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On the Places That Shape Us

A couple of months ago while I was working on the last chapter of my book I came across some old papers from around the time my father died. In them I found a note I had written reminding myself that my father would like some of his ashes scattered in his hometown of Rogers City, MI. He grew up in Northern Michigan and both of his parents and all of his siblings are buried there.

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After much deliberation about the 7-hour drive from Chicago, I finally decided to make the pilgrimage north this last weekend. Greg and V came too. There aren't a lot of physical ways to introduce my husband and daughter to my late parents, but visiting the place where my father was born seemed like a really incredible way to do so.

I think places leave imprints on people. They shape them and become part of them, even if you grow up in that town and never live there again.

I've been scattering my parents ashes in various places for years now. I have no idea how this plan originated, but after my mother died my father started it off by taking a portion of her ashes to Cape Cod.

I'll never forget coming across my dad, bent over the trunk of the car in my aunt's driveway on Cape Cod right after my mother's memorial service, using a salad spoon to transfer some of her ashes into a ziploc bag.

At first I was appalled, but as with a lot of things, my father set me at ease and said something simple like, "There's just no other way around it, sweetie."

He was right. That afternoon we scattered her ashes on Nauset Beach on the Cape, where they got engaged over twenty years earlier.

Later that year my father pressed another ziploc into my hand as I was packing for a trip to Europe. "Take these to Italy," he said. And I did, scattering them in a small fountain in a quiet corner of the city.

When my father died a few years later, it was my turn to get out the ziploc bag. On the one year anniversary of his death I went to Italy again and took his ashes to the same fountain. I also took a sackful to Cape Cod.

But after that both of their ashes have sat in their separate plastic bags, inside a heavier velvet bag, in the back of my closet. For the most part, I don't think about them. When Greg and I moved in together I morbidly held them up one afternoon as we were unpacking. "Greg, meet my parents," I said, laughing.

You have to laugh.

So last week I got out the velvet bag, a salad serving spoon and a ziploc bag, and while Greg and V were busy in the living room, I went into the kitchen where I filled the ziploc bag for our trip to Michigan.

Ashes are heavier than you expect. Grey and grainy, with bits of what must be bone in them. At the very least, they look authentic.

On Friday morning we set out early to drive seven hours, up to the very top of Michigan.

Photo

Even though my Dad grew up in Rogers City, we decided to stay the night in the larger town of Cheboygan. We found a nice hotel on the river and spent the afternoon swimming in the indoor pool, which was heavenly after such a long car trip.

That night we went to the strangest, most fantastic 100-year old restaurant called the Hack-Ma-Tack Inn. It was located in the middle of nowhere, down a series of nothing roads and right on a little water way out in the woods. If it hadn't been so pretty and sunny, I would have thought we were in a David Lynch movie.

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The moment we stepped foot inside I knew that it was exactly the kind of place my father would have loved. Over halibut and prime rib and Veronica's first shirley temple, it dawned on me that given the restaurant's age, my father probably HAD been there.

The next morning we drove down to Rogers City. Northern Michigan is so beautiful. There are evergreen trees everywhere, the air is cool and clean and the sky is impossibly blue.

My dad left Rogers City after high school and never went back, living instead in places like Los Angeles, Miami and Atlanta. When I was growing up we visited Michigan a few times, but until this last weekend, I hadn't been in over 10 years.

Driving into that town was the only time I got a little sad during this trip. Scattering ashes doesn't make me sad — I've been doing it for so long — but winding our way through Rogers City, a place that once meant so much to my father made my chest tight and tears brim in my eyes. I wished I knew more about it. Wished he were there to show me around, to point out the places where he fished with his brothers, the house he grew up in, where he went to school.

I took a few deep breaths and let Greg find our way to the cemetery where we found the family plot. We read aloud the names on the stones and I told Greg bits and pieces of the people they represented. Then I scattered his ashes across the ground there. It was sunny and cool and Veronica played with sticks and lifted her face to the breeze.

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After that we went back to town where we visited the sheriff's department. My grandfather Oscar was sheriff of Rogers City from 1938 – 1946. His tenure came to an abrupt end when he died of a sudden heart attack. Apparently there was no precedent for this and my grandmother was asked to take over until the end of his term, becoming the first female sheriff in Michigan.

I recounted this story to the current sheriff, which he seemed to have heard before, and shook his hand.

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(Waiting to meet the sheriff.)

After that we drove out to 40 Mile Point Lighthouse. It wasn't exactly open for the season yet, but the groundskeepers were there with a crew of boy scouts, readying the property for spring, and they let us roam around, even up to the top of the lighthouse.

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We walked down the beach a ways, past the remnants of a decades-old shipwreck, and I scattered the rest of my dad's ashes in the cool, clear water. Evergreens rounded the lip of the beach and the sound of lake rocks washing against the shore was a familiar one.

There was a time in my life when something like this would have made me sad, but not anymore. Instead I felt grateful to be there, thankful to have known my father at all, happy to be standing in a place where he once swam as a boy, and humbled to be there with my husband and daughter.

(See all the photos here.)

 

 

 

12 Comments

  1. lovely & very well written, great pics with Veronica too

    Comment by jim on May 2, 2011 at 10:22 am

  2. Another beautiful episode of the ZipLoc Ritual :-) I so hope my own children will take my wish to emulate this seriously, Claire. And I should mention this to my sister-in-law as well — Nauset Beach is a place I think my husband’s mom would really love to be spending some portion of eternity. Your
    Dad was surely with you on this trip, in more ways than one.

    Comment by Carroll on May 2, 2011 at 2:31 pm

  3. Beautiful!!!! I cried at this; it’s just so touching.

    Comment by megan on May 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm

  4. The dignity and grace with which you handle scattering your parents ashes is so touching and lovely. It is beautiful to read about how you share the memories of your mother and father with your family and honor them.

    Comment by Wendy on May 2, 2011 at 6:13 pm

  5. Thats nice of you to say. Thank you!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on May 2, 2011 at 7:30 pm

  6. Aw, thank you!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on May 2, 2011 at 7:30 pm

  7. Thanks for saying so, Carroll! I hope your kids carry out your wishes.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on May 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm

  8. Thank you!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on May 2, 2011 at 7:37 pm

  9. I’m glad you were able to make the trip before you go back out west. Beautiful.

    Comment by Liz on May 3, 2011 at 8:45 pm

  10. Thanks!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on May 3, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  11. Love the David Lynch reference. What a wonderful way to remember your dad!

    Comment by Evelyn on May 3, 2011 at 9:02 pm

  12. Thanks!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on May 5, 2011 at 12:58 pm

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