The Mahogany Box

    As I turned our 19’ skiff off the main channel of Taylor Creek and into the little side cove, I saw Susan standing there on the dock. In the mist and early morning sun, she looked more like a young girl than the 60 year old woman I knew her to be. She wore a freshly pressed flower print blouse, tan shorts, boat shoes, and a little straw hat with a purple flower tucked in the band. And she held, clutched actually, a wooden box. It was a finely crafted, varnished mahogany box, with a polished brass latch on the front. Susan cradled the box as if it held something precious inside. It did.

    My wife, Jill, held the boat steady against the dock while I took the box from Susan and helped her into the boat. “You picked a beautiful day for this, Sweetie,” I said, not knowing quite what the right thing was to say.

“Oh yes, it’s gorgeous - Mike would be pleased, and thank you for doing this.”

“Did you drill some holes in the box so that it will sink?” I asked.

“No, Susan said, but I put some rocks in the box. That will make it sink – won’t it?”

“Sure, that will do it”, I lied. From the weight of the box, I knew that the “rocks” were little more than small stones.

We were on a mission that fall morning, a mission to deposit the remains of Susan’s husband and my old friend, Mike McConnell, in the waters of Core Sound. Since Mike died, nearly two years ago, Susan had kept the mahogany box on a table in her bedroom. She called last week and said that it was time; she was ready to commit Mike’s ashes to the waters where the two of them had fished for so many years. She asked if Jill and I would accompany her on this final journey. She told me exactly where she wanted to go.

The mahogany box sat on the seat beside me as we made our way down Taylor Creek, out the east end of the creek and up past Middle Marsh. We all just chattered away - about the weather, the big houses lining the creek, about our dogs, our relatives, anything but the mahogany box sitting on the seat. We all knew we would get to that soon enough - nobody wanted to get there before we had to.

I was the lucky one in the boat. I could make myself busy - steering the boat, worrying about the shoal at the entrance to the creek, checking a chart to see exactly where the shallows were. All of this was totally artificial, as I had been down this creek countless times, but it spared me the burden of awkward conversation; that was Jill’s unenviable task.

Thirty minutes after leaving Susan’s dock we arrived at the red channel marker, about a mile off the park service dock near the western end of Shackelford Banks. Taking note of the direction the tidal current was running, I positioned the boat in line with the current and dropped the anchor. We had arrived at the watery chapel.

What unfolded over the next twenty minutes or so was to become a memory that would endure for the rest of my life - the beauty of the day and the place, the powerful symbolism of the event, rich with spiritual meaning. For the four of us, life’s final resolution had to involve our connection to water, this water - the bosom of the protected waters of Core Sound. So much life begins and ends here, under the gaze of Cape Lookout lighthouse, alongside the marshes, at once a vast nursery and graveyard. Now Mike McConnell was going to be a part of it all.

Jill had brought a poem to read and a wicker basket with a dozen white roses from her garden. Susan had written a farewell letter, and she had brought balloons – a mourning and a celebration. And there was the mahogany box. Contained in that box were Mike’s ashes, his beloved dog Sophie’s ashes, Mike’s Army dog tags, and his IBM badge – the essential things that Mike would want to have with him on his journey. My job was to tend to the mechanics of the occasion – driving, anchoring, lowering the box into the water at the right time, and making sure it sank.

It was this last one, the “making sure it sank” part that was problematic. I knew that the added weight of the small stones would not be enough to make the box sink. If there was anything that would destroy the solemnity of the moment, it would be watching as the mahogany box floated away on the surface of the water. I couldn’t let that happen.

After Jill read her poem and Susan her letter, we observed a moment of silent prayer and reflection. It was time for me to deliver the mahogany box and its contents to the waiting arms of Core Sound.

As I lifted the box off the seat, I turned to the starboard side of the boat, positioning myself between the women and the box. Working quickly, I lowered the box to a position just below the surface of the water, undid the brass latch on the front of the box, and opened the lid just enough to let it fill with water. I reset the latch, said a quick prayer, and let the box go. I held my breath as I watched to see if the box would sink. To my horror, it did, but it didn’t. It was sinking, but ever so slowly, as it drifted with the current, past the stern of the boat, just below the surface. It was headed to the bottom, but not fast enough.

It was at this moment that Jill released the balloons, drawing Susan’s attention skyward. We bid the heavens to take notice of the balloons, as bearers of the message that this event had occurred, at this time and at this place. I read aloud the brief prayer I had written. “Please Lord; let this be recorded in the great celestial logbook. Mike McConnell has gone to join the rest of humanity – may God rest his immortal soul.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the box disappear beneath the reflective surface of the water. We all took turns laying the white roses on the water, and bidding Mike bon voyage. I raised the anchor and we headed home.

On the trip back the mood was surprisingly light and upbeat, at least between the two women. A big burden had been lifted; Susan had closure. She and Jill spoke softly about how beautiful and meaningful the ceremony had been, and how she had felt Mike’s presence the whole time. I just sat quietly, guiding the boat back to Taylor Creek and the little cove where we would drop Susan off. I knew what else I had to do.

After delivering Susan back to her dock, Jill and I returned to our harbor on Harkers Island. As Jill got out of the boat at the transient dock, I announced that I was going to take the boat to the ramp and pull it out of the water. “Are you coming straight back?” she asked.

“Yes, but I might stop at Island Fishing Center on the way to the ramp to fill the gas tank first.”

“OK” she said, after a knowing pause. When you’ve lived with somebody for 20 years, they pretty much know when you’re lying. “Do you want me to come with you?” she asked softly.

“No, that’s OK” I said, “I can pull her out by myself. But thanks for asking.”

About 20 minutes later, I pulled up to the red channel marker, just off the Park Service dock, cut the engine, and dropped the anchor. I sat quietly for a few moments. Then I had a silent conversation with my old friend Mike McConnell. We talked about a lot of things, about our shared experiences at IBM - how Mike, a senior manufacturing manager at the time, had made it possible for a young, hotshot engineer to introduce robotics and automation into a hostile manufacturing environment. He had had the wisdom to see the future clearly, and to accept it, even when it wasn’t a future that he would have chosen. We talked about the hard scrabble upbringings that we had in common – his in a poor, rural community in upstate New York, mine in a decaying steel valley town in western Pennsylvania, and the values that those hard beginnings had bred into both of us. We talked about our military experiences, his in the Army, mine in the Marine Corps. We talked about the time that we sat up all night drinking, the night that Emily, his first wife, announced that she was leaving him for another man. He told me that was still the low point of his life. Well … except for the cancer diagnosis. We talked about the time he came to my house with his tractor, after a blizzard, and extracted the car that I had managed to get wedged between two very big trees. We talked about the beauty of the place we were in and our days fishing there. We laughed about Susan not understanding that there had to be holes in the box in order for it to sink. And we talked about other things, things that will always remain between two friends. Then it was time to say goodbye. “And yes, my old friend, we’ll look after Susan. Oh, and you’re welcome for the box. It was, after all, you who talked me into using mahogany. I said I wanted to use teak, because it was tough and durable – like us. You said mahogany was just as durable, but it was also beautiful. You were right, Mike, and so I think the box belongs to you now, because you, my friend, are all of those things.”

I started the motor, pulled up the anchor, and headed home. 

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