We had her ashes, divided into five glass jars

Fiftysomething: My mother-in-law was tall and strong and moved in full sail

Fri, Aug 30, 2013, 01:00

We gathered by the water, her three grandsons, her son and daughter and a couple of waifs and strays, myself included. We had brought a picnic: wine, bread, chicken and fruit. We had a rug, paper plates, a fruitcake and a small knife. We had her ashes, divided into five glass jars. We found a vacant bench at the side of the lake and settled there.

Red-billed ducks scurried over to check the menu. A couple of well-dressed swans on their way to a more salubrious appointment glanced in our direction as they glided past. A heron, perched on a wooden post in the shallow water, posed for the tourists with the tired resignation of a professional. He angled his delicate head towards the sun, lifted one filigreed wing and then the other. Women in heavy burkas and expensive shoes pulled smartphones from within their rigging to take a snap. I swear I saw the bird pout when its audience dispersed.

Behind us stood Kensington Palace and the royal apartments where, it is said, Princess Diana threw her breakfast into the toilet bowl and her own frail self down the stairs. To our right was the Serpentine Gallery, where we used to walk to look at the pictures and installations, and beyond that the Albert Memorial, where the buffed-up golden prince sits all day in his magisterial chair, surveying the roadworks, glowing in the afternoon sunlight.

Breathing room
London parks are the lungs of the city, a sharp relief from the teeming footpaths and choked roads, from the massed Underground, where the Tubes thunder and commuters inhale each other’s breath. In a city that demands spatial restraint, the sprawling parks offer breathing room.

My mother-in-law lived her adult life in this city, watched the seasons change in this park. An art student when the second World War started, she volunteered to be a ferry pilot, flying aircraft and supplies around the country. The trainees were given 12 hours’ instruction to make the grade. She was very good at taking off but couldn’t land, so instead she picked up her pencils and worked as a mapmaker.

The park bylaws don’t ban the scattering of ashes. They point out, however, that if a ceremony is planned there is not much privacy to be had, and suggest families may be more comfortable in their back gardens or in the middle of a purple moor.

We had no ceremony planned, just a clink of our plastic cups and her gentle dispersal into the Serpentine from the five clean jars. There was no call for ceremony. She was not a religious woman and seemed unfettered by creed or doctrine. She viewed religiosity with a mild interest, like you might view a sugarcraft display or an exhibition of thimbles.

Which is not by any means to say that she was soulless: a life’s work in the theatre and visual arts weaves its own convictions. This city, especially this part of it, was central to her life. She went to college by this park. Her first date with her former husband involved a nocturnal swim across the Serpentine. Later, much later, she pushed her grandsons around the lake in their buggies. She was tall and strong and moved in full sail.

“Do you think it’s mainly wood from her coffin?” my younger son asked, emptying his jar into the water in the company of the curious ducks.

“Yes,” I replied. “Probably.”

“And bones,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“I suppose.”

The ashes clouded the water and moved slowly. We distracted the ducks with torn bread, although that too is discouraged. It was evening. The park was yellow with sunlight, people were running and skating and dawdling along the narrow paths. Small dogs on fussy leashes were complaining about chopped liver and house prices. We packed up the remains of our lunch and put the five empty jars back into the bag.

Years ago, when we scattered my father’s ashes into the sea, a seal had appeared from under the surface and watched us, and we had understood that Bob was that seal now, and that was how it stood, and in the intervening years that seal, or one of its tribe, has appeared again, like a messenger.

As we walked away from the lake the heron returned to its post. Other tourists had come along with their cameraphones to marvel at its pride and stature. I looked back to where it stood on its perch, commanding and assured, surveying its brilliant domain.

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