Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How to Say Good-bye in Cape Breton

Cape Breton Highlands, NS. July, 2015
The trip was half-planned before I thought of my mother. We need a vacation, I said. We need to do something different, have a real adventure. The previous two years had been hard on us. First one mother, grandmother, died, fifteen months later the other. Our kids watched both of their parents tend the dying for long months at a time. At least they'll know how to do it when our time comes, I joked darkly. Idyllic summers in Switzerland had been our habit. Costly salve for the wounds of children missing out on half their genetic story line but for a few weeks each year. Now we were profoundly free from the apron strings of mother-love. We could go anywhere. Turns out, I would take us home.

My mother was the happiest I ever saw her, those years in Maine. She still worked the long, hard hours of the barely getting by, but there were fewer children at home; life was easier. And then there was the beauty of the place. The landscape - our constant companion - allowed us to participate in her sometimes surly, always generous, beauty for nothing more than the cost of walking outside. Poverty reduces your expectations in life, bearing witness to extravagant beauty expands them, makes you feel like you deserve something. During those years we all expanded into beauty unimaginable at the beginning of our story. My mother most of all. When she died, we found a note among her papers suggesting (never asking or directing, as was her way) that her ashes be spread in a place of beauty where the rocks meet the sea. Maine, we said.

In a mean twist of fate, my mother's ashes were stolen, along with the rest of the contents of her house. The getting over, the bitter moving on -- I was born to it, raised to it. So I was my mother's daughter once more and did both. Yet, two years after her death I found myself planning a visit to the place that had called to her. The place where she found the happiness that had so often escaped her. And more, I planned that we should keep going to the place she had dreamed of. Cape Breton.

I had already booked passage to Yarmouth on the western shore of Nova Scotia. I mapped a route to Halifax, then up to Louisbourg, northward to Cape Breton, on to the Bay of Fundy, then crossing to Prince Edward Island before heading home via New Brunswick, then Maine. My mother would have loved this trip, I said. The words spoken uncurled long-forgotten conversations, the subconscious imprint of a place I'd never heard of. Cape Breton, she had said in a rare moment speaking of dreams. From that moment the trip became about saying good-bye to my mother.

In July and August we had our adventure, camping for five weeks, discovering ourselves, discovering beauty, learning to tell new stories about the kind of people we are and hope to be. At night, fire embers glowing, we curled ourselves together in the tent, a snug family cocoon, and I told more stories. I wove together the past and the present, teaching my children who they came from so they will know how to weave their own. And each day when we climbed the rocky shoreline or looked to the blue horizon, my mother was there with me. Look at this, Mom. We made it. And each day, I'd look for the most beautiful place I could imagine, the place where I'd say good-bye.

When I found the spot where I thought my mom would be content to meet the wind and the seas, I took a small green composition book from by pack. Words written twenty-odd years before her death, neatly spanning a hundred or so pages. She wasn't one to share her private thoughts and feelings. She never told us how she felt about us, never remarked affectionately about anything of our character or personality. That she loved us was indisputable but I would have liked to know why, apart from the accident of our birth. Maybe that was all that really mattered to her. We were hers and she was ours. That was enough. The journal, forgotten, was not destroyed with the others in the backyard fire pit after she sensed something was wrong and before it became inescapable, was a difficult read. She wrote her stories, her truth, and I found the words and meanings my mother was never able to say when she was alive.

I placed the book on a rock on a high plateau overlooking the sea and offered it fire. The wind made a show of it, which I think she would have liked, sending whole pages alight and aloft, floating out over the ocean, burning paper ghosts, dancing on unseen currents.  In the face of it, I no longer held regret for the ashes of her body, nor of what was unsaid. Her stories, consumed by the fire and by me, were enough.


  1. Christine, this is beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Heartbreakingly beautiful. I'm so glad you wrote these words down, so honored that you shared it with us. xxk

  3. Oh, Christine. I felt as though I was right there with you, in the tent, by the fire, by the sea. What a lovely way to treasure your family and honor your mother. xo