I walked Zelda this morning into a scene of such stunning beauty that I was glad I’d left my cell phone back in Serenity. If I’d had it with me, I would have tried to capture the moment and I would have failed, because I don’t know how to take good photos, and it would have been just another generic pretty scenery picture. But the full moon was still up, in a sky that had wisps of sunrise clouds, a very subtle pink and twilight purple, in an otherwise overcast white. Mist was rising off water that looked a deep dark rippling green and in the distance, the hills… rolled. An artist could have drawn the classic three intersecting lines that anyone would recognize as hills in the distance and it would have been those exact three hills. It wasn’t bright, it wasn’t showy, but it was so beautiful I had to hold my breath, as if breathing would shatter it.
I’m in Frances Slocum State Park, in Pennsylvania. I came here because it was the closest camping spot to a cemetery I wanted to visit. Yeah, with the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore on my list of places to see, as well as the entire country of possibilities, my first destination was a graveyard. Ha.
But I’ve had my mom’s ashes sitting on my closet shelf for about four years now. She died five years ago and at the time I thought we’d get together and do some family thing with her ashes after a suitable time had passed. I don’t know what exactly — take them out to sea, maybe? On a cruise? She would have loved that, if the whole family had gotten together and gone on a cruise in celebration of her. But instead my dad remarried. There’s an interesting awkwardness to not being finished with your first wife’s business when you already have a second wife, or at least so it seemed to me, and my mom’s ashes became part of that.
Long story short, eventually they wound up with me, and I’ve let them sit, not knowing what to do with them. Her last remains. Except that they are so not her last remains. I am what remains of her. R is what remains of her. The scrapbooks she created, those are her remains. My sister, my brother, their kids, our memories… so much remains of her. And these ashes, they’re not important, not really. But I did want to dispose of them respectfully. Even, I guess, lovingly. If there is any possibility that my mom’s spirit is connected in any way to the pile of grey dust that was her body, I wanted her to be happy with what happened to that dust.
That brings me to the cemetery I was looking for. My great-grandmother is buried there, and I thought it would be nice to scatter my mom’s ashes there. She loved her grandmother and treasured her memories of visiting her grandmother’s farm when she was little. I wish I had any idea where the farm was because that would have been perfect (barring the extreme discomfort of asking someone if they’d mind if you scattered ashes on their property and/or the great likelihood that it’s some kind of housing development now…) but the cemetery was the best I could do.
It was lovely. Beautiful, green, serene. Gorgeous and old. Also surreal. I wandered through the gravestones looking for the right one — Myrtle Smith, with Paul Smith next to her — and instead finding, with vague shocks of recognition, everyone else. My grandfather’s parents. My grandfather’s sister. My other great-grandparents. My great-great grandparents. Plenty of strangers’ names, of course, but down every line, another Smith, Rozelle, Lewis, Labar, and Hahn. It was eerie and charming and sort of heart-wrenching. I looked at what I was pretty sure was my great-grandparents’ gravestone — Grover Cleveland and Jessie Labar — and knew almost nothing about them. I recognized their names but that was it.
In the end, I did find the right grave and sprinkled a handful of my mom’s ashes there. I didn’t anticipate how emotional I would feel about it, how much it would bring my grief back to me and how sharp that pain would be. The dead always outnumber the living in a cemetery, but being alone there, surrounded by my forgotten relatives, was… hard.
Afterwards, I drove into the town, West Pittston, looking for the houses where my mom had grown up. I had an idea of discreetly sprinkling more of her ashes, I think — but the streets were narrow and the idea of parking was terrifying and navigating was a challenge — Z is just not good at reading maps for me and my GPS is always a little late — so I came back to the campground and settled in.
Fortunately, the park is beautiful. The campsites are shaded by trees, with screens of trees separating one site from the next. It’s been rainy and muddy, but very peaceful. (With the minor exception of my poor neighbors not having much success handling their whiny kids. The dad’s exasperated, “What am I supposed to DO with her?” had me wincing in sympathy.)
I suspect the reason people think of the ocean when it comes to ashes is that there’s actually quite a bit of them — a handful can be scattered elegantly but dumping out the whole bag just seemed very not cool. Both not respectful and also leaving a mess for the person next mowing the lawn to be disturbed by. Maybe if you can hurl them off a mountaintop, the wind would carry them away, but my image of gently scattering dust does not match the reality of a heavy duty plastic bag with a mound of ashes in it.
Still, I’ve taken many long walks here, including one where I went fairly far off a trail into the woods and found a nice young tree that looked like it might benefit from some nutrients at its roots. I don’t know how my mom would feel about that — she wasn’t much of a nature person. She preferred her camping to include comfortable beds and flush toilets.
But I kept some of the ashes. I’m not sure why. I thought I was ready to let go, but maybe not. It’s definitely one of those times when logic is warring with intuition, though. Logic is saying “Storage! Trees, nutrients!” but my intuition is telling me that there’s something else I need to be doing. For most of my life — all of my life — logic would have won, but not today. Maybe I’ll visit my grandparents’ graves while I’m at this. Or maybe I’ll bring the ashes to the Grand Canyon with me. I wonder how many people do that? I bet lots. It seems like that kind of place. Or maybe I need to let my siblings have their own experiences with saying goodbye in that way. I’m really not sure, but what’s left of her ashes comes with me.
Anyway, at the moment, I’m sitting in a grocery store parking lot, wishing I still had a grill. Wondering if I should buy firewood. Trying to think of some food plan for the next few days and mostly eating spice drops, currently my worst food vice. Today and tomorrow I’m floating around PA and on Monday, I’m headed into NJ for the day. Next week, NY, and the week after that, Vermont.