Today, the Femmes Fatales welcome New York Times bestselling historical novelist, Lucia StClair-Robson. Lucia and I have been friends for years, often appearing together at book-related events because we both live near Annapolis, Maryland. Lucia has an enormous library, from which I have borrowed from time to time, and an extensive, library-style card catalog file that includes, among other things, interesting ways for a person to die in colonial times. Today, she talks to us candidly about her late husband, science fiction writer Brian Daley, the love of her life.
My late husband’s niece said she would like to have some of her uncle’s ashes. It was a simple request. The remains of Brian Daley’s remains that haven’t been buried or scattered to the four winds are appropriately stored. All I have to do is ladle some gray grit out of the large beer stein that’s a souvenir of his tour of duty with the Army in Berlin in the early 1970’s.
But questions of etiquette arise.
Do I employ the same little blue plastic scoop that I use to fill the birdfeeder? Is it respectful to dump his mortal remains into one of the zippered, clear plastic bags used to keep sandwiches and food scraps fresh? They’re perfect for the job, but I’ve noticed that TV commercials do not mention their usefulness for storing human leftovers.
Do I include the ashes in the same envelope as the information about summer camps that I’m sending to Brian’s niece? No. I decide that the incinerated debris of our loved one’s flesh and bones deserves the minimal respect of separate packaging.
The wording of the note I include is important too. Shortly after Brian’s death I sent a plastic bag of ashes to his mother, along with an explanation of what they were. Before she saw the note she assumed the bag contained a protein supplement of the sort her doctor had recommnded. Fortunately, a relative found my note before Brian’s mom tried to dissolve her son in milk and drink him.
The problem of the etiquette of ashes first surfaced when I visited Brian at the funeral home. He was resting comfortably under a sheet on a gurney in the basement. Next to him loomed a display case filled with cinerary urns --- fake Roman amphoras, vases of Ming dynasty ilk, garish turquoise dolphins leaping over resin rocks.
The love of my life had been dead all of eight hours. I defy anyone to name an unhappier person on the planet than I at that moment, but Brian was about laughter. I grabbed his left big toe and shook it to call back his attention from wherever in the universe his soul had wandered. I nodded toward the urns.
“Brian,” I said. “Which one of these do you want to spend eternity in?”
The beer stein has proved the perfect container. Brian didn’t talk much about his year in Vietnam. He preferred to reminisce about the two and a half years he spent in Berlin, or more precisely in the beer halls there. He could do more than carry a tune, he could sing harmony. Local beer hall patrons were happy to buy the American G.I.’s rounds of lager as long as they kept singing. I haven’t heard “Under the Boardwalk” emanating from the stein yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
Actually, the etiquette of Brian’s ashes arrived as an afterthought. First I had to overcome the creepy realization that I was holding him in a very different form than the big, solid, hilarious guy with whom I had shared a life. A friend suggested that I keep some of his ashes apart from the rest, so I asked the personnel at the funeral home to put a small amount in a square tin box with a picture of Harrison Ford/ Han Solo on the lid.
Brian wrote the first three Han Solo books. He also adapted all three of the original Star Wars movies for National Public Radio. Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, had given him the tin box as a keepsake. Since Brian had a personality remarkably like Han Solo’s, it seemed the appropriate container for him. What I didn’t realize was that the box’s hinge included a line of holes.
I drove past the funeral home twice before mustering the nerve to go in and collect Brian’s remains. I put the surprisingly heavy carton of them on the passenger seat. When I tried to set down the tin box, ashes fell out the back, scattered down the front of me, and onto the floor.
I was faced with the first dilemma of proper procedure. Do I retrieve the whisk broom and sweep the ashes out of the car? Do I try to put them, along with a lot of extraneous dirt, back into the box? Or do I brush the ashes off my clothes and drive away? Imagining this as one of Brian’s jokes, I opted for the third solution.
Several years ago someone contacted me via e-mail. He wanted to know where Brian was buried. I told him that B’s friends and family have scattered his ashes all over the planet. Some of them are with his parents in a cemetery in New Jersey. A bit of Brian has flown from the peak of Huaina Picchu overlooking Machu Picchu in Peru. He has swum in the river that runs through the Mayan ruin at Palenque in Mexico. He keeps company with other soldiers at the chapel dedicated to Vietnam War veterans in Angel Fire, NM.
More of his remains were deposited in Canyon deChelly, Arizona, in the Severn River in Maryland, in a river in New Hampshire, a back yard in Rockleigh, New Jersey, in Berlin, Germany, and in the pocket of one of his fatigue shirts for which an army buddy has built a display case.
His friends and family like to say that Brian is off exploring a galaxy far, far away. Sending the rest of the beer stein’s contents up with a NASA launch would be ideal. In the meantime, I ponder the plastic sandwich bag as a fitting receptacle to mail to his niece.
Lucia's favorite photo of Brian (and herself), taken in Central Park a few months after they met at the Baltimore Science Fiction convention in 1979.
Lucia and Brian taken at the Pines on Severn community beach, near their home.
After earning her master’s degree in Library Science at Florida State University, Lucia worked as a public librarian in Annapolis, Maryland.
The Western Writers of America awarded her first book, Ride the Wind, the Spur Award for best historical western of 1982; it also made the New York Times Best Seller List and was included in the 100 best westerns of the 20th century.
Since then she has written Walk in My Soul, Light a Distant Fire, The Tokaido Road, Mary’s Land, Fearless, Ghost Warrior: Lozen of the Apaches (finalist for the 2003 Spur award), Shadow Patriots, a Novel of the Revolution and Last Train from Cuernavaca, which also won the 2011 Spur for Best Western Long Novel.
For more information, visit Lucia's website here.