running upstairs to the bathroom with his bathrobe wrapped around him. But after the day—what was I, twelve?—I connected his lamentations with the garbage pail full of clamshells and beer bottles, I stopped paying attention to his bitching.

By Sunday afternoon, I was impatient to get back to my one room apartment and an hour on the phone with the woman I loved. Suddenly, Dad rolled off the couch and staggered to the bathroom, leaving a trail of shit on the floor behind him. For the first time, I sensed how sick he was. As I grabbed a paper towel and began to clean up after him, I felt myself growing angry. I didn’t need this: I had a three-hour drive ahead of me. I had a future to plan.

When my father returned to the couch, silent, apparently oblivious to the mess he’d made and to my having cleaned up after him, I drummed my fingers on the arms of the chair. After he closed his eyes, I looked at my watch. Yes, doctors had given him two weeks to two months to live, but that meant he’d be here next weekend, probably in the same place.

I waited a few minutes, then got up and called to my mother, who was down the hall, paying bills. “I’ve got to hit the road,” I said, “get ready for work tomorrow.” Dad didn’t speak. I kissed Mom good-bye. I took my coat from the closet. I walked to the front door. I grabbed the doorknob, then turned and walked quickly back into the living room. My father hadn’t moved.

I nudged his shoulder. “See you next week, Dad.” When he opened his eyes—sunken, wide, and glazed—I saw in them what I’d never before seen in my father: fear. Chills ran up my arms. I searched for something to say, but no words came; instead, I dropped my hand again and touched his shoulder. Before I could pull away, he squeezed my wrist with a warm hand that made the rest of me feel even colder.

He died the next day.


[Ashes form because]…almost everything in nature is what chemists call “heterogeneous”—that is, its composition is not uniform. For this reason, not every part is “pure” substance and will not burn.

—Caveman Chemistry


When Dad received word that he was terminally ill, he said to my mother, “Well, sixty-six isn’t too bad.” When the pastor of his church asked him the next day if there was anything he wanted to confess to God before he died, my father said, “God knows who I am. We get along okay.” I like to see in these remarks what Hemingway called “grace under pressure,” and I try to remember them instead of those drops of shit on the linoleum and the fear in his sunken eyes.

Both memories are, of course, part of his legacy—what he left behind, as well as the wooden knick-knacks and the newspaper clippings and the photographs. He also leaves me his distaste for confrontation and his prejudices against those with more money or more opportunities than the rest of us. He leaves me some of his mannerisms: the way I rub my index finger over my thumb when I sit in church, the way I groan after a big meal, the way I talk to myself.

But all of these, too, will eventually decay and disappear, and so I’m back to Ash Wednesday’s admonition: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

As I sift through my father’s metaphorical ashes, I still don’t understand some of his impurities— especially his solipsistic negativity which seemed to increase just when he had the time and the means to enjoy life. But at the age he was when he died, more aware of my own addictions, my own difficulty trying to talk to my children, I’m becoming more tolerant of his imperfections. He was human; he was heterogeneous.

I only wish I could have seen him that way when he was alive, instead of as this effigy called “Dad,” which I’ve either wanted to put on a pedestal or burn to cinders.


Abruptly the poker of memory stirs the ashes of recollection and uncovers a forgotten ember, still smoldering down there, still hot, still glowing, still red as red.

—William Manchester



March 19: four weeks after Ash Wednesday, the Feast of Saint Joseph, patron saint of workingmen and guardian of the home. Another reminder of my father.

I’m dropping off a couple of bags of old magazines, juice cartons, empty tin cans, and plastic bottles at the single-sort dumpster on the other side of the highway from the Yarmouth Boat Yard. As I return to my car, I look at the ash-gray piles of remaining snow along the road, and see Dad in his top coat and fedora methodically dipping his coal shovel into a bucket of ashes from the furnace at church and spreading the cinders across the icy sidewalk so that no one will fall going into the service.

Sun breaks through the leaden clouds, warming the back of my neck. Across a road full of potholes and frost heaves and lined with puddles, boats encased in plastic shrink-wrap loom like ghosts. For the last ten years of his life, Dad kept a boat here, and I realize that my memories of his spending all his retirement asleep on the sofa are wrong. For the first time since it happened, I remember the Labor Day weekend he took me out in his boat. That was the weekend the resentments that had smoldered for years at the roots of my first marriage ignited. I’d packed my clothes into the older of two cars and driven to Yarmouth to spend the holiday with my parents before looking for a place to live.

Despite bitching about what he thought was a stomachache (his cancer wouldn’t be diagnosed for a couple of months), Dad offered to take me fishing. I’d never been out with him before, never even seen the boat except in pictures. We walked along the docks of the Yarmouth Boat Yard to a slip at the far end, where his sixteen-foot outboard sat like an afterthought amid all the sailboats and cabin cruisers. Even sixty pounds overweight, my father still moved with easy grace as he unbuttoned the canvas top of the boat and untied the mooring ropes. As we puttered down the Royal River, I sat in the stern and watched him at the wheel. The tide had just turned and the channel of the river was lined with mud banks. As we rounded a bend we saw a sailboat mired in the dark gray mud. A dejected looking man in bright red pants and a yellow shirt gave us a half-hearted wave.

Dad waved back with his long billed cap. He scratched his salt and pepper buzz cut. “Goddamned fool,” he chuckled. “Let him sit in that shit for a couple more hours. Give him time to remember the channel buoys are there for a reason.”

We rounded another bend and headed out into Casco Bay. Dad had me get us a couple of Blue Ribbons. We trolled a little for mackerel. I don’t remember if we caught any fish; I don’t remember what we talked about, only that it felt good to be with my Dad as he piloted us past the rocks and through the shoals and the seaweed and the occasional dead fish.

Now, some twenty years later, I look through the telephone wires and the alders and the swamp maples across the road to the harbor. Again, it’s low tide, and only a narrow channel cuts through lead-colored banks of mud. I watch an ice floe float down the river and disappear around the bend toward the bay and the ocean. Even though it’s still winter, I search the gray light of morning for my father, trolling for fish in his tiny boat, waiting for me to join him.














Join the conversation