(This month’s Blogging for Books includes the topic, "A memorable trip…" I travel a fare amount so there have been lots of memorable trips but this is my most memorable journey.)
Most of the traveling I did with my father was after he died. We still have a couple trips to take and then our time together on this earth will be done.
When my father was 64 he had a severe stroke and I flew down to Tulsa, Oklahoma to be with him. He was remarried for more than 20 years then so he had his wife, Esther and two more daughters and two baby granddaughters all close at hand. By the time I got to the hospital it was late in the evening and they were all tired. I said I would stay with him through the night and they should go home.
In that first day my father had lost a fair amount of his motor functioning, all of his speech and none of his cognitive abilities. He was restless in his bed; it was the first time he had ever been a patient in a hospital. For several hours he kept trying to talk. I’m sure he felt that this was just one more thing that he could fix with enough hard work and determination. It was painful listening to the loud, unintelligible sounds he was producing and I kept urging him to sleep; healing would come with time and rest. In the end, sounding like a bad parody of young Helen Keller, he got out:
“OAN EH UM EEEE EN O-A-O-A!”
“Don’t let them bury me in Oklahoma.” That was his request.
He recovered well and went back to the life he knew and then, when he was 66, he died quickly at home of a massive stroke
Part 1. Tulsa
Of Ohio farm stock my father married early, had three children and stayed landlocked in the Midwest. Later he moved to the South to live near Esther’s family and raise his second family there.
But I think forever, always, his heart was near the ocean. Rarely, but as often as he could, he would travel to deep sea fishing destinations and when he couldn’t he built models of tall sailing ships. These were precise replicas and works of art; he obtained his plans from original documents, rough hulls from a company that made Dutch wooden shoes and veneers from Baker Furniture Company in Grand Rapids. On a single ship he would use hundreds of yards of fine suture thread for her rigging. Today, his model of the Santa Maria graces the entrance to the capital building in San Juan, Puerto Rico and his four foot long scaled model of H.M.S. Victory lives on, along with Lord Nelson’s journal, at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.
He loved his ships and he loved the sea. Esther loved my father and she loved the South.
When we arrived at the funeral home in Tulsa, Esther was in such an unhappy state that she was having trouble making any decisions at all about how to proceed. The VFW had stepped right up and the thought of an honorable and free burial had a lot of appeal. It took considerable kind but firm effort to help her remember that he wanted neither to be buried nor remain in Oklahoma.
The compromise involved a righteous Southern Baptist funeral and cremation. The funeral came complete with three days of visitation, open casket and the Wizard of Oz in blue satin throwing up his arms to exclaim: “Tis a GLORIOUS DAY! ToDAY, Russell has gone home to GEEEZUS!” When my son leaned over and asked, a little too loudly, “Do we believe that?” I said, “Shush! No. We’re Episcopalian.” And, I thought to myself, neither does Russell.
So few people were choosing cremation in Oklahoma that it required a medical examiner’s signature and that complicated getting documentation to confirm the bereavement fares on the airline but eventually the Northern portion of the family left Oklahoma with plans to convene again three months later in Gloucester, MA to scatter my father’s ashes.
Part 2. Gloucester
It had been up to me to find and charter a boat that would take my brother, one sister and I and my father’s two brothers out into the gray waters along Cape Ann. I did this long distance from Michigan but felt satisfied that all would be fine after a phone conversation with the boat’s captain. We decided to stay right there at the marina motel and arrived in dribs and drabs from Boston and Memphis and NYC and Ann Arbor. The sister who came was Kirsten, my half-sister, from Oklahoma. She arrived last, overheated and undone, after a long day that began with a trip to the funeral home to pick up my father’s cremains. I’m not sure why we thought these would automatically come in a lovely Ming vase- perhaps too many movies- but it took a round of drinks to actually come to grips with the soot and bone chips in a flimsy cardboard box that constituted my father’s corporeal remains. Kirsten and I set out in the rental car and found the only store for fifty miles that was open and had potential was a T.J. Maxx; we quickly purchased something blue and white with Asian overtones for 12.95 that would do.
We returned to the motel and sat on our little balcony overlooking the harbor, fortifying ourselves with one more drink for the task of making the transfer from box to vase. While we were stalled we watched the activity on the dock where they were holding the annual tuna fishing contest. We watched, tired and dazed, as a 1004# winning tuna, ripped and gutted, was lifted onto the hoist amidst cheers and applause.
We spread newspaper on the floor and transferred the ashes but not before a small handful blew around the room and into our eyes as a breath of rogue wind waltzed in the sliding door.
One of my father’s brother’s is from NYC, a retired photographer for the Times and the other from a small retirement golf community in the hills of Tennessee. One arrived with his significant other, a gifted Jewish pianist and writer and the other arrived in light blue polyester golf pants, armed with enough narrow minded bigotry to offend even the most stalwart. We were an unlikely lot that morning as we trouped out onto the dock to meet our boat captain. He took a long look at this odd cluster of people and then at the urn and he asked, “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?” The hapless fellow had the job passed to him by his friend who had gotten a last minute tuna charter. We said yes and he obliged us kindly by taking us along the rugged and beautiful coast until we chose a place that looked right; he went up top to read the paper and called, “Let me know if you need anything.”
We drank champagne and ate popcorn because that was my father’s favorite food. He ate popcorn almost daily for most of his life and fed it to us at the same rate. We passed the urn and as each of us spilled ash to sea, we said a little something about his life. Afterwards we staggered up the dock so looped on sun and champagne that no one noticed that the Tennessee brother, who had scattered the last of the ashes, had failed to toss the T.J. Maxx vase along with them. The captain called out to us, “Say! You forgot something!”
Part 3- Happy Birthday to me
I have never known Esther well because of time and distance but she is a good and lovely woman. Gracious to the extreme as only Southern women can be, she was also kind enough and sturdy enough to put up with my father, who could be both stubborn and difficult. After my father died we spoke infrequently but always at Christmas she would send an assortment box from Russell Stover Candy where she worked. The name piece was just coincidence. The kids knew her as the candy grandma.
A couple years after my father died it was the morning of my birthday and the phone rang. When I answered my part in the conversation was small; Esther was on the other
end, driven by purpose and talking fast. The faster she talked the more pronounced became her thick southern drawl.
“Vicki? Why, hello, dear! How are you?”
“Esther? I’m fine! How are you?”
“Ahm fine, too, but Ah woke up this morning and Ah thought, this must be around Vicki’s birthday and Ah thought about it and thought about it and Ah said, why, Esther, Ah think it IS Vicki’s birthday!”
“Well, it is, Esther, thank you ver…”
“And Ah said to myself, Esther! That’s a good idea! Vicki will know what to do! Because for more than two years now, every time Ah open the trunk of the car Ah say, Esther, this is not right, this is not good! You need to do something about Russell. He cannot stay in the trunk! When Ah take out the groceries and when Ah move things around and there he is, Ah say Esther! Take care of this!”
“Esther? I don’t, I, we scattered Dad’s ashes up in Glouc…”
“Well, now, Ah know that you think that you did but Ah wasn’t ready yet to say goodbye to your father, Ah went to the funeral home and got half of him and he has been in the trunk because Ah just didn’t know what to do with him. He came in a box! Ah keep saying to myself, Esther! Do something about Russell! And now Ah’m ready and this morning when Ah woke up Ah thought it’s Vicki’s birthday and she’ll know what to do. So Ah’m sending the rest of your dad to you, dear. You’ all have a happy birthday, now, okay? Baa now!”
Three days later the UPS truck pulled up in front of the house and the driver handed me a box with the logo of Russell Stover Candy on the front. I shook it tentatively; just enough to determine that there was a box within that box and it contained what sounded a lot like ash and bone. I set the box on the counter and wandered off, lost to conscious thought for the rest of the day. When my son arrived home from school he exclaimed, “Candy!” and I said, no, not candy, snatched the box and put it on the top shelf of my closet.
Part 4, 5, 6 and so on. Belize, Nevis, Honduras, Alaska, Hawaii…
I don’t know why my father was drawn to the sea. He wasn’t born near an ocean and because of the circumstances of his life he spent relatively little time on the water. Maybe it was in his stars or maybe in his genes from generations past. Whatever drew him, it also draws me. Where I want to be, where I am happiest and healthiest, where I feel calm and at peace is near the sea. And what draws me, draws my daughter, who I affectionately call Turtle Dreams.
Together, she and I have traveled at least once a year to the ocean. We’ve slept perched on the side of a volcano and gazed down a hundred feet each morning to watch the Eagle Rays head north around the island of Nevis. And there, I spilled down a tiny handful of my father. We’ve sat for hours, silent and motionless, in a kayak on the Inside Passage of Alaska, watching a raft of seventy otters drift as one, near the kelp line. And there I lowered a bit of my father into the icy water. On Maui, as the tide swept out over the black sand beach, I left my father in the receding waters.
My father has traveled with me and stayed behind. I like to think that he is visiting the ocean in places that his own life didn’t allow. When I wonder where my daughter’s life and love of the sea will take her I also wonder if, just maybe, she’ll take a bit of me along. I would like that.