June 27, 2015

Her Final, Earthly Home

We buried my grandmother's ashes over memorial day weekend when we were on Orcas. There is a cemetery in an almost forgotten corner of the island there: a rolling acre of grass, surrounded on all sides by forest. Salt blows in from the bay, and the stones are weathered and some are a little overgrown, but well-loved. My grandmother brought me here, years ago. We parked her old white car on the grass, the dirt from the road settling around us. She pushed through the gate, and we walked up the hill, to the rise where our family lies. "These are your great-great-great grandparents who built the farmhouse. Here is my cousin. This is the aunt for whom the room in the corner is named--she married the hired man. Here are your great-great-great-great aunts who came all the way from Vermont. Here is my uncle. My cousin, once removed." Always, a story to go with them, saying this is your history, this is your blood.

The day grew long as we wandered the paths, nothing more than the empty spaces between the stones placed by those left behind to honor and remember. I remember she told me that day that she wanted to be buried there, near her grandparents, great-grandparents, and so many other people that make up our family. She wanted to be buried on "her" island. The island that she spent summers on with her cousins, singing in their Glee club and riding up Mt. Constitution on the hood of the car during the war, shining a flashlight down on the road so that they could see where they were going because their headlights had to be turned off. The place where all of the island's young folk gathered at Oddfellows Hall for dances, and the island landing where she would run down to meet the mail boat.

We went back to the cemetery together a few more times over the years, and always, a new layer of someone's story would be unpeeled and shown to me. I gathered up the pieces of my history as they were given, treasuring them in my heart.


Before she died, she was lucid only about half of the time. Several times, she told us about the long trip she had taken, or about the train she was waiting for. It was hard to hear, but so clearly the hand of God. I wonder how much she saw--how much of heaven's light shone down on her while she was waiting at the train station. It's been a year and a half since she died. A year and six months since the glory train came for her.


I miss her. I don't think I knew how much I loved her before she was gone. And I got so much of her: seventeen years. She built blocks out of milk cartons with me on the kitchen floor, painted soldiers onto empty toilet paper rolls at the kitchen table. She was a saver, a daughter of the Depression. Some things she saved that now, going through old boxes, we wish she had parted with years ago. But some things are special and dear, and there is so much that we get to see and know because she was a saver, just like her mother before her.

Grandma Jan taught me to love history. She was one of my very first teachers. When I was very little, I got to spend weekends with her and we would walk into town and go to the Historical Museum, and she would buy me a peppermint stick, just like when she was a girl. We stood in front of all the exhibits, imagining what life would have been like in that time and place, and she would tell me stories about the members of our family who had lived then and used those things. She was the one who first showed me how close Canada was. We stood on the front step of her trailer home (only one of many of her homes) and she pointed across the fields to a row of houses at the foot of some low mountains. "See those houses? They're in Canada. We could walk there if we wanted to." She told me about the years she lived in Munich and in New York, sitting on a low chair and opening the bottom drawer of the dresser in her dining room, showing me pictures and letters from her life.


Six weeks ago we gave her her final, earthly resting place. It is a funny thing to say, because I know that she is alive and living wildly and freely again, safely arrived at the golden, glittering Central Station, but we cannot fathom that, and laying her down to sleep until the Last Day is something we can understand.

I know that she's heart-glad that she's lying just a few steps away from her grandparents, even though she can hug them in her own arms now. I know that she's glad for our sake. She will always be alive to me in that cemetery, even though there is a stone with her name printed on it lying in the ground. It has a birth date and a heaven date--a clear reminder that she is gone. I knew she was gone, but nothing made it more real than digging that hole and putting that box in the dirt. And yet, I stood with her stone at my feet, facing away and down towards the gate, and saw her slowly walking through the grass, pausing to look at names, carrying her bags, leaning on a cane. She will always be alive to me there, and I will always carry my memories and her stories with me--her stories are mine to share now.


I stood next to my last reminder of my grandmother, and just as I saw her walking about the grassy slope, I saw myself, some twenty years form now. I will take the left turn off of the main road up to that field in a dusty car, littered with wrappers, toys, and the reminders of a life busy and full of sticky, rosy children. We'll push through the gate, anything but silently. I'll show my kids the names of their ancestors, their family. I will tell them the stories that were told to me, teach them their history. And I will show them my grandmother's name, Janice Evelyn. I'll tell them my stories about her, too, and they'll listen, but to them she will only ever be a name on a stone and the reason that we're staying in the old white house down the road. They will see a name belonging to some of Mama's stories, but I will see her. I'll turn around and see her still, ambling down the hill, greeting her family. I know she will see me there and thank me for passing on her stories, for making sure my children know their history. And it will be my turn to be heart-glad, thankful for all the life she's given me and my own children and for all the living she gets to do now with those people.

Thank Grandma, for giving me so much. I love you.


June 15, 2015

Orcas Island Part 1


I've written and shared a lot about Orcas over the years. There's a good reason for it, too. It's not just the place we go up to every summer, a tradition longstanding, although that is part of it, and how it grew into what it is now. There is more to the story, of course. There always is.

I can count at least nine different places that my grandmother lived in the past two decades, and that's not counting the globe-trotting she did before. My grandfather moved around a little less than she did, but except for when I was very little, there was never a place that I felt was his. I've never had a house that I could point to and say, "This is my grandma's home," without hesitation or "This is where my roots are." Never been a place like that, except for Alderbrook.

When you're given a farmhouse, one hundred and twenty-six years old--a dinosaur on the west coast--that your family has loved and lived in since before it was built, you take it and love it with all your soul. Going to Orcas is going home for us, and it is only more so now that my grandmother cannot come with us anymore.

So on memorial day weekend, we took the ferry out, got a little high on salt air, and let our worries fly to the wind.




May 8, 2015

grilling season


We have met the grilling of days of late spring, which only makes us hunger for summer. I'm really just a huge fan of eating supper in the garden, you know. On the back patio, on the deck, on the roof of the building, in a deep-set, open window. The air was gold as the meat comes off of the grill and we finished making salads in the kitchen. All the food comes out onto the table. It groans with the weight of it. As the light fades, we linger over mouthfuls of roasted potatoes, lamb, and kale salad. Later in the summer there will be tomatoes and zucchini from the garden, pork shishkabobos, fresh spinach, and berries from the vine for dessert. Now we hurry inside because the sun does not leave enough warmth behind it, but in a few months we will be there still when the stars come out. For now, though, we are content to eat under the branches of the cherry tree, together.