Stories are kept for us in the wind. Let its silky fingers wrap around you, and take you to the place that your heart aches to know, even though you cannot say where that is.
“I will not shed one tear for that woman,” my sister said, fists clenched and jaw set. My brother, Tom had been slightly kinder. “I don’t want to do a funeral for her” his voice said over the phone. As for me, I knew exactly who my mother was and I loved the quirky, terribly complex woman. My husband once described her as someone who liked to hear her self talk. And it was true that she had no qualms about steam rolling over anyone else who might try to join in the conversation.
An invented and reinvented woman, she had many sides: One minute she was teaching me to knit and the next she was exalting the finer points of throwing a cocktail party. One of her life roles was the fallen Catholic divorcee and another was the marriage to a Mormon. Cocktail mommy and Mormon mommy. I liked Cocktail mommy the best. The knitting lessons had been short-lived, and though I knew how to knit and pearl, she had lost interest in the lessons before she taught me how to cast off. Endings and how to tie things up would never be my strong suit.
Oh, I knew that she could be mean. We all did. But now that she was gone, I hadn’t realized how piercing her absence would be. “I need something–to say goodbye,” I’d said to Tom over the phone. It wouldn’t be the first time that I had picked up jagged shards of family and tried to glue them together. I never really trusted whether it was love that did that, or just the sheer discomfort that my family was different.
My sister, Patty stayed in Phoenix, alone in her own process. Whether you like a parent or not, there will be some sort of goodbye, even if in the unspoken isolation of a broken heart. For me, the small town of Elbert Colorado beckoned, and I gathered my brother, his daughter and my great-niece to make the journey. It seemed right that three generations would pause for a moment to remember her.
To say that Elbert, Colorado is small town is an understatement. It’s really a town that is receding into the decay and age of history, beautiful in its surroundings and still undiscovered by developers. It was here, on an outcropping of rocks, on the side of a hill, that we commenced with a ceremony of closure. I had decided upon this place– Elbert, Colorado– because of the stories she told me when I was growing up. They were happy stories about getting on her horse Duke and riding east where the horizon is stretched tight across the sky. Stories about crying her eyes out when she lost the cows, and expecting her father to be angry, but he wasn’t, he just said, “come on we’ll go find those cows.” They were the stories of happy and loving times and it was in the place of those stories that I felt her ashes should be scattered.
I printed a copy of the 23rd Psalm from the Internet…the Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want…” and gave it to my niece to read aloud. Her first grandchild, Cathy. My first niece read it clearly and carefully. As the words fell upon the quiet of the moment, I hoped that my mother was finally at peace and that there really was a Shepard to watch over her. Her ashes had been sent to me from Phoenix, where she died. Before coming here today, I removed them from the plastic container with the wrinkled white label upon which someone had typed her name. I transferred them to a piece of fabric that I tied with ribbon and placed in a small basket. While Cathy continued to read, I carefully undid the ribbon, exposing the ashes. A light breeze picked up the finer ash and took it; my hands poured the rest onto the ground in a little path that quickly faded into the hill becoming part of it. Almost instantly, I was unable to differentiate what was terrain and what was ash. Some blew back onto my suede boots. Looks like I would be walking with her a bit longer.
Having been to a few memorials and funerals, I wanted my mother to have the same kind of card that those services provided, so I wrote a poem and printed it on card stock. A friend helped me put a picture of her on it. I chose a picture of when she was in her late twenties–a young mother, with big eyes and a sweet looking face; a face I remembered as a little girl. The guy behind the counter at Fed/Ex showed me how to print it out in shades of blue– blue being her favorite color. I gave the card to each member if our assembled band. It read:
Cleopha Marie Tylenda Black Taylor:
We do not speak in glowing terms,
nor whisper in shadowed despair.
There are no answers or clear resolve
for a life so fettered by complexities.
Because you passed to us
what the long line of ancient
women passed on to you:
Some gifts bright and shining
that glisten now,
against the craggy rocks
of darker canyons.
In the song of goodbye
the sobering refrain
that underscores our own mortality.
A wandering chorus that sings
life is precious, enters our hearts
The potential of letting go
is that the gift remains
And just as you have become free
so have we.
May all of us know peace and freedom.
May all of “us” know love.
But I had made a typo and left out the word “us,” so that the last line of the card read “May all of know love.” The “us” was lost.
We stood in our places, ashes scattered, alone in our thoughts. After a time, we walked toward each other, embracing in a group hug, and just as quickly broke apart as if startled by the spontaneous display. Then we walked down the hill and to the car.
“There is a church on that road where we drove into town,” I said. “Our great grandparents helped to build it.”
“How do you know that?” my brother asked. “I know because mom told me she visited it a few years ago and that it was an antique store now.”
We took the right hand turn driving up to the humble white building with a steeple. It seemed to be waiting for us in the autumn sun. Like she had said, it was an antique store now, but it was closed. So we walked around it and peered into windows and I tried to imagine my mother sitting on a hard wooden pew with her sisters, in between parents who disagreed about church. My grandmother Julia, a good Catholic woman with the fear of God in her heart– my grandfather Paul, who would rather be at the bar drinking beer and reading the funny papers until church was over. I’d been told that he had once lost his driver’s license for drunk driving, so he drove his tractor to the bar instead. I admired his humor and his resourcefulness. Yes, we were a family of rogues.
My great-niece Nancy Ann took pictures of the church. She took pictures of my brother and I sitting on its steps. As with every photograph that I have of my brother and I, I am leaning on him–some unspoken bond where I know that I can always lean on him, and that he is there, sitting up straight allowing me to do so, catching the weight of my body on his shoulders.
It was a beautiful day and I was glad that we did this: made the drive miles south of Denver and then east to where the suburbs give way to ranchettes, and those give way to farms and finally in driving up Kiowa Creek Road into the town of Elbert where it looks like not much had changed in the last 100 years. A small two-block square holds old houses without the manicured lawns of Denver. Railroad tracks run through the place and I sensed that the whistle of the engine and rumble of the train approaching awakened a desire in my mother’s heart to escape into something more. Isn’t that what young people do? We fight like crazy to escape and often in the end, we long just as much to return to that from which we ran.
The trees along Kiowa Creek donned a pallet of yellow and orange and the sky was infinity blue, betraying the coolness in the air. We chose the place where we scattered her ashes together; driving along the country road pointing out places to one another until we saw the outcropping of rocks on the hill that over looked the valley– that over looked where she rode her horse Duke and where she lost the cows. We were all in agreement that this was it.
We brought her home and I felt good about that, so now it was time for us to go home. I was grateful that my little family would do this with me and satisfied that my mother got a good send off. As we drove out-of-town chatting about the glorious weather and how perfect it all was, we saw the sign that said “Elbert Cemetery.” Without even thinking, I turned sharply into its gates and began driving up a road, as if I knew where I was going. “Our great grandparents are buried here,” I said turning to my brother. I stopped the car in front of a board that posted lists of typed names protected by glass from the elements. My brother and I got out of the car. He put his nose close to the board and with eyes squinting, placed a finger upon the list, running down the names of occupants and their location. But before he got too far my niece called out, “Here! They’re here.” Without knowing it we had driven right up to the Baginski plot.
One large granite stone, grey and pinkish in color stood slightly tipped in the dry, golden grasses of fall. John P. 1855 – 1932 and Eva A. 1857-1928, and then the larger name Baginski carved into the rock. I ran my hand over the name, reaching out to them somehow, these ancestors that none of us knew. We were all a little excited to be standing with them on this hallowed ground of what has passed. For my great-niece, these were her great, great, great grandparents.
A smaller, white headstone stood prominently in front of their larger one. It was bordered by beads carved into the stone that represented a rosary, and at the top of the stone was a heart. There were three names engraved– John Baginski, aged 21 years. Paul Baginiski aged 6 moths and Peter Baginiski, aged 6 years. Just one stone and three people. Were these children whose remains were elsewhere? Had John died in the first world war and been left on foreign grounds? Had he met with an accident or some sort of illness? He would have been the first son, named after the father. And the children, where were they? I knew that John and Eva had come from Poland; had traveled across eastern Europe to get to the ship that brought them here; had landed before there was an Ellis Island and then come across a huge swath of county looking to make a life. Were these children who had succumbed to the harshness of the journey and were buried along the way? I cannot imagine what it is for a mother to lose children–to lose what has grown inside of her and been nurtured by her promise and hope. Here on a hill, where the grasses are bent back by the Colorado winds was a monument to Eva and John’s grief, a marker of the secrets, written as three names on a stone.
Eva, my great-grandmother, it’s good to meet you. I circled the gravestone, touching it again and again, running my hands over the smooth and rough parts, the carved letters. There was a picture somewhere of my grandmother Julia as a young woman, sitting for a portrait among pine trees, her parents and her siblings around her. I cannot remember what Eva looked like. I looked for that photograph for a year after my mother died and never found the faces that are a part of who I am.
I learned something of Eva that day. I learned that she was strong and that she had suffered. I learned that it was tenderness for her children that had asked that a heart be engraved upon the stone of her lost children. And I learned, or rather just knew in my bones that she had the same sense of wild that was in me; that pull to move westward, a spirit made for adventure.
My brother came to stand beside me. He put his arm around me and said “Thanks. I thought I was doing this for you, but didn’t realize how much I needed it for me.” The memorial for my mother was over and though there were no relatives or friends that invited us in for tea and a spread of cold cuts, I felt like my great grandparents had invited us, even welcomed us, to the top of the hill whipped by the wind that now held their stories. They offered comfort and consolation from our loss. I felt some pride in the legacy of these strong and hardy people with strong and strong and hardy dreams. And I knew that the ashes and dust of my mother would find a way here, and settle into the comfort and beauty of these ancestral arms. Maybe the “us” had not been lost after all.