A tin can and long goodbye

She and her daughter visited the beach. She’s up in age — walking through sand can be an ordeal. She carried a Folger’s coffee can. The old metal kind people keep roofing nails in.

They walked toward the Gulf of Mexico and removed the lid. They scattered brownish powder into the water.

There wasn’t much breeze. They tell me most of the dust fell like sand. But it was a beautiful ceremony, nonetheless.

“My husband and I kinda grew up coming here,” said the old woman. “Before all the big condos and high-rises. His family had a place down that’a way.”

She was nineteen when she met him. After a few dates with the skinny boy, he invited her along on an annual family beach vacation.

The family stayed in a big camp-house cabin. They went fishing. They sat on swings, stayed up late, talked, watched the moon above the bay.

He was almost three years younger than her. He called her an old lady, it infuriated her.

They made a nice family. Two girls, they adopted a son. They took walks after supper. They played cards. They traveled.

He inherited his family’s service station. He could fix anything with wheels. It was a lifelong obsession, tinkering beneath hoods. They weren’t rich, but in many ways they were.

A drunk driver killed him.

It was a 20-year-old girl with friends in her car. Nobody knows what happened exactly. The theory is: he was doing 65 mph and the girl was doing 90. She tried to pass him. He switched lanes to let her over. She was going too fast. Four people died.

It happened almost 16 years ago, her wounds have turned into scars.

Ever since his funeral, he’s been sitting on her closet shelf, in a tin can.

I asked why she chose the container.

“Ain’t no reason,” she said. “I just remember him saying, ‘Don’t spend no money on a fancy urn.’ He was so practical.”

After his memorial service, the funeral home presented her the ashes in a plastic bag.

Sixty-some-odd years, tucked into a glorified Ziploc.

Not long thereafter, they took a trip to the beach, where she was supposed to empty the bag into the Gulf. But she couldn’t.

“Wasn’t ready to be alone yet,” she said. “We had a life planned. We were gonna buy an RV and see everything. Saying goodbye was harder than I thought.”

I guess so.

But a lot has changed since then. She has changed.

There’s a man at her church. They have been spending time together. They go to dinner, they go to movies, he even took her out of town for her birthday.

“It’s not much of a romance,” she explains. “But he’s good to me.”

When they scattered the contents of the coffee can, she tells me she didn’t cry like she expected. She’s done enough sobbing over the years.

Instead, she talked to a ghost, like she often does.

“This is a big world,” she told the ghost. “I can’t believe we were lucky enough to find each other. I love you. Always will.”

Then, she threw the tin can away.

Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist from Alabama known for his commentary on life in the American South. He can be reached through his website at www.seandietrich.com.