Mapping out the final journey
Wednesday was a beautiful day to be in the Mayflower Cemetery. The sun shining over Cape Cod and the South Shore was bright enough to warm our skin. The soft ocean breeze kept us comfortable during our short labors at the family graves. Yes, there is such a thing as a good cemetery day.
I know most of us dread when we must be graveside for a loved one’s final ritual. When my mother passed in September a few years back, at the celebratory age of 98, we had known it was coming … yet it did help ease our sorrow. Moreover, three separate services, in three months, in three states tempered our loss. All that planning kept us busy.
We held Mom’s funeral service in Warren, her adopted hometown, that September. She was lovingly remembered during the church service, which was accompanied by the festivities she had requested:
“You’ll need a bagpiper (she was 100% from the kilted clans) to welcome the people into church, and a New Orleans style jazz band to play us out. And since it’s at lunch time, you can whet their whistles with Bloody Marys. If they don’t like horseradish, they can have Gin & Tonics or a glass of wine, but other than that, no open bar.” OK, Mom. Sound pretty close to open bar to me. Her clenched Scottish fist and her generous hospitality were often in conflict. “Oh, and lotsa good food. No one ever went away from my table hungry.”
After that extraordinary day, we hit the road. From ages 11 to 18, my mother lived with a religious community of Shakers in Canterbury, New Hampshire. Sister Marguerite was her surrogate mother for those formative years, a loving woman who also filled the role of grandmother for me. Now that the community is history, a museum comprised of the hilltop dwellings and farm is open eight months a year.
My mother had always remained close to the community, and the adminstration invited us to bury her ashes in their communal grave with Sister Marguerite. An enormous gravestone stands in the middle of a grassy acre surrounded by stone walls. It simply says, “Shakers.” A map showing each Shaker’s final resting place was available, so it was relatively easy to place my mother with Marguerite.
My daughter, my cousin, and my dearest friend joined me for the brief ceremony atop the October hills of Shaker Village. We buried half of Mom’s ashes in a traditional oval Shaker box. After the tributes and music, we laid two heart-shaped wreaths of roses, binding those two wonderful women together.
The third ceremony took place when we traveled east that Thanksgiving. We took Mom home. We buried her remaining ashes with my stepfather, the love of her life … a prince among men.
My widowed mother relocated to Pennsylvania 17 years after my stepdad passed. For the next 17 Memorial Days, she returned to Duxbury for her devotional chores at his and his family’s graves. For many years, I went with her, learning her routine.
The torch has passed from my mother, and now I take my daughter with me. Last Wednesday, it was time to return again to Mayflower Cemetery to clean up and refresh the graves. My cousin, my mother’s favorite, also joins us chatting, laughing, and catching up as we accomplish another year’s task.
The rare pink lilies-of-the-valley needed taming, as usual. They were Mom’s favorite, which I transplanted from her backyard. The small lime-green hostas didn’t need dividing this year, being the perfect backdrop for Mom’s bright red flowers. I could still hear her directions as I dug through the sandy soil. “Any plant, any color, as long as it’s red.”
We cleaned up the headstones, watered the new red begonias heavily, and cleaned up all our weed piles. After a few quiet moments, a few silent tears, and a few small stones placed on the gravestones, we were ready to leave.
Before we headed to the harbor for our traditional seafood lunch, I paid a visit to the cemetery office to clarify some foggy records. There had been some paperwork errors about grave placement within the family plot. Now I know where I’m going when the time comes. It’s actually more important that my children know, but at least it’s a starting point. And now I have it in writing – with a plot sketch.
It’s comforting to know that my daughter, and maybe my grandchildren, will continue this Memorial Day tradition. I’m blessed.
Now that the definitive map is drawn, all my daughter has to ensure is the right flower colors: red for her grandmother, and any color for me. As long as it’s coral.
Marcy O’Brien can be reached at Moby.firstname.lastname@example.org