It was a sunny, late spring afternoon in 1972 when I arrived home from school to find a mysterious box sitting on the kitchen table. My Dad was outside working in the garden, as he typically was every spring and summer.
When I walked up to the table and read the label on the top of box, I was startled. “Herein lie the remains of Fanny H. Jackson”.
I stared at it for a long time. My curiosity compelled me to want to open the box, to see what human ashes actually look like. But I was scared. I was not quite 15 years old and still grieving the death of my mother only a month or so earlier, and to think that all that was left of her was in that cardboard box was almost too much to bear.
But my curiosity eventually won and I removed the tape and slowly lifted the lid.
Just a couple of weeks ago, forty-three years after discovering my mothers ashes, I found myself sitting in the back yard under the gazebo with my two daughters, holding an urn, this time with my father’s ashes. We had each decided to write a letter to him which we planned to burn and mix in with his ashes before we took him to the place where he wanted them scattered. Neither of my daughters had ever seen ashes before, and they were a little leery about them just as I had been all those years ago. We started our little burning ceremony and then spoke about what we had written. I mentioned how I written to my Dad that he was a good father, and one of my daughters said she wrote that as well, among other things.
It took awhile to get all of the bits of paper to burn up, and my other daughter took a picture as they were burning. When we were sure every last scrap was burned, I started to open the urn. It took a little doing, but I finally got it open and asked the girls if they wanted a look. They were a little surprised at what the ashes looked like, just as I was many years earlier. I expected them to look black or grey, like paper or wood ashes in a fireplace, but of course, they don’t look anything like that.
Eventually we mixed all of the paper ashes from our letters in with my Dad. My youngest daughter looked at the picture she had taken while the notes were burning. Here is the original picture:
In the upper part of the picture you can see a couple of little bits that hadn’t burned yet.
When she looked more closely at the picture, she was surprised to see the words on one little scrap.
Had we not been talking about it just a minute earlier, it might not have stood out. The fact is that my Dad would often express his concern, especially when I was younger, about whether or not he was a good enough father. Of course he was; he did everything for me, especially when he became a single parent after my mother died, making my lunches, making sure I got to school, keeping everything around us just as it was when my mother was alive. I could never have imagined a better father.
So as an adult, I took the time to tell him that as many times as I could. And these two words were the only ones left intact on that little scrap of paper:
Our little burning ceremony was the first step in a journey to take my good father home.
All through my early life, my Dad used to talk about Wallace Mountain and Beaverdell. When he was only three or four years old, along with his younger sister, my grandparents moved from Calgary to Beaverdell, B.C. where my grandfather got a job as a silver miner. Their living quarters was a log cabin, one of a number of cabins built by the miners themselves to house their families. It was like a little community up on top of the mountain not far from the mine, and to my Dad it was heaven. They only lived there a few years, but those years stuck with him as he would often tell stories about his time there to anyone who would listen. He would recount how he and his little sister got into all kinds of mischief, playing near the mine when they weren’t supposed to, Dad making a mess of cutting his sister’s hair, and whatever other trouble they could find. There was only an outhouse, of course, and no running water. And in the winter there was plenty of snow, snow that stuck around sometimes until May. He told the story of his little sister once seeing a very small patch of ground through the snow and calling it “summer”.
The families would often visit each other’s log cabins when the miners weren’t working, and sometimes they would hold dances. Someone had an old gramophone, and my Dad recalled how they would moved whatever furniture they had all to one side of the one-room cabin so that the grown ups could dance. Meanwhile, the kids would play like monkeys on the pile of furniture on the other side of the room.
I guess it was tough on the wives of the miners, who would be stuck home with their children in this very remote place for months on end. Dad explained how the wives would sometimes purchase this mysterious bottle of “medicine” that was supposed to help cure them of cabin fever. It was called “Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound”, bound to cure you of all of your ills. Its main ingredient, of course, was alcohol! In the picture below, you can see my grandparents posing in front of the cabin, and if you look closely to the left, you can see my blonde-haired Dad:
|The Jackson Family log cabin.|
|A closer shot of my grandparents in front of their cabin.|
They left Wallace Mountain when my Dad was about 7 years old, when my grandfather decided to try his hand at fruit farming in Peachland, B.C.. It wasn’t until he was in his late 50’s that my Dad and my stepmother made the treck back to Wallace Mountain to search for the old cabin again. They really didn’t think they would find it, but amazingly, they did. It was falling over and pretty much done with but my Dad was thrilled to bits. He went back a couple of times over the years to see it, but at one point the company closed down the mine, and eventually they blocked off access to the property so it was no longer legal to go up to the mine site.
|Dad with a beer in front of the old cabin, late 1970’s.|
|The entrance to the Bell Silver Mine where his father worked.|
In the summer of 2006, I took my Dad, who was now beginning to show early signs of Alzheimer’s, for his last trip up to Beaverdell and Wallace Mountain. On the drive between Osoyoos and Beaverdell, we talked about how he wanted his ashes spread there some day. He had a great deal of trouble remembering a lot of things on that trip, but he was quite happy to see the town again and the old Beaverdell Hotel. I was just happy to be able to bring him back to this place he loved so much, if a little sad to realize it would be his last time.
|Dad in Beaverdell, August 2006|
He was aware that his ashes might end up at the base of the mountain, given the fact that it was considered trespassing to go up the mountain itself. But it didn’t matter to him.
And so, the day after our little burning ceremony, my daughters and I set off on the trip, stopping first in Osoyoos, B.C. with the idea of making that our base for our mission. And on June 12th, exactly 18 months after my father passed away, we packed up his ashes and got in the car for the drive to Wallace Mountain.
The drive took about two hours. There were some delays because of the highway being upgraded, but we eventually found ourselves in the small spit of the town called Beaverdell. The first time I went to Beaverdell I couldn’t believe how tiny the town was; one of those blink-and-you-will-miss-it places. It has a general store, a little community “hall”, a scattering of houses, and of course the old Beaverdell Hotel, which, I was sad to hear, had burned down in 2011. Wallace Mountain and the Bell Silver Mine is located just up behind the town.
Since we had to use the facilities before our little hike, we decided to purchase a few things at the general store. Then, with my little backpack carrying my Dad’s urn, we started to walk towards the mountain.
|Wallace Mountain ahead.|
At the base, we were met with plenty of signs, old and new, warning us not to trespass. We had also heard from a couple of sources that there might be cougars and wolves up there somewhere too, so I have to admit I was a little nervous about our trek.
But we peeked over our shoulders to see that no one was looking and crawled through the big yellow gate at the start of the gravel road, which was pretty much overgrown and hadn’t seen any traffic in quite awhile.
I wasn’t planning on going too far up, but we trudged on for awhile and I kept looking for the right spot. Every now and then we heard a sound in the woods to the right of us and we looked at each other a little nervously.
At one point I saw a bit of a gully with some wild flowers that I thought might be nice. But my youngest daughter wasn’t as impressed, so we trudged on. Finally she said she was going to run up ahead around a bend, and see what was there. Off she went, while my other daughter and I stopped to rest.
Finally, she came back claiming she had found the perfect spot, which, she said, was a little pine tree just to the side of the gravel road. We followed her up around the bend and she pointed out the tree. When I pulled out Dad’s urn, I realized it looked a lot like the surrounding area.
|The pine tree and the urn.|
We all agreed it was the perfect spot. I fussed with the urn, which, as you can see, was a cylinder shape, made of really heavy cardboard, a lot more interesting than the simple box my mother’s ashes arrived in.
I finally got it open and that’s when it hit me. He was home.
Somewhere on this mountain my Dad had spent the happiest days of his life, and now everything had come full circle.
I spread the ashes all around the base of the pine tree and cried.
My daughter pulled out her iPhone. I thought she was going to take another picture, but instead she played an old song that my Dad used to sing and laugh about all the time called “I Wish I Was Single Again”. He was even known to sing it to the nurses at his care facility! The three of us laughed and sang along with it, all the way through. It was just the right thing to do.
After a time, my daughter took a little snip of the pine tree and we turned around and made our way back down.
As we were walking along the road leading away from Wallace Mounain, I turned around to look at it one last time and said “Bye, Pop.” And just as we started walking again, a huge gust of wind came up, surprising us with its velocity, as if Dad was sending us all on our way.