Saturday, January 19, 2019

a news service

Dumping Ronald

We dumped what was left of Ronald Surry on the first October Thursday after the millennium. That’s the short version.

Let me give the long version, even though the abrasive abruptness of the short version is uncomfortable close to the only telling necessary.

This past October, my cousin Brian and I drove by car from Toronto to Kingston Ontario to scatter the ashes of Ronald Surry, our uncle and my godfather, on the grounds of the Royal Military College. In doing so, we weren’t marking an anniversary, and Ronald hadn’t asked for his ashes to be scattered there. He died during a dingy end-of-winter snowstorm in March, 1989 in far-off Penticton, B.C., a city that had no significance to him other than that my mother, Ronald’s older sister, lived there. He’d moved to be near her after his British wife of 40 years threw him out for being miserable, overbearing and dysfunctional. He had once been a handsome and dashing army intelligence Captain on his way up, but my mother got the job of caretaking his last years because no one else would take him on.

Ronald died of an unattended stomach ulcer hemorrhage. Given that stomach ulcers have been a long-standing response to stress in our extended family and that the emergency procedures for preventing fatalities are familiar to us all, it is likely that Ronald Surry chose to die when and as he did, if not exactly to commit suicide. He lived 71 years, and despite smoking too much and having gone to bed drunk most nights over the previous 40 years, he was in relatively sound health when the Reaper arrived on the doorstep of the garden apartment my mother had provided. A few weeks before he died, he told her he wanted no funeral service, and that she should dump his ashes in the nearest garbage can-or as he would have had it in his anglophile dragonspeak-rubbish bin. to him, garbage was vulgar and American. Rubbish was acceptably British.

In the six or seven years he lived in Penticton, Ronald hadn’t made things easy for himself. He became our official family dragon–earning the title by frightening his many small grand and great-grand nephews and nieces with his abrupt manner and insistence on strict formality-and by offending whatever adults in the family were sturdy enough to make duty visits by, alternately and without any consistency, offering them drinks at ten in the morning or lecturing them on their inadequacies as British Subjects or more generically, as human beings. He was not a pleasant man to be around whatever set of charms he was exercising, and by the time he died, the family that had embraced him warmly on his return from exile, had more or less stopped visiting. He had earned the dubious distinction of having alienated everyone who had ever cared for him. Or almost everyone.

I was the first family member summonsed after his death. This was because after my mother, I’d been the closest to Ronald, and I was perhaps the only one left in the family–her included–who’d enjoyed his prickly company to the end. As soon as I arrived in Penticton, she and I sat down across the kitchen table and eyed each other solemnly.

“He told me he didn’t want a funeral,” she said. “What do you think?”

“He was kind to me when I was young,” I answered. “I owe him an acknowledgment of that. And he had a life once, quite a large one. He may have given up on the human species, but you and I haven’t. I don’t think we ought to let him get away with this.”

The way she smiled told me she agreed. “Yes,” she said. “To hell with him and his lousy attitude. Let’s have a memorial service for him.”

My mother and I quickly, and with a cheerfulness that felt only a little perverse, organized a small service for Ronald. We rented one of Penticton’s many non-denominational funeral chapels for the occasion, one of those rooms that seem much more like a Travel Lodge conference room than a church. The service was attended by most of my immediate family and by Ronald’s two estranged sons, one of whom flew in from Toronto, the other from Edmonton. Also there, unexpectedly, was a sprinkling of elderly women. They were mainly, it turned out, Bridge players, and they’d made up Ronald’s social circle during his last years. They had fairly nice things to say about his skills as a bridge partner, alluding, discreetly, to his cultured personality without needing to translate “cultured” as “difficult”. I knew Ronald had kept up his interest in Bridge after his return to Canada, but he’d referred to his new bridge foursomes with the same sort of dismissive contempt he used on his grand-nieces and nephews.

As I watched these strangers file into the chapel, I realized that any other branch of Ronald’s extended family would have cheerfully acceded to his funeral non-wishes, and that my mother’s motives in holding this service might be more complicated than they appeared. This was, as it happened, my very first family funeral, and the first for everyone else in the family. Somewhat astonishingly, there hadn’t had a single blood relative die on our turf since my parents were married in 1936. Literally everyone born into the family since then was alive: my parents, their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, everyone. And despite a life-long indifference to ceremony, my mother, I think, had decided that this little funeral would be a training exercise for the inevitable deaths to come, including her own.

The service began with a bit of mumbo-jumbo by the funeral director, who couldn’t quite get a bead on Ronald’s name and had to refer to him as “the deceased”. He was being so professionally breezy about my uncle’s death he could have been talking about the weather. After he’d deposited his small load of vague comforts and inaccurate platitudes, I got up and delivered a eulogy to an audience that wasn’t having any trouble keeping their eyes dry about the bereavement just suffered.

I spoke mainly of Ronald’s generosity to me when I appeared on his doorstep in 1962, a penniless, truculent Visigoth 10,000 kilometers from home. I described how he and his wife Joan, then in their late 40s, had offered me the best things about a culture older and deeper than mine, and how they had painstakingly convinced me, sometimes by instruction but more often by example, to respect and even enjoy its alien rhythms and intricate formalities. I took six months out of their lives as I learned to savour the literature of my own language, was taught to hear music, to taste good food and wine–and perhaps most important, to move my mind across another’s without shouting or threatening violence.

So, as I eulogized Ronald Surry, I praised his patience, his forbearance, and his gentleness, and took an almost evil pleasure at the startled expressions in the audience as it realized that I had known a man they had never seen the slightest evidence of.

That was all I was competent to offer certain testimony on. Ronald’s crappy behavior toward his three children–two sons abandoned in Canada as infants, the third, the British-born daughter, driven away permanently before she got out of her teens–wasn’t suitable eulogy material, nor were his two marriages, both to more-than-decent women he’d treated badly.

Of his distinguished military career there was likewise little I could tell anyone except that it had ended in 1948 when he emigrated to England, and that he had given it up for love. I knew little else save for the handful of Ronald’s anecdotes remembered from our nightly hearth-side chats during the winter of 1962 and the spring of 1963, and these were spectacularly unsuitable for a funeral. Like the other Surrys of his generation, Ronald enjoyed the give-and-take of conversation, but he couldn’t long abjure the impulse to shock and appall. His gift for talking about women with irregular genital configurations and the like, tended to put people off balance and at a distance, which was where the Surrys most liked other people, even their loved ones. The sole exception in the family had been my mother, who shared none of her family’s various predispositions for domestic mayhem and light-suppressing self-immolation, and has likely outlived her siblings because of it.

Somehow, I carried my eulogy out to a respectable length, adding a small element of suspense by almost-but-not-quite disintegrating into teary sentimentality two thirds of the way through. I managed to say that Ronald Surry had had a pretty interesting first half of a life, had wasted the other half, and I admitted that it was deadly hard to see his generous and decent side if one had to peer through the perverse and pointless carnage that had characterized his last decades. I said that I loved him because he was my uncle and my god father and he had done his job both ways: he had taught me how to live more generously than I otherwise might have, and with a more liberal curiosity. Along the way, I also said what my mother wanted the people there, family and strangers, to hear: that Ronald Surry was worthy of love despite his faults.

Then I said goodbye to him for those kept from it by pride or injury, including my lovely English aunt whose love he wasted, and then I sat down. As soon as I was through, everyone got out of there, including his sons, who didn’t even want to go through his personal effects afterward for mementos. They preferred him as they had him, I guess, and it was hard to blame them.

* * *

My cousin Brian was born three months before I was in 1944, is a recently-retired high school History teacher from Edmonton, Alberta, and the family genealogist. He doesn’t remember ever meeting Ronald, and so was taking my high opinion of him on faith. Until his mother–my mother’s youngest sister Daphne–died in 1998, I’d seen Brian just once in 40 years. In the summer of 1959, when we were fifteen, our parents arranged for us to spend a month together. This disastrous month ended with a spectacular but inconclusive fist-fight that left our relationship with few resources beyond the family-approved option of avoiding each other like the plague. That’s what we did.

But in the mid-1990s, Brian’s genealogical investigation of the fascinatingly screwed-up Surrys stirred my interest after he sent some charts, and when I showed up for his mother’s funeral in Toronto, it quickly became clear to us both that we shared interests and large portions of sensibility. We patched up our ancient squabble and began an active correspondence.

In the extended Surry family he and I are part of, resolving differences and ending quarrels isn’t exactly common. My grandparents and my mother’s siblings all went to their graves nursing grudges against one another–and pretty well everyone else who’d crossed their paths. Some of the squabbles and resentments stewed for as long as fifty years, and were cut short only by deaths of the stewpots. That my cousin and I share the same Christian name is itself the product of one these squabbles, a minor one that was abandoned unresolved despite the inconveniences it causes–to this day–at family gatherings. My mother decided to stick to her intention to name me as she’d planned despite her younger sister’s pre-emption, with everyone else invited to go straight to hell if they didn’t like it. I’m glad of that. I might have gone through life as Gary, or with some other horrendously inadequate handle. Today my mother can’t quite remember how the original squabble came about, and can recall only that she got around it by not taking it seriously. Two Brians in the family? So what?

When I had dinner with Brian last Christmas–his late 20s daughter now lives in Toronto–we made merry of what we agreed was going to be an uneventful but profitable-to-YK2-entrepreneurs millennium, and while we were discussing things not properly finished in the 20th Century, I mentioned I’d been sitting on Ronald’s ashes for more than a decade. He asked what I planned to do with them.

“I’ve been meaning to scatter them on the grounds at Royal Military College,” I said, “But I’ve never quite gotten around to it. You know how it goes.”

He nodded. “Why there? Why not take them back to England, where he lived most of his life?”

“My mother said that Ronald was happiest while he was an officer cadet there before the War. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, or whether she was retroactively handing him a happy moment he never experienced in person. I thought about taking him–them–back to England when I visited my aunt–his estranged wife–in 1996, but transporting human remains across international borders requires permits, and anyway, I really didn’t want to upset my aunt by bringing her husband back after she’d gone through the agony of sending him away.”

“Look,” Brian said after a moment’s thought. “Ann (Brian’s wife and likewise a teacher) is retiring this year, and we’re going to drive through Nova Scotia and New England for about six weeks this fall so we can miss the start of the school year. Why don’t you and I drive to Kingston while we’re in Toronto at the end of that trip, and do the ash-scattering together.”

* * *

Brian and I arrive in Kingston without the slightest idea of how we’re actually going to go about scattering the ashes. Winging it has been pretty much my life-long method of getting things done, and having ten years to formulate a plan for scattering Ronald Surry’s ashes hasn’t changed that. The truth is that I damned well didn’t want to make a plan, out of a superstition about death and human remains I’m only dimly aware of having. The bigger surprise is that Brian, a school teacher and a more careful person than I am, thinks my visual flight rules approach is just fine.

As we pull off the McDonald Cartier freeway and drive south through the strip malls that ring downtown Kingston, I mention to him that maybe we should have brought raincoats so we can drop dispose of Ronald’s ashes without being seen. “What we’re about to do is probably illegal, and this is military property we’ll be littering. Or polluting.”

“Why don’t we just walk in and tell them what we’ve got in mind?” he suggests. “Maybe they’ll give us a military escort and a 21 gun salute.”

“And maybe they’ll tie us up in red tape for five years, or throw us in their brig for toxic trespass. Why take the risk?”

“I see what you mean,” he answers, agreeably. “We’ll find some place on the grounds where’d he’d likely have gone to think deep thoughts, and scatter him there. Incidentally, where is the old boy?”

I point to a rectangular package in the back seat of the car. “In there. I’ve never opened the package to see what kind of urn they put him in.”

Brian reaches across the seat and pulls Ronald’s remains into the front seat with him. “Hefty,” he notes, tossing the package gently into the air.

“Who’d have thought this is what a Surry would come to,” he adds as he redeposits the package in the back seat.

* * *

Royal Military College sits on a peninsula of land between downtown Kingston and CFB Kingston, the only major urban army installation in the country.

The college grounds are spacious, oddly free of ivy, and at its southern edge overlooking the St. Lawrence river, treeless. The original fort on Point Frederick was built for the war of 1812, and in the 1840s, replaced by a moated Martello tower tall enough to sight incoming warships. The Martello tower, which still stands, has seen its armaments grow rusty and obsolete awaiting the American attack that has, er, never taken the form of a military foray across the St. Lawrence. Today the tower houses the college museum, and so is probably at the apex of its career usefulness. The college itself lies to the immediate north, with the original buildings set around a parade ground and playing field with the more contemporary educational adjuncts–mainly improved athletic facilities–further north.

There is a guard house at the college gate, occupied by people wearing military uniforms, but none of them seem interested in deterring us from our criminal intentions. Pretty sure that this wouldn’t be happening at West Point, we enter the college grounds unchallenged and unsupervised. We could be on the grounds of any college in the country except that here and there are morsels of military sculpture: an American Sherman tank, a second tank that appears to be a British Centurion, an American Sabre jet, an authentically Canadian CF-100, along with a half dozen obsolete artillery pieces I can’t identify.

“That would have been a great spot to park the Avro Arrow,” I say to Brian as we pass the Sabre. “Instead of sinking it in the lake out there.”

“Too big,” he answers, unmoved by my outburst of nationalism.. “The Arrow was nearly double the size of a Sabre.”

I find myself resorting to the tactics I customarily employ while traversing unfamiliar ground: I go until someone or something stops me, or I run out of interesting new things to look at. Since no one seems interested in supervising us, and all the roads are open, we drive along Precision Drive, past Billy Bishop Road, onto Valour Drive and then south west onto Point Frederick Drive, which circles around the southern point and puts us pretty well where we want to be, in the original square where the oldest buildings cluster around the parade grounds.

I stop the car and wonder aloud where we ought to park. Brian isn’t interested, noting that he’d seen neither parking lots for visitors nor no parking signs. “Why don’t we just park wherever we want?” he wants to know.

While I’m calculating the wisdom of that, he notices a discrepancy in the tourist map he’s brought, which lists the straight-as-a-board entrance thoroughfare, Precision Drive, as “Mackenzie Crescent”.

“Sounds to me like those motivational jackasses have been around here,” I answer. “History and tradition sacrificed to inspirational slogans.”

I make a mental note to check the name changes, and when I do a week later, a completely polite and helpful man at the R.M.C. museum named, coincidentally, Ross McKenzie informs me that the name changes were made to accommodate Kingston’s 911 emergency telephone system. Streets the same name confuse the computer, apparently. A recent vintage general named Emond did what the armed forces of no other country in the world would have done in a similar circumstance: he personally came up with new street names for every thoroughfare in the entire college and adjoining military base that duplicated a street name within the rest of the 911 system. As I’m digesting that set of facts, McKenzie chattily informs me that “valour” was chosen because it is part of the college motto: Truth, Beauty, Valour.

“Beauty”? I ask. “Beauty?”

“That would be nice,” he says, laughing. “But it’s “duty.” Truth, Duty, Valour.”

“Okay,” I answer. “It’s still a pretty great country.”

* * *

Brian and I drive around the parade square and park on the far side, along Amiens Avenue, named after a Great War battle site that hadn’t sufficiently inspired anyone in Kingston to name a street after it. I reach into the back seat for the carton containing Ronald’s ashes, and examine it closely for the first time. The cardboard package is sealed with reinforced tape, and it isn’t going to give up its contents easily. I fumble with the tape, eventually using the car key to separate the overlapping strips, and pull out a brick-coloured plastic cylinder. The weight of the package led me to expect a pottery urn, but this container is as disposable as its contents and a lot less biodegradable. On an impulse, I flip open the lid, careful to hold the cylinder level so the ashes don’t spill inside the car. That’s not a problem, because the ashes are inside a plastic bag. I snap the lid back on, pull my camera bag from the rear seat, and open the car door.

“I guess we should look around, eh?” Brian says, sounding as tentative as I’m feeling. “Looks like a cafeteria in that building. Coffee, or something?”

I begin to walk toward the building with the cylinder of ashes in my hands. Since I don’t want to attract attention, this is a little dumb, and so I pull my leather book-bag from the back seat and push the cylinder inside it. The cylinder is big enough that I can’t quite zip up the bag, and that catches Brian’s funny bone. “Maybe they’ll think it’s a bomb,” he says.

“Just act like a tourist,” I answer. “No one’s going to think a couple of Grumpy Old Men like us are carrying bombs.”

Brian sees a sign that informs us that a restaurant and store is located in the basement of the building we’ve parked beside, and we follow a series of signs until we find ourselves in what would have been a cafeteria in our student days, and a canteen in Ronald’s. The “store”–off to one side of the cafeteria–is a wholly contemporary touch, offering a variety of Royal Military College gear to the cadets and apparently to us, the general public. Obliged by the shop/op, we each buy a souvenir sweat shirt and then wander over to the cafeteria to purchase coffee in Styrofoam cups that tastes foul enough that I wonder if it was brewed while Ronald was still a cadet here.

Brian and I sit down at one of the tables to drink the coffee anyway, but we’re still too giddy to formulate any sort of plan for scattering the ashes. What prevents the planning, I think, is a shared picture we have in our heads of how the scattering of ashes ought to go: sombre music in the background, the two of us silhouetted against the sky, releasing the ashes into the wind in a single motion so that Ronald Surry streams into The Vast Embracing Beyond with a graceful flourish.

But in the real world of scattering ashes, there is no orchestra to provide music, no camera to create a from-below silhouette. The two middle-aged men doing this deed can’t stand silhouetted against the sky because it will make us visible to the authorities, or at least to a whole lot of order-obsessed people who are likely to find ash-scattering messy and un-military if not unlawful.

The ashes themselves also behave with a similarly un-poetic character. The plastic seal on the bag won’t open, and I have to rip a hole through its side with my car key. Then, there is far too much ash for a single scattering flourish, and worse, the ash itself has some unco-operative properties. When I make the first pass, turning my body in a circle with the opened container and bag held at shoulder level, most of the ash that does come out falls from the bag in a lump the consistency of particulate concrete, while the rest atomizes in the still air, covering us both with white dust.

Brian sensibly moves a safe distance off, and begins to fiddle diligently with his fully automatic camera. I make a second pass across the grass with the ashes, this time with the container held below my knees. This produces less dust, but a trail of ash across the grass that looks like I’m using my uncle’s ashes to line a baseball diamond. At the end of the pass the ashes that are left spill from the container, plastic bag included, and that forces me to a choice of abandoning the last vestiges of my uncle as they lie or shaking them-him-out onto the grass in a heap. I chose the latter, and am about to give heap a scattering kick then I remember what–who– I’ll be kicking. I pick up a handful and toss it toward the Martello tower–and dust myself a second time.

By this time, Brian is furiously taking snapshots, and I get into the commemorative spirit too, removing my camera from its bag and taking several shots of the wobbly line of ashes that runs across the green grass, with the Martello tower on one side, and the skyline, such as it is, of downtown Kingston on the other.

As we retreat to the car–and it feels like a retreat–Brian voices a question I had about the ashes.

“I wonder,” he says, “If they have different sized containers for different sized people?”

“You noticed that the container was full.”

“Yes. It was perfectly full. Did Ronald’s ashes just happen to fill it exactly?” He leaves a pregnant pause so I can pick it up. When I don’t, he goes on. “Did they, perhaps, top his container up with someone else’s ashes? Or did part of Ronald end up in the container of some little old lady who’d weighed 90 pounds?”

“The truth,” I admit, “is that we don’t have any way of being certain those were really Ronald’s ashes we scattered. Somebody else might have scattered them years ago, thinking it was their grandmother or their brother.”

“Oh, hell,” he says. “Let’s not go there. Let’s just get out of here before someone busts us for littering. We’ve done what we came for.”

On the way back to the car, passing the otherwise unremarkable windows of Fort Haldeman, which is one of the principal cadet residences and likely the building Ronald stayed in during his tenure, I spot something strange. I count fourteen different steam irons in the different windows of the cadets rooms, all with the ironing surfaces facing the square. It occurs to me that this is the most significant detail we’ve encountered here, and the only one that separates this place from the grounds of a junior college or a mental hospital. The irons are an eloquent testimony to the orderliness of military life, something Ronald once told me he’d missed from the moment he resigned his commission. For the first time in this sorry operation, I actually get a sense of Ronald Surry’s presence.

As I recount the irons a second time to secure the statistical reality, an odd and slightly disturbing detail of Ronald’s death resurfaces in my mind. When his body was discovered on the bedroom floor of my mother’s apartment, he’d been lying on his side curled into the fetal position, with his head pillowed on three carefully folded towels. His blood-soaked pyjamas were beside him in a similarly ordered stack. There were signs around the apartment that he’d begun a cleanup, but with time running out, he’d had to choose between order and consideration for others. His choice of order had been true to character, and now, eleven years after his death, I realize that he’d had no time to iron either the pyjamas or the towels. That must, as the world faded for the final time, have seemed life’s final affront.

* * *

So that’s the long version. Brian and I had a few things left to do that day before returning to Toronto. The first was to dispose of the plastic ash container, which I pushed into a public rubbish bin near Lake Ontario. Then we strolled through downtown Kingston, had a leisurely lunch at Chez Piggy, the city’s best known restaurant. On the way back to the car we even made a few jokes about the rundown Prince George Hotel, which looks as if it has been kidnapped from my home town of Prince George, B.C.

The cardboard package Ronald Surry’s ashes sat inside all those years was still in the back seat of my car weeks later because I couldn’t quite bring myself to throw it away. But eventually my own weak sense of order won out, and the last worldly remains of Ronald Surry were gone. My mother, who was 79 years old when he died, is now 90. There has been just that one death on her turf since 1936.

January 14, 2001

Post tags:
Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

More from Brian Fawcett: