December 29th, 2005

Whale fluke


“I keep getting these flashes of, of…love. Someone really loves this place. …a feeling like, oh, the opposite of the feeling you’re having when you say things like ‘This feels spooky.’ A cherished feel.” – Aziraphale in Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

“There’s a good vibe here,” the new owners had told us. “This is a good place.” They had agreed to take over the running of a small home in Oregon’s Coast Range, a mile from the Salmon River, six miles from Hwy. 101, and ten miles from Lincoln City. This was last year.

My family was glad the new owners realized that. We’d known that for 25 years.

Grandpa Irv and Grandma Jean Walsh – my father Tom’s parents – bought the land next to Slick Rock Creek in 1979. A year later, the house went up, soon known simply as Slick Rock. A two-hour drive would bring Irv and Jean from Northeast Portland to this vacation place, their home away from home, heck, even the inspiration for naming their dog Rocky.

Monday, midday, with scrunched-cotton clouds flowing overhead and sunbreaks here and there, every member of the Walsh family on the West Coast gathered on a bridge upstream from the house. We fulfilled Grandpa Irv and Grandma Jean’s wishes and sent their ashes into the creek below. Jean had passed away January 2004; Irv had left us last June. It wasn’t until three days ago that plans and circumstances converged to give us the best chance to do this.

The day before, 11 of us Walshes celebrated Christmas at my Uncle Greg and Aunt Peg’s Dayton home – food, wine, shooting the breeze and trying not to get bowled over by the cats and dogs – then went to beds in two different family homes to get our rest; we had all had a long day. By 11 o’clock Monday morning, the caravan southwest had begun, with three vehicles on State Route 18 pointed toward the Coast.

I was with my folks. Jimmy Buffett’s 2004 concert at Fenway Park (a present from me to Dad) played on the stereo. Dad told Navy stories. We speculated how much traffic, such as it was, was headed to Spirit Mountain Casino in Grand Ronde; that’s one big reason people travel that way. Then the left turn at The Blarney Castle, the first sign you’ve reached tiny Rose Lodge – or, as we used to call it, sarcastically-lovingly, “beautiful downtown Rose Lodge” – and a mile down Slick Rock Creek Road, and then past the house, the house we used so often on vacations and group dinners. (And I mean groups; after Irv and Jean moved to a manufactured-home neighborhood in Sherwood, half an hour out of Portland, they hosted barbecues for dozens of their neighbors.) And then the one-lane span crossing the creek, leading to more homes and to logging areas farther into the Coast Range. We parked. We regrouped. And we all walked onto the bridge.

The weather was as good as we could have hoped to have: no rain, and just the tiniest hint of a breeze, nothing at all like what was pushing the clouds above the little valley formed by the creek. Several of us wetted our index fingers and checked, just to be sure. We chuckled at this. We then waited for a couple of cars to pass. And then we started.

We huddled. We recited Irv and Jean’s names and nicknames. The noise of the creek precluded any long, involved speeches, which was good; we hadn’t planned on those anyway. We all squeezed along the railing, and we let Jean Walsh’s ashes go. A vertical contrail formed, plummeting to the water. There was more ash than I expected. The ash and water mingled – it would’ve been a huge surprise if they hadn’t, right? – and the creek soon absorbed the remains. It was Irv’s turn. We opened his bag and poured the ashes over the railing. They caught more air than Jean’s had, causing more of a cloud.

“Oh,” I said. “Grandpa Irv was always the flightier one.”

We laughed at that. Then we had one last, 11-person hug. Caught breath hung in some of our throats. Some of us sighed. Some of us cried. But they were good sighs, and good cries.

Irv and Jean Walsh won’t have a cemetery plot, niche or other physical memorial. What we did Monday was what they wanted instead: returning them, in a way, to one of their favorite places, when the Coast Range was one of several types of beautiful that it can be.

Slick Rock will still be a good place. We’ve helped it be that way. Irv and Jean helped it, too.

And life there keeps happening.