BY CLAUS BREEDE
Copyright is held by the author.
NO MATTER what time of year it might be, the sunsets out over Lake Huron are almost always spectacular. On a typical summer’s evening, most of the folks living in one of the dozens of small towns dotted along the eastern shore line of that great lake will spend an hour or more sitting in their favourite lawn chair down by the water’s edge sipping a beer quietly with their loved ones, a close friend or a good neighbour. They will gaze in silent wonder out across that inland sea watching the clear blue sky taking on every colour of the rainbow as the sun slowly sinks below the horizon. If a talented artist tried to capture this natural kaleidoscope of ever changing colours, that effort would quickly be condemned as being too vibrant, too dramatic, and too incredible to be a true depiction of anything real.
This evening ritual had, for many years been a regular part of the Gabriel sisters’ daily life. They would even bundle themselves up in mid-November, in their well-worn, heavy Persian lamb fur coats, the ones Mom and Dad had given them almost 40 years ago, and pull their woollen scarves up over their mouths and noses so they could spend that final hour of the day watching the sun put on its magnificent evening performance.
The two sisters did everything together. They weren’t twins but as they had grown older, they started to look like carbon copies of each other. By the time they were both in their 80s, no one could tell them apart. To heighten the confusion, they took great delight in dressing exactly the same. They didn’t spend a lot of time on their hair, there wasn’t much of it left anyway, but what there was of it was exactly the same grey with exactly the same natural curliness and even though arthritis had started to slow them down a bit, they were still handy enough with a pair of scissors to cut each others’ hair, making sure it was always exactly the same length in exactly the same places.
They loved fooling everyone; even the few friends that were still around had difficulties telling them apart. Gladys and Kay still got a giggle over the young priest, Father Murphy, the same one who had said the Funeral Mass for Mom and Dad 10 years earlier. He had known the sisters for at least the last 30y years. Yet he always confused one for the other. Sometimes they thought he got them mixed up on purpose. Just to hear them giggle.
The two sisters had devoted their entire lives to looking after Mom and Dad and when they died, only a year apart, it had been hard on the sisters. First it was Dad. It was his second stroke, eight years after his first, that did him in. That first one had left Dad dependent on everyone but even so, he never lost his sense of humour and like Mom and the two sisters, he always enjoyed looking out at those magnificent sunsets. They were blessed to have that small home, a cottage really, right on the water. After Dad’s first stroke they had built a long ramp off the back deck so they could push Dad, in his wheelchair down to the gravel beach and the four of them would sit there, like they always had, watching the sun go down.
No matter what Gladys and Kay did, once Dad passed away, Mom sort of lost interest in everything and that last spring, not once did she want to go down to the waters edge and watch the sunset. She said it was too painful. But then what could you expect from someone, after they had spent every day of the last 75 years living with their best friend. She would sit in her overstuffed easy chair with those two little doilies, one over each armrest, right beside the mantel piece with the simple brass urn containing Dad’s ashes on the corner, right next to their faded wedding photograph. The photo didn’t look much like a wedding picture. She had had on her best dress that day and a few years later she had, when Dad gave her a pedal-powered sewing machine for Christmas, altered it and it became her favourite house dress. When she was all done with the alterations to that dress there was even enough fabric left over for two little baby jackets. Those first few years had been pretty hard on all four of them, but then, in those days, everyone had a tough time just to make ends meet.
A couple of times, after Dad died, when the two sisters came back from their evening ritual down at the beach, they did catch Mom, gazing, with a warm, moist glow in her eyes, out the window, across the dark waters of Lake Huron completely lost in her own thoughts. She was a long way away.
On one of those evenings Mom said while gazing out into the dark night, more to herself than to anyone in particular, “When I die I want to be cremated, just like your Dad.”
Gladys and Kay were taken by surprise and sat looking at Mom not knowing what to say. Finally Gladys spoke up softly, pushing her glasses all the way up on to the bridge of her nose. Her eyesight was not as good as it used to be, but then neither was Kay’s, or Mom’s for that matter. She and Kay had even gotten matching frames.
“Oh, Mom, that won’t be for a long time. For a 92 year old, you are in better shape than we are at 70 and 72,” Gladys insisted, patting her Mom’s hand gently.
“Promise me you will cremate me, just like your Dad,” insisted Mom.
“Sure, no problem Mom. We will do that. Just like Dad,” said Kay in a reassuring tone. She looked at Gladys with a slight shrug. Kay hated talking about things like that.
“Then I want you to mix my ashes with your father’s. Promise me you will do that. Mix us up really good. And then I want you to spread our ashes out over the lake, at sunset. You have to promise me you will do it at sunset. Pick a really nice sunset. No hurry. Just make it a really a nice sunset and then spread our ashes, mixed together, right down there, off our own beach, down by the rocks. Just before the sun is all gone.”
“What a lovely thought, Mom. We will do that. We promise.” The sisters said simultaneously.
They were starting to even sound like twins, with exactly the same emotional tone and commitment, accompanied by just a hint of uncertainty. The two sisters looked at each other, and without saying a word asked each other, “How on earth do we do that?”
Three months later Mom passed away quietly in her sleep. And just like Dad, Father Murphy said the Funeral Mass and helped Gladys and Kay find a brass urn just like Dad’s so that Mom could sit on the mantel piece, on the other side of the faded wedding photo, while the two sisters waited for that perfect sunset. They also waited for some kind of divine inspiration, a sign from somewhere, an answer to the question of how exactly they were supposed to carry out Mom’s final wish, the mixing thing.
Over the next little while Gladys and Kay got used to seeing the two identical urns flanking the faded wedding photo. They were a bit like two bookends, holding up that picture. It, somehow, looked right. And every now and then the sisters would pass a finger over the urns while reflecting, not only on Mom and Dad’s life together, but also on their own. They missed both of them terribly but felt that the connection was, somehow, never completely broken as long as those two urns remained on that mantle piece.
One evening, as the two sisters were walking back up the well worn path to the house, after a particularly beautiful sunset, Kay said, “You know, Gladys, this would have been the perfect sunset for Mom and Dad.”
“You know, Kay, I was thinking exactly the same thing. This would have been the perfect sunset,” said Gladys.
When they got back to the mantelpiece, Gladys took out the old bottle of sherry and dusted it off. It was still half full. Taking two of Mom’s favourite small cut-glass tumblers from the corner cabinet, she filled them both to just below the rim and the two sisters toasted Mom and Dad while hoping for that inspirational moment that never seemed to come.
As usual, without saying much, they both realized that they really should give some serious though to Mom’s last wish. After all, the 10th anniversary of her passing was next week and Kay’s 80th birthday was just around the corner. They weren’t getting any younger and neither one of them had yet come up with a solution to how best to honour Mom’s last wish.
“You know Kay, we can’t wait any longer for an answer to how to do this.” said Gladys.
“You know Gladys, you’re right. We can’t wait any longer for an answer on how to do this,” agreed Kay.
“We have to do something and soon. Maybe even next week.” They both said, in unison.
The next four days were spent in serious, and at times, very animated discussion, and finally a plan began to emerge with the help of the rest of that dusty bottle of sherry. The plan even called for a special trip, by taxi, to the local liquor store, five miles down the road, for a fresh bottle of sherry.
They decided that a good sunset closest to the 10th anniversary of Mom’s death would be the best time. As providence would have it, that sunset appeared on the exact date. It was a wonderful late spring evening in the middle of May.
It started early and by late afternoon the cloud formations were exactly right hinting strongly that this was going to be the one. Having lived all their lives on the edge of this great lake, the sisters had become experts at predicting the quality of the coming sunsets. There was a narrow band of clear blue sky stretched the full length of the horizon, from north to south and the white cloud layer covered everything from that band of blue, right up to the stony beach and on over the house. They knew this was going to be one of the most glorious sunsets in months and the first spectacular one of the year.
The fresh bottle of Sherry came out and the two sisters, with those same tumblers, drank a toast to the beginning of their preparations. The first thing to do was to drag the two large Muskoka chairs down to the narrow path to the beach and position them just right, facing the spot where the sun would be hitting the horizon in about an hour. Then it was back up to the house for a second glass of sherry. It was hot work dragging those heavy chairs all the way down to the beach. It had to be at least 300 feet and the chairs were way too heavy to lift.
Then it was into the kitchen and out came the package of large green garbage bags that they had purchased the day before, just for this occasion. Gladys peeled one of the bags off the bundle and brought it into the living room. With a great deal of reverence and even more self-discipline, suppressing a giggle, she shook the bag open in front of the mantelpiece and with the aid of a third glass of sherry handed the bag to Kay who held it open while she, mumbling a bit of a prayer, picked Dad up, and carefully wiggled off the friction lid. Pausing just long enough to take a final sip of sherry, she carefully poured Dad into the garbage bag making sure not to spill a drop of either Dad or the sherry. Carefully placing the empty urn back on the mantel, Gladys took the bag from Kay.
“Now it’s your turn. Take Mom and do the same thing with her. But first, here’s to Mom.” The two of them drained their sherry glasses.
With both Mom and Dad now safely resting at the bottom of the green garbage bag Gladys said, “OK Kay, gather the top of the bag tightly. Hold on tight now. We don’t want them spilling out over the top.”
There was a lot of air trapped inside the bag so it looked more like a giant, half inflated hot air balloon. Gladys, with a great deal of effort bent down. Her knees were not as good as they used to be. She reached under the bag as Kay raised it up just a bit and patted the bottom, shaking it up and down.
Kay started to giggle. She couldn’t help herself and pulled the bag up slightly higher. Gladys, with a few cracking bones, straightened up and started to giggle as well. As always, the two of them had the same thought at the same time, and in perfect unison the two of them began to shake the garbage bag up and down, behaving like two little six-year-old girls swaying back and forth, chanting, “Shake and Bake — Shake and Bake — Shake and Bake!”
They filled their tumblers once more and, trying very hard to regain some sense of solemnity, walked quietly down the narrow path to the waters edge, passing the two Muskoka chairs on the way. They stopped by the chairs, just long enough for Gladys to put the Sherry bottle and the two, by this time empty, tumblers on a flat armrest of the chair closest to the path. Kay was carrying the partially inflated garbage bag, which had begun to flutter in the early evening breeze. They saw this as nature’s way of helping to make sure that the “Shake and Bake” was complete. Kay doggedly kept a firm grip on the gathered neck of the bag to make sure it did not take off somewhere.
Their timing was perfect. The sun was fully above the horizon and completely exposed in that narrow band of clear sky, which had changed from a deep turquoise to a shimmering golden band casting a magnificent deep red colour on to the billowing white underside of the low lying clouds.
The two sisters slipped off their shoes and began to walk slowly over the fist-sized water-smoothed stones that formed the beach. They picked their way carefully, with Kay still hanging on to the bag, towards the cold water with its small waves lapping at the edge. Gladys reached down and grabbed the back of her skirt, pulling it forward and up between her legs. She tucked the edge of it into the front of her belt forming what looked like a pair of gigantic harem pants that filled with air. Handing Gladys Mom and Dad, Kay did the same with her dress and the two aging sisters, with their curly grey hair fluttering in the breeze stood there for a few minutes, silhouetted against the brilliant colours of a magnificent sunset. They began, very carefully to waddle hesitantly and slowly out in the shallow water as the sun began to disappear below the horizon. The water was icy cold and the small, choppy waves splashed against their shins and above their knees, soaking the lower edges of their harem pants. Neither of them was aware of the soaking. The occasion was overwhelming, and besides, there was the abundance of sherry.
Once they were far enough out, about 20 feet away from the shore, they took one final look at each other and both of them, without saying a word, reached down and took a firm grip on the bottom corners of the garbage bag letting the top open up. They inverted the bag and shook Mom and Dad out while whispering a short prayer of farewell. At that very moment the last bit of sun disappeared below the waves on the distant horizon casting a final burst of magnificent golden crimson across the sky. It was the perfect sunset.
It took Gladys and Kay almost a whole minute to fully realize the impact of an onshore breeze at sunset. Some of Mom and Dad did indeed find their final resting place in the dark blue waters of Lake Huron but most of them ended up as a fine grey ash all over the two sisters. Ash clung everywhere, on their dresses, on their arms, in their harem pants and in the grey wispy curls of their thinning hair. They plunged their hands into the lake and washed their eyes of the fine grit blurring their vision. Then they struggled back to the safety of the shoreline.
Wearing most of Mom and Dad, the sisters managed to get back to the two Muskoka chairs where they collapsed. Leaning back, bare legs spread out in front of them, they filled the two tumblers with the last of the sherry. They took a couple of deep draughts of the golden liquid. They looked at each other. They smiled. There was no point in being sad or upset. It had taken exactly 10 years, to the day, but they had finally kept their promise to Mom.
For the first time in years, the two of them burst into uncontrollable, almost painful laughter that left them breathless. In the failing light they could see a broad band of scum washing up in among the small stones along the waters edge, complete with bits of patella, the odd recognizable metacarpal and even a few small splinters of charred long bone here and there. Their laughter gave way to quiet contemplation as they sat there in the comfortable Muskoka chairs watching the night take over while sipping the last of the sherry.
Mom and Dad were now truly part of Lake Huron and that sunset had been, without a doubt, one of the best they had ever seen. Mom and Dad were now safely sitting on their little patch of golden cloud, smiling down at them once more.
Two hours later, Gladys and Kay finally found the strength to get out of the chairs. The clouds had vanished, revealing a full moon bright enough to guide them along the narrow path. They made their way carefully, steadying each other, back to the house, still giggling. Minutes after getting back to the house, they were both fast asleep, in their own beds.