7/05/2010

Trip to Bountiful

Taos, NM
I spent the early weeks of this summer participating in meetings and seminars related to the books, lessons, curriculum and teaching strategies of English, and in one of them spent a fair amount of time working up activities related to the idea of seeing one's own life in terms of archetypal characters from literature, or from archetypal movies. Developing writing activities not only for expository writing, such as to prepare students to be successful in taking the AP Lit exam, but also to foster creative writing as well. More than once, the question was posed, "what is the story path of your life?" The idea being that, at various points in our lives, we "see" ourselves as various heroic characters from literature or cinema. Those who know me are familiar with the Scarlett O'Hara or Blanche DuBois aspects of my life. There have been other chapters drawn from other books, as well : Harriet the Spy, Little House on the Prairie, Jane Eyre, A Room With View, "1900", "When Harry Met Sally". (Hubster has long said he felt like Don Quixote......while many only see him as Bluto.)
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After my classes were over, I took a vacation to Colorado and New Mexico, something I have done every few years since I was a little girl (often dragging girlfriends or lovers along to share my passion for this region). I couldn't help but think of my trip this year in some of these mythic terms. It was clearly a quest for me this time, from the Dionysian to the Apollonian in my life, like Antigone, determined to do the correct thing and restore order from the chaos. Like the film "A Trip to Bountiful", it was also a journey to find a place and time that does not exist any more, or exists only in memory. For you see, my father passed away rather suddenly back in the winter, and having died without any burial plans- a will, an estate to pay for his expenses- and never having mentioned the subject or his wishes to anyone at all, it was left to me alone to make difficult choices as to what to do with his remains. All this was made more complicated by the fact that my childhood was not idyllic but highly dysfunctional. My father was an undiagnosed "adult onset" schizophrenic until very recently, and over the years as he struggled through the torments of his mental disease, various family members reacted to him with anger, fear, shock, and avoidance, no one fully comprehending what he was going through or why. His own mother and sister disowned him. My parents divorced and my mother refused to see him or speak to him ever again. My sister also disavowed herself from him. I alone, perhaps b/c I had a few good years with him as a child before his madness took its toll, saw and spoke to him - albeit infrequently. It was part of the nature of his disability that he wandered from job to job, apartment to flop to trailer house and girlfriend to girlfriend. Months and years would pass without a word, and I was worried that he'd end up a "John Doe" in a morgue somewhere with a toe tag and no one would ever know what had finally happened to him. So when he died, I alone was the one designated to make all the end of life decisions for him. As he was a charity case and had no assets, I chose to have him cremated. What to do with his "cremains" came to me as an idea, later.
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I thought about my childhood, of the happy times. My mom, sis, dad and I long ago agreed the best memories centered on the vacations spent in the Colorado- New Mexico "Four Corners" area. As a family, we returned again and again to our favorite haunts : Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Durango, Gallup. Back in the 1960's we camped at various campgrounds in this part of the desert southwest, hiked, rode horses, fished, picnicked, experiencing the land in ways one cannot from a hotel room. Those happy memories must be seared in my brain, as I cannot go too long without returning to these places. So I decided that this was where dad's final resting place needed to be.

Ship Rock, NM, sacred place for the Navajo
Funerals are for the living- don't kid yourself; the dead don't care. It is through the ceremonies we construct for our dead that we reveal who we are, what they meant to us, and heal from the grieving of their loss. My mother (who is fixated on family genealogy- takes vacations visiting the cemeteries of her ancestors, and tidying up their tombstones) has her final resting spot already purchased, designed, paid for and ready to go. All that remains for her is to put the final date on her headstone. She will join her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in a family plot that is as cozy to her as a church picnic family reunion. As I was making my plans for this trip, she kept tossing out random "helpful" suggestions : buy him a burial plot (where? where he was born? where he died? near his other family ? his sister disowned him, as had the rest of his family.....and with what money? no one was offering to help me out in that aspect - I'd already fronted the bill for the cremation, no helpful family member stepping in to shoulder that burden, either), throw his cremains in the trash, leave them here or there. Leaving them in the cardboard box they came in , on the mantel, seemed to be not a viable option. This was all ridiculous. As no one else had any realistic solution, I chose to release his ashes at some of the various spots of our happy childhood memories.

Gallup , NM - the famous "Route 66"
My own mother went shopping on the day of her mother's funeral. I tell this story often, for I believe it reveals quite a bit about my mother. And it is true. God help me, I couldn't make this stuff up. I remember that day : a freezing late winter morning, with icy rain drizzling through our thin raincoats. My husband and I had driven 7 hours, through the night, to the northern east Texas town of Sulphur Springs from Houston, and were exhausted. My mother and sister drove east 2 hours from Dallas. The funeral was small ; my grandmother had outlived most of her friends and peers, even the pastor who had known her. A small canopy at the burial site sheltered us from the rain but not the wind. Mom at least managed to remember that granny loved yellow roses best, and a spray of them covered her casket. It was that small gesture that made my eyes well up and I had to turn away. Everyone deals with grief in their own way, and my mother sat dry-eyed through the entire ceremony. Granny hadn't been lowered into the ground 5 minutes, when mom said to me, "You drove all this way, why don't we swing by the outlet mall ? They have some of those dollar panties I like. Then we can go out to lunch, after."
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Perhaps it is a hallmark of our modern era that I searched for something more personal and meaningful, yet in an unconventional way, for my father. Recent news sources guestimate that nearly a third of people are cremated in the USA annually and that figure is rising, each year (nearly 85% worldwide, esp in countries that practice Buddhism or Hinduism) . However, it is theoretically illegal to dump human remains - even in the form of dust - in most public places in this country. What to do, what to do? I ended up leaving a trail of dust, a little bit here here or there, in all of the places my dad loved best and was happiest in . Chose some spots he loved to paint watercolors of, for good measure. None of them public by any means. ;o)

sunrise at Mesa Verde, Co
Then like my mother before me, I went shopping. Took a "Trip to Bountiful" journey through all the beloved places of my childhood - Albuquerque, Sante Fe, Taos, Durango, Shiprock, Gallup. Saw all the sights, ate wonderful food, relived some memories of good times, created some new ones to add to the mix. And shopped. It really does help assuage the pain. Wasn't it right after Katie Scarlett buried her father Gerald in the old peach orchard, that she took the velvet curtains, made herself a new dress, and went to Atlanta?

October 2012 Post Script:
What I didn't know when I originally wrote this post was that this would be the last vacation I was to take my mother on, the last happy memory I would have of her. A week later she had a stroke, wrecked her car, and began a two year spiral down into dementia and death. So it was all the more important that I took this journey with her. Many did not understand why she accompanied me to dispose of my father's ashes, since there was so much acrimony between them when they divorced. All these places that were special to dad, however, were special to my mom as well, and she longed to see them one last time. You just never know how things are going to turn out, and while at times this was a difficult trip - mom was already showing signs of the dementia that eventually killed her - I'm still glad I made the effort.

1 comment:

  1. Well hell, girl from Texas, I blundered onto your most attractive weblog while hunting down pikkies for a book on Obama and his family which the NGO I work for is publishing. Got caught. The misery came directly through on the account of your mother's delirium - I resisted moving back with my 80+ year old parents, by then near a long-estranged daughter in Abilene (as they got very old she suddenly became very concerned and loving... get the picture?)

    Your travels / travails across NM were also of interest - I haven't lived in the US since an ill-starred attempt at re-integration in the mid-80s, but thanks to the internet have a pretty good idea of what's happening in the area.

    If you have the time and inclination check out my blog at iglu-cilutung.blogspot.com and see my videolings at "bakhirun's channel" on YouTube. The latest is entitled "Gloria Gorilla Yaks it Up".

    Stay upright.

    Byron Black

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