In Greek mythology, Charon the Ferryman carried you over the river of forgetfulness to the underworld. He was supposed to be paid for his troubles.
So when I heard that my father, who passed away on Wednesday, “left on the noon boat” I was struck by the metaphoric connotations. His body was being carried on the ferry to the mainland for cremation. I’d just sent the check for the funeral home, transportation, cremation, Medical Examiner, container, yadda-yadda costs, but that didn’t quite seem enough. I thought Charon should be given his due.
Pier 5 at Brooklyn Bridge Park juts out into the East River towards the Hudson. Buttermilk Channel swirls to the south — they say it was once so shallow that cattle wandered out there to cool off in the summer. Of course, New York Harbor is no Styx, but it is a part of the great world ocean the Greeks called Okeanos. Indeed, all the rivers run to the sea and the sea runs to the sky, and thus back to the rivers.
I’d chosen what I thought a fitting coin, big and smooth and from another time and another country. A Herring Gull and a Ring-billed Gull were my only witnesses. And they were watching, because as soon as I flung the coin they were in the air, heading towards its meeting place with the water. Of course, it was not food, at least not for them. The coin sank, and the gulls, foiled, swirled overhead. They should have been divers, like the nearby Red-throated Loon, or the two male Red-breasted Mergansers, messengers between the air and the water.
My father was born in Boston in 1924. He served in WWII for 21 months with the 5th Army Air Corps in the Pacific, being honorably discharged as a corporal. He got a B.S. on the GI Bill at Boston University, and worked for an oil company for a few years. In the mid-1950s, he joined the State Department’s Diplomatic Courier Service, for whom he travelled all over Eurasia, including behind the Iron Curtain. Then he married and settled down, somewhat, working for the Foreign Service for 20 years in half a dozen countries. His three sons were all born overseas. He took early retirement, and then spent more than thirty years on Nantucket, a place he had first visited as a teenager, and the place my parents honeymooned.