Memories are embers that fade to ash if not tended. Last weekend I brought my father’s ashes to a cemetery south of Syracuse to reside beside my mother. It was his wish. The Ondondaga Valley Cemetery was cloaked in a gossamer fog pierced by the yellow tops of turning trees. Tall pines spread their bows evergreen above the stones.
Dad’s ashes were contained in a cardboard urn, the cardboard to match his Yankee frugality. I carried the box inside a canvas duffle bag, a tan color with the words “Lt. R.M. Drumm” stenciled upon it. I found the bag in the attic with his green dress Marine Corps uniform that would still have fit his 98-year-old frame.
We drove through Nedrow past what had been my mother’s family’s apple orchards, through Lafayette, and past the Onondaga Indian Reservation near the fields and wooded hills where Dad and I hunted rabbits and partridge in deep snow with shotguns, the nose of Bucky, our German shorthair pointer, leading the way. When dad played lacrosse for Syracuse University in 1936, a number of his teammates were Onondagas. I have a stick made for him by a member of the tribe, a man named Gibson.
We hunted in winter, in deep snow, from early morning until late in the afternoon, warmed by our trudging and by the heat of the rabbits against our backs in the pouches of our game jackets, the heat slowly ebbing. Dad’s amazing accuracy, the smell of gunpowder in the cold air, Bucky so spent by day’s end we had to lift him into the car.
Dad was an artillery officer assigned to protect a fighter squadron in the Marshall Islands during the war. He taught me the most difficult targets were the long ones flying straight away. He knew the trigonometry of it. I always wondered if it explained how he was hell on partridge and pheasant.
In the weeks before he died one year ago tomorrow, his short-range memories lapsed as thought they didn’t matter. At the same time, he could name every kid in his high school class at the Valley Academy, the long ones flying away.
My father always thought of himself as a soldier-poet, and he was. He wrote plays and poems. Art Buchwald was in his Marine Corps unit and the two of them created a newspaper, a mimeographed newsletter really, while on the island of Eniwetok during the war. They maintained a correspondence until Buchwald died in 2007.
About a week before he died in his sleep, he began reciting from memory stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Day is Done”:
“A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.”
Come read me some poem,
Some simple and hearfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time . . . .
Read from some humbler poet
Whose songs gushed from his heart
As showers from the clouds of summer
Or tears from eyelids start. . . .
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.”
I read the poem in its entirety and placed in on the cardboard box in his grave. A handful of dirt. Embers to ashes.
Russell Drumm is a senior writer at The Star.