[Written on March 16, 2017]
There’s light in everything.
My parents were always non-conformists. In their early twenties, back in communist Czech Republic, they got written up by the authorities for being “political subversives” – my mother for wearing crimson lipstick and nail polish and my father for wearing a bow tie. Both of these fashion statements were considered to be “western” and thereby frowned on but my parents weren’t really dissidents. They just liked dressing in style. They never outgrew that. Nor did they outgrow being free thinkers. They never compromised on who they were to fit someone else’s ideology.
My father was a chemist and my mother a book-keeper but that was just the top layer – behind the professions they were so much more. My father was not only a stellar mathematician but was a passionate photographer-turned-artist who, along with exhibiting his work in galleries both in North America and Europe, wrote several scholarly articles on art theory, published in a prestigious art magazine. He was brilliant.
My mother loved to sew and was an accomplished seamstress – a new lovely outfit for someone was always in progress in her sewing room. She also designed and built furniture, wrote a number of novels (just for the fun of it) and translated Czech poetry into English and a number of spiritual texts from English to Czech so she could share them with her friends. And she designed both of the houses my parents lived in, in Arizona. No, she wasn’t an architect. But the guiding principle she lived by was that if someone else could do something, then there was no reason why she couldn’t learn how to do it too. And she did. She was fearless.
Together, though they never chased after material wealth and led frugal lives, my parents still managed to accomplish so much more than anyone I’ve known. In their mid-thirties they fled from a communist regime in the Czech Republic to start a new life in Canada. In their mid-forties they left that new Canadian life to start again, this time in Arizona, and hand-built two houses there. In their mid-sixties they left Arizona, went back to the Czech Republic and bought an old farm house in a small village in the heart of the country’s wine region. By their own labour again, they completely remodelled it and, throughout the following decade, spent six months of each year there until they finally donated it to an organization who looked after mentally challenged children. And, while doing these things, they raised me, managed careers, and traveled all across North America and parts of Europe.
I remembered all of this and more yesterday, as we finally parted with my parents’ ashes. For over twenty-four thousand miles those ashes sat tucked away in the basement of our camper as we carried them to Lake Havasu City. Throughout the trip, I told myself that maybe my parents’ spirit was accompanying us too. Yesterday we said goodbye to them and to a lot of other things besides. We came to Lake Havasu City – the place my parents lived in and loved for over twenty years – because there was some kind of a space waiting at a cemetery there and I felt obligated to check it out. But, while I wasn’t sure how it would really play out, I never fully expected to leave the ashes at that cemetery. With all of their friends gone from Havasu and all of us miles away, what would a marker there mean to anyone? Who would come there to honour their memory?
Nonetheless, our first stop in Havasu was Memorial Gardens. It had moved since my dad had paid for his space there and it turned out to be a small place, hidden and almost lost at the end of a cull-de-sack in an upscale subdivision. At the office, a woman reviewed the paperwork I brought with me, checked her own, and Yes, your parents have one space here, led us to a small patch of grass in the middle of a lawn studded with gravestones. Here we are. There, right next to the sidewalk and sandwiched between the gravestones of “June” on one side and “Marvin” on the other, was the two-by-two-foot square reserved for my parents. I looked around at the fence running the perimeter of the small graveyard, at the big blue dumpster full of dead flowers and debris in a corner in front of it, and at the giant opulent homes behind it. I didn’t like it there. I don’t believe my parents would have liked it. Maybe the original location was different when my dad opted in, but now it seemed much too small to contain two such large personalities.
I told the woman that Roland and I needed some time to think about it and we started back toward the office and Snowflake. You know, she said, a space here is nice if you’re in this area a lot and come visit. Some people really like that. Me, I took my mother’s ashes down to the lake and let them go there. It’s what I’d want for myself when I go. Well I’m guessing this probably isn’t something she tells most of her clients, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. I gave her the paperwork and asked her to donate the space to someone needy.
We drove to my parents’ old house. The dream home they and Roland built together thirty years ago. We found it dwarfed by monster homes on either side, its once spectacular view of the lake and wildlife sanctuary below now blocked by an ostentatious villa, sprawled across what used to be “protected” land. My parents’ house was up for sale, empty, and looked unloved. And it looked stripped of all of its past charm and personality. Some previous owner had taken it from distinctive and unique to ordinary and, as part of that transformation, had replaced all of my mother’s beautiful landscaping by hills of ornamental gravel and cement in a way that wasn’t in the least ornamental. The lemon trees, palms, hibiscus, bougainvillea, and a dozen other fragrant things that bloomed along the flagstone walkways of a terraced backyard (now levelled) were all gone. It was heartbreaking.
We left there feeling stunned, melancholy, and a bit lost, not sure where to go next. But Melo and Pix needed to get out for a bit and it was supposed to get really hot later, so we drove down to find the lake, to see if the wilderness area was still there. Thirty years ago we used to go there when Roland wanted a break from the whole housebuilding thing and on this day we lucked out and found the entrance to the wildlife sanctuary fairly quickly. We parked and took a narrow path winding through vaguely familiar sandy hills and desert brush and there, below us to the right, was Lake Havasu. The “blue water” lake.
The desert was in bloom around us and the trees and grasses along the shore were alive with birds. As we walked, a huge hawk glided over our heads and out of view. It was lovely there. Almost unchanged from what we remembered, it was, still, a sanctuary. We paused to take it all in for a minute or two, allowing the serenity to pull us out of our gloom, and then we turned around, walked back to Snowflake and put my parents’ ashes in our backpacks.
We carried them back up the hill and along the path and then right down a narrow steep trail to the water’s edge. We were in a sheltered cove with no one around except for a few fishing boats out in the distance. I took off my shoes and watch, and carefully navigated the round, fuzzy, and slippery stones of the lake bed to a few feet away from shore. Balancing both myself and the two bags of ashes, I tipped the bags and watched the last tangible part of the people we both loved – and owe so much to – spill into the blue water of Lake Havasu.
It was noon, the birds sang and, up on the developed slopes somewhere above the road parallel to the park, was my parents’ old home. Who knows, they may have looked out at that very spot for years from their rooftop lookout. Whether they did or not, it was a good place for the goodbye we’d traveled such a vast distance to for. Except I cheated. Before I made my way into the water with the ashes, I scooped two small and surprisingly coarse and grainy palmfuls and put them into a purse-sized sealed container to take away with me. I guess I wasn’t ready to let go completely.
Roland and I silently watched the ashes spread out in a pale tan cloud below the surface of the lake. Before long, the cloud would merge with the water and flow, as all water does, to the sea. It would rise into the air as mist and marry with the air currents which, wind-driven, sweep across the continents. Maybe even, some tiny particle of those ashes will, carried on the wind, find it’s way to Europe and to my parents’ first home in the Czech Republic.
Nothing ever dies, our friend Ardel tells us. If only one thing truly died, the entire universe would collapse. All things merely transform into something different. I know there was very little of my parents left in those ashes we let go into Lake Havasu. Certainly not their souls and nothing of their spirit, their creativity, their fearlessness, or of the hundred different things that made them who they were. Yet these are the traits we remember and those we said our goodbyes to, just before we said goodbye to Lake Havasu City – we won’t go back there again – and to the ghosts of our own ourselves from thirty years ago. We climbed back up the hill and left the lake shore and the city. We drove twenty or so miles, to a surprisingly empty BLM site just outside of Topock, to spend the night under the stars.
My father’s view on art and creativity is succinctly expressed here, in the manifesto he wrote:
The TO Manifesto:
Contribute to the Arts’ Continuity ~ Create a World of Rich Sensuality ~ Enjoy Playful Vitality ~ Celebrate the Freedom of Originality ~ Exploit Any Source of Creativity ~ Understand the Arts’ Universality ~ Strive for Utmost Professionality ~ Promote Ideas of Non-Selective Humanity ~ Employ Means of Artistic Verity ~ Appreciate Quintessential Sincerity
suspect the art of easy popularity ~ reject attempts at suppressing individuality ~ fight profitable conformity ~ laugh at petrified pomposity ~ unmask all forms of quasi-ingenuity ~ forsake also formality ~ resist the temptation of cheap virtuosity ~ hate pretentious sterility ~ shun works of artistic obscenity ~ condemn vulgar superficiality