Two weeks ago Bill and I went up to Long Island, to scatter my mother’s ashes. I worried about the trip for weeks ahead of time, waking every morning with the same questions. “Am I doing the right thing and why? Will releasing her in this way really bring me peace and healing?” And there were the two questions that I can never seem to leave behind: “Am I a nut case and what will other people think of me for doing this? “
Every morning that I woke to these questions I’d answer them with a few more questions, “I don’t know and what does it matter? I feel called to honor Mom in this way. So what if I am a tad crazy and what does it matter what anyone else thinks? “
The day I began the letting go it was chilly and blustery with rain showers off and on. We found the vacant lot in the town of Patchogue, where her house once stood when she was a just a teen. Around the corner was the high school that she attended, and ten or so miles away we were shown the gravesite where her mother and father are buried. We also found the house that my dad bought for her after we all moved to Vermont in 1960. She hated the long dark New England winters and when she couldn’t take the North Country any more, she’d escape to the more comfortable world of Long Island. I left a bit of her in all of those places.
The next day, we visited a beach on the north shore of the Island, where Mom often took my brothers and me to gather fresh clams for eating on the half-shell, for steaming and for her delicious chowder. My favorites were steamed long neck clams dunked in melted butter, strongly flavored with fresh garlic.
Above that beach still sits the pavilion where I’d occasionally attend parties with my parents. A square dance caller would move the adults about the wooden floor, while us kids gathered lightning bugs, played tag under the stars, and ran in and out of the pavilion for frosty bottles of soda pop, chips and slices of sweet, pink watermelon. Seedless melons hadn’t yet been invented and we’d spit the numerous seeds out of our mouths, trying to be the one who could spit them the farthest.
After lunch in Northport, where I graduated from high school, we enjoyed a treat at the soda fountain where I used to hang out as a kid. It’s still owned by the same family that opened the business in 1929. I swear the stools at the counter are the same ones I sat on when I lived not far from there over fifty years ago. Bill ordered a Black and White Malt and in honor of Mom, I chose homemade lemon custard ice cream, drizzled with hot fudge sauce, which was Mom’s favorite treat. I have to agree it’s one of the best, especially when the person who dishes it out for you, makes the ice cream themselves.
Our last stop was out on Eaton’s Neck where we lived for about five years before moving to New England. I scattered the last of her ashes in front of the house we lived in, at the tiny public beach nearby, and directly into Long Island Sound. As the last ashes blew into the salt water where I used to spend my summers, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction and release from parts of my life that were happy but also extremely painful.
I felt lighter and taller, having let go of a heavy burden I had been hauling around with me for years. Mom and I had a deep love/hate relationship, especially at the end of her life. As I visited the places where she grew up and spent both sad and happy times, I felt an intimacy with her that I haven’t often felt. Her own upbringing had been abusive and I never would have been able to reach the understanding and forgiveness I felt that day, for both of us, had I provided her with a traditional burial.
Amongst the revisiting of place, I also had the opportunity to reunite with two cousins that I haven’t seen in fifty years. When I was just a little kid, they were my favorite people in the whole world. While Joanne is five months older than I am, Mary Anne is five years older. I always felt in awe of them and loved being with them. Though we’ve kept in touch via Christmas cards over the years, it hasn’t been enough to keep us in each other’s lives. Being with them was extra special medicine for me and I have no intention of allowing time to pass us by again.
At the end of our Long Island sojourn, Bill and I spent three nights in New York City. We saw several shows and a few movies besides visiting the church where my grandparents on my dad’s side were married and where I was christened. We also visited the addresses of where my dad once lived and where his father opened his cabinet shop a century ago. There were no signs that they had ever walked those streets, but it was easy for me to imagine the horse-dawn carts and the narrower streets that have been replaced by our mad, contemporary world.
So here I am back at home in Virginia. Those nagging, early morning questions don’t haunt me every morning as they did just a few weeks ago. They’ve been replaced with deep gratitude for the gift of the journey I’ve been privileged to go on and the sweet love of family that never dies. I may be a tad crazy, but to my knowledge, no one really cares. They all have their own craziness to deal with and it’s what makes all of us humans one big nutty family. I hope your journey is as filled with love as mine has been.