Sunday, October 24, 2010

Still Life 365: Ritual

We lit our candle and then sat on the hotel balcony for a few minutes together. C, resentful that R got a candle and she didn't, dragged T back into the room for some coloring. Sibling rivalry from the great beyond.

Up above Cassiopeia climbed the night sky, tied to her chair, dangled upside down by the spiteful gods. I used to think she was a villain. Suddenly she's both victim and soul sister. So we were a little smug about our beautiful daughters...this hardly seems fair.

We actually missed our 7PM time slot for the October 15 Wave of Light. C wanted a treat after dinner which involved some difficult maneuvering of an ice cream cone, some angry, frustrated words (mine), and tears (hers). We aimed for 8PM instead and figured that central time was close enough. R was unlikely to get angry about the delay.

I sat alone with the candle for a half hour unable to focus my thoughts in any productive way. It should have felt more significant or more sad. My inner voice scolded me for not feeling R's presence in the flame. I just wasn't feeling it...

...until I saw the candle that another grieving mama lit for my girl. Thank you for remembering her, Jenn.


It's time for the Still Life 365 10 Questions. The topic this month is Ritual and I shall attempt to answer the following question.

Have you felt a connection to other cultures and religions and how they deal with death?

I've been reluctant to establish any sort of ritual for R because I know I won't stick with it and then I'll feel like a bad mother. Which, incidentally, is exactly how I feel about my inability to get C's picture taken on her birthday every year.

When Angie posted the topic for October, I wondered what I could contribute. Despite my cradle-Catholic heritage, I'm not good at rituals.

We haven't forgotten her. T's dad built a box to hold all of R's worldly possessions. Her remains sit in a little pink container on top of this box in our bedroom where we see her first thing every morning. But, it took me over a year to print up pictures for the empty frames I arranged around her. We added an LED candle on a timer recently but I haven't gotten around to changing the batteries despite the fact that it's been dark for several weeks. And the dust...oh, the dust.

I'm no more fastidious about R's things than I would have been if she'd lived. All of C's meaningful knick-knacks are still boxed up in her closet from the move because I haven't gotten around to installing shelves for them in her room. I think it's probably healthy that my bad mommyness is spread equally among my dead and living children.

I think about her every time I see a scrappy little tree growing from a crack in the sidewalk. If I find a pretty leaf or sparkly button in some unexpected place, I pocket it and bring it to her. We also include things that others send like the card from Angie. We don't buy things for her or decide what to get for her in advance. We only add things to her collection that arrive by chance.

I don't know if you can count something intentionally non-ritualistic as a ritual but, it seems to work for us.

I borrowed the idea from a place I used to visit when I lived in coastal Carolina. In the Old Burying Ground in Beaufort, NC, on the far north side of the property, behind the church, against the fence, is a large, flat marker. The words engraved on the marker are worn but still legible--Girl in a Cask of Rum.

The story is that her father was the captain of a ship and that she grew up missing him while he was away on one voyage or another. When she was 12-years-old she begged to go to sea with him. She wanted adventure. Her parents wanted her safe at home but eventually relented. Sometime during the voyage she took ill and died. The rest of the story varies depending on the tour guide. He either couldn't bear to dump her body into the sea or had made a promise to bring her home to her mother and so, had her body preserved in a cask of rum until she could be buried back on land.

I heard (and told) this story dozens of times during my time teaching on the coast and it always got a reaction. The listeners are invariably fascinated. They wonder about the logistics of preserving a body, how her mother reacted, what happened next. Once you preserve your dead daughter's body in a vat of alcohol, do you just go back to church on Sunday and blend in? Did the neighbors whisper this story to each other over the hedgerows? In a town full of pirates and transient sea-faring folk, did people just shrug and figure that it was none of their business? Maybe the death of a child always so startling that we all agree that the normal procedures don't apply.

The girl's marker is covered with trinkets and baubles. People come to see her and leave things that a 12-year-old girl might pick up and slip in a pocket. I'd imagine that most of the flowers and seashells are left by mothers and fathers who are heartbroken over this story but I've seen 13-year-old boys crawl around in the shrubs to find an azalea blossom to leave on her grave.

The contrast is a little startling, the spartan, white, clapboard of the Baptist church as the backdrop for this impromptu, pagan-looking shrine. Somehow, however, it seems like the only proper tribute for a little girl who died before her life really began.

So, I suppose that "Girl in a Cask of Rum" isn't an official culture or religion but that's what I have. I bring my daughter random, pretty objects because I think she would have appreciated them in life and my ritual is inspired by another little girl with an extraordinary story.


  1. It's a perfect ritual, its pretty and whimsical, just right for a little girl. Another blogger (I am forgetting who just now) says she picks up things on the beach and forgotten trinkets and she keeps them in jars. I like that too.

  2. I like your non-ritual ritual very much. After Micah's memorial service hubby, L and I took a trip to the beach and I really enjoyed picking out beautiful little shells to bring home for him. I've thought about trying to find a lovely wooden box to house them and a few other small things I've found.

    Also, I'm so touched that you were so touched by the candle. :)