This summer we laid Mom to rest. A gentle euphemism—”laid to rest.” What I mean is that we buried her ashes. We did it twice, actually, because Mom wanted to be buried next to her beloved parents, Dad wants to have his ashes scattered at their beloved lake cottage, and they both wanted to be together forever. So we split the difference, and put half of Mom’s ashes in a cemetery in Malden, Massachussetts, and half in Highland Lake in Bridgton, Maine.
As you may guess, I don’t have a very reverent attitude toward human remains. Raised a good New England Protestant, I learned to deny the physical body, with all its extravagant odors, noises, and folds, in favor of the pure, ineffable spirit. For Mom, the body was something to be slimmed down, smoothed over, and made to look neat and pretty. If I was her easiest child, it may have had less to do with my disposition than with the fact that I was skinny. I never have had much of a body to contend with, and for Mom that was a dream come true.
I wasn’t looking forward to the burial services. Not only would I have to join a ritual that had no particular religious significance for me, but also I would face a groundswell of emotion, a PDW (public display of weeping) that would be embarrassing and exhausting.
So I was surprised by how meaningful and right the ritual felt. It was softly raining when we arrived at the cemetery. A small hole in the ground awaited our attention, and Dad had brought red roses, one for each of us to lay upon her ashes, and one yellow one—the symbol of the Naugatuck women’s Study Club and a remembrance of her intellect. As we sprinkled earth and laid a flower over her grave, I thought of the lines from W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of William Butler Yeats”:
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
Actually, I slightly mis-remembered the lines, but even if I got the words a little wrong, what remained right was their weighty music. You can hear the steady beat of trochaic tetrameter, which puts a heavy stress on the first syllable of every foot, as if to better feel the earth under your own shoes. Four beats per line, like a box, or a coffin.
It felt good to return Mom to the earth, knowing her name would be etched in stone, next to her parents and waiting for her husband to join her. From there we made our way to the cottage.
Going to Maine meant returning for the first time to a home Mom had once lived in, but was no longer there. In fact, I had never stayed at the cottage when she wasn’t there. And here was the cottage, just as she left it—except for fingerprints on the kitchen cabinets, dead bugs in the windowsills, and dust mildewed on bathroom fixtures. Dad, Peter, Alex, and Noah, the most frequent visitors, had done an admirable job maintaining it, but they didn’t have Mom’s fluttery, meticulous touch or attention to detail.
It was the sameness of the place, coated with the residue of time, that made her absence most palpable. Early morning was the worst. I woke up and tiptoed out to the main room, where the bright sun flooded the windows, almost blinding as it reflected off the glassy lake. Mom wasn’t there, padding around in her bathrobe and slippers, fussing at the dead bugs and wiping off the spots on the counters. The room was just as she’d left it, but emptied of her poetry.
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
– Philip Larkin, from Collected Poems,
Copyright © 1988, 2003 by the Estate of Philip Larkin.
For Larkin, the punctum—the detail that stabs the heart—is “that vase.” For me, it was a piece of paper stuck on the refrigerator with a magnet, where Mom kept her grocery list. But instead of milk, bread, and coffee, the note held only one word penned in her shaky hand: “dementia.”
It may seem morbid that Dad had left the note there and nobody had the courage to remove it. Yet I understood why. The note was a desperate last effort at connection. Mom was trying to hold onto to a memory, knowledge, or understanding of the condition that was evacuating her mind. The note on the refrigerator reminds us how she was. That note.
In the evening, Dad fired up the steamboat so we could spread Mom’s ashes on the lake. A family of loons came to pay their respects, and the lake and sky dressed in their best. The sunset was gentle and beautiful. Highland Lake received an honored guest, and Valerie Wintsch was laid to rest.
Brenda TRUESDALE says
Hey Suzanne that was so beautiful.
Lesley Wheeler says
That’s a complicated and beautiful post–the truth is always such a mess! The note made me gasp. It’s one of those details that would seem too artistic in a novel.
Amy Schneider says
Suzanne, you hold many gifts, but I want to say how much I love reading your writing. Thanks for sharing your personal journey with so many.
jean kirkham says
Dearest Suzie–And it was at Bridgton that your beloved mother told us several years ago that she did not know where she was and that she could not remember what pills she should be taking and that we should not tell your Dad. We of course told your Dad and he already knew and was going to be in touch with the Alzheimer Society in Connecticut. We also talked with Val about Elmira and she remembered things about the past I had forgotten and we laughed and laughed. That laughing recalls a happy memory for us about your mom. And now she is at “rest” and we send our love to you and all the family especially your dad.
Thank you for your beautiful writing.
much love and hugs, jean and brian