In July of 2019, my 10th visit to New Orleans, I took my dad with me, in what my niece and I took to calling his “sporty travelling urn.” Dad never made it to New Orleans, though as a musician, he would have absolutely loved the way music infused every aspect of the place. So, after his passing that April, I took him with me and sprinkled his ashes into the Mississippi, Mardi Gras style. The 2019 New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat gave me time to process and reflect on the experience, and I am so very grateful. This piece was published in the collection, “I’m Alive, and I Write,” edited by Richard Louth in the literary journal Louisiana Literature.
Ashes on the Water
The heat index in New Orleans was 110 the day I went to scatter part of my father’s ashes in the Mississippi River at New Orleans. It was just after noon, no time to be out in the full sun, but I wanted to make sure to get it done and to honor my dad in the local style: first with solemnity and then with celebration. I’d seen depictions of the Krewe of Saint Anne and their ritual for scattering ashes of loved ones in the river at Mardi Gras, and I wanted to do that for Dad as much as for myself, even if it was off season. Afterward, I figured we’d head to my favorite dive bar, Harry’s Corner, for a good cooling off with strong drinks, friendly locals, and the old school jukebox there that I adore.
My love and I braved the crowds around Café du Monde and made it to the Moon Walk. We were grateful to see only a few people hanging out on the wide stone steps that go straight down to the water, mostly just street folk clustered on the other end of the steps, splashing and swimming and playing music from a phone, not too loud. We walked down the opposite end of the steps. I set my bag down on the blazing concrete, took off my shoes, and hiked up my skirt a bit. I took out the framed photo I’d brought and the little blue urn—the one we’d taken to calling “Dad’s sporty travelling urn”—and prepared to wade down into the river with him.
Ian said, “Be careful. That step’s going to be slick.” He pointed to the moss-covered step just under the water level.
It was slippery, but it was also cool and soft. The river lapped around my ankles.
We’d already made one stop with Dad, at another friendly dive bar recommended for its comforting soundtrack and charbroiled oysters. After we ordered, I brought out the little framed 5 x 7 photo of Dad and propped it up on the table with us. It shows him playing bass guitar and singing in front of the giant British, Welsh, and Scottish flags they used to hang on the stage during the “British Invasion” phase the dad bands he played with over the years. When I snapped that photo, he was probably singing the “fa la la” chorus from Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” always a crowd pleaser. My family lived for the moment in the song ahead of the bass solo when the band leader would say, “Larry Martens on the bass.” When we heard that, we would hoot and yell to everyone around us, “That’s my dad!”
Dad was a great lover of live music and of rock and roll history, so I know he would have just loved New Orleans. As kids, we used to sit with him on Saturday nights listening to his cherished reel-to-reel tapes of “Dick Clark’s Solid Gold.” We’d listen to Dick’s silky song intros and interviews in the cool of the basement underneath the blue swag lamp, the scent of Dad’s whiskey and coke wafting out each time he took a sip.
One week prior to the New Orleans trip, my niece Lexi and I had taken another portion of his ashes with us on a visit to the Oregon coast. I’d told my mom that I wanted to put part of Dad in the Pacific so that he could eventually visit some of the tiny Pacific Islands he so loved talking to on his ham radio, and she liked that idea. Between the Pacific and Mississippi trips with his ashes, we figured Dad would be everywhere eventually, and that seemed fitting. We had a good laugh, though, when the little urn caused a manual search of my bag by TSA in airport security. Dad was a bit of a “Bionic Man” with his prosthetic leg and other replacement parts, so he hated TSA metal detectors with a passion. Even in death, it seemed, they were giving each other grief.
At sunset when Lexi and I first arrived at our quiet Oregon coast cabin, we went down to the beach for our little ceremony. We each took a turn holding the small blue jar, then tipped the ashes into the waves just as the sun slipped down to the horizon. That night we stayed up playing oldies and telling family stories, grateful for our time with him in such a beautiful place. The next afternoon, I went back down to the beach and had a good, long walk and a good, long cry along the water’s edge where the surf could drown out my sobs. Each wave that rolled over my feet felt like a comforting hand on my shoulder.
We had a different photo with us on the Oregon trip, an 8 x 10 of Dad on the beach in St. Croix. He is also holding a guitar in this one, an acoustic propped up on one knee beside his beach chair as he played for mom and their cruise buddies. Behind him their cruise ship sits anchored in the bay. The next night, we took that photo with us down for a beach fire and sat it in the sand while we watched the sunset again. Looking out to sea in the fading twilight, we noticed that the level of sand in the photo was perfectly lined up with the sand on our beach. It was just as if he were sitting there, watching the rocks and the waves with us through the wind-whipped flames.
When I scattered his ashes in the Pacific, all I’d been able to hear was the crashing of waves. When I scattered them into the Mississippi, though, I could hear every grain hit the water. They slid through the surface in a thin stream. It was a kind of “ah,” an easy sigh at the end of a long day.
I stood on the mossy river steps. Little brown waves touched my feet, over and over. A long oil tanker moved slowly past Algiers Point. Nearby sat the steamboat Natchez. After a moment, I stepped back out of the water, onto the hot cement. Ian hugged me. He pointed upriver toward a huge shape in the distance. “Look,” he said. “There’s even a cruise ship.”
We sat down for a bit next to the photo of dad with his guitar. After a moment, one of the young kids from the other end of the steps broke away from the music and strode toward us.
“Hey, y’all,” he said. “Hey. You want to go swimming?” He was wiry and tan, with wild hair poking out from under a ballcap. He wore baggy green shorts and a faded t-shirt. He stopped when he saw the little photo of Dad.
“Hey, who’s that?” he asked
“That’s my dad.”
“Oh,” he said. He paused. “Did he pass?”
I nodded. “About two months ago. We just scattered him in the river. He never made it to New Orleans, but he would have loved it here.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. He took his hat off for a moment, then put it back on. He said, “Hey, do you want to see a picture of my dad?” When we said we did, he hopped away on the cement, toward his friends on other side of the steps, then came back with a worn billfold. He shuffled through a small stack of driver’s licenses, then pulled one out. It showed a picture of an older man with a thin beard and a tired face with small, bright eyes. “That’s my dad,” he said.
“Did he pass?” I asked.
“Yeah. About five years ago. He was living in Texas. His name was Frank.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. He thanked me. I held out my hand. “I’m Susan.”
“I’m Zach,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Nice to meet you, Zach.”
“Nice to meet you, Susan.” He looked around, back at his friends and then back at us. “Man, this cement is hot,” he said. “I don’t know how dogs stand it. Hey, do want to go swimming?” We said that we would pass but thanked him for the offer. He said, “All right. Will you watch my wallet?” He put the license back in its place and set the billfold down on the step above the moss.
When we said we were sorry, that we would have to get going, to get out of the sun, he said, “That’s ok. I’ll just put it under the hat.” He took off his ballcap and set it over the small wallet, then jumped into the river. He splashed and waved as we left.
We made our way back through the crowds, down Chartres Street towards the planned oasis of Harry’s. The friendly bartender, Stephanie, gave us big glasses of water when we told her where we’d been. I had a good talk with a retired school teacher, also named Susan, who lived just up the street. At my favorite writing table near the windows, I took out Dad’s photo again and propped it up. I ordered a Meyers and Coke, his favorite drink from the cruise ship days. On the old jukebox, we played songs we thought Dad would like, classics like Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.” I played David Bowie’s “Heroes,” too, mostly for me, but also for Zach, for Ian, for my mom, for Frank, for Harry’s, and for everyone else down on the water.
I want to first thank you for sharing something so personal. I am reticent to do so myself at times (like most of the time) and this was a beautiful story. This line stuck out to me: “I went back down to the beach and had a good, long walk and a good, long cry along the water’s edge where the surf could drown out my sobs. Each wave that rolled over my feet felt like a comforting hand on my shoulder.” I think the imagery here captures the scene so well. What a wonderful tribute to your father. It must have been wonderful to have a daughter so devoted to do that for him. I am genuinely touched by this. You did such a marvelous job putting me in New Orleans, almost as if I was feeling that slippery step.
Thanks so much, Jairus. This was an important piece for me to write. I am so grateful for the space to write such things. Another miracle of the New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat.
This was a very touching tribute to your father. I love that you carried his picture with you as you spread his ashes. I agree with Jairus too. I felt like I was right there in New Orleans with you.