The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Bag O Dad October 9, 2015

My father’s ashes have resided on North Broadway in Saratoga Springs for nearly two years now. We pass the funeral home each morning as we drive to school. Some mornings we wave and say hello to grandpa, sometimes we call out to him, letting him know that we haven’t forgotten, and we’ll come to get him soon… but most days we do forget. In our minds, that historic mansion on North Broadway is just where dad lives now. Among the tony, gentile and wealthy folk he so often joked about. He had liked to speak in different accents, and would happily interject “I weesh to be reech” into conversations – he even said it again just a few days before he died, with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Many were the times he would tell us how life would look for a gentleman of such means; he made mock instructions to his imagined staff, told us how he’d lunch with Marylou or take tea on the veranda. For as long as I can remember, he would make good fun of the money’d folk and their upscale habits, but deep down, I don’t think dad would have minded one bit if such fortune were to have befallen him. Had he the money to express himself fully in this world, I have no doubt he would have surrounded himself with the finest of everything (most notably wine and double-manual harpsichords.)

We’ve always liked knowing he was there, quietly resting on a shelf in the fine home. It feels familiar now, to know that dad “lives on North Broadway”. As I said to the funeral director on the phone today – when I finally felt it was time to see if dad hadn’t overstayed his welcome – that it had been dad’s pleasure to have lived across the street from the Riggis, he generously offered that it instead was the Riggis who were honored to have had him as their neighbor. The Riggi’s enormous home – one which they themselves like to call the ‘Palazzo Riggi’ – has become something of a tourist destination, especially on Halloween. Readers may recall that Elihu won a $100 bill from Mrs. Riggi herself last year for his unique costume. While I posed with the Riggis and my son for a quick selfie, I noticed the Burke Funeral home mansion just behind the camera, and in that second the clash of realities seemed surreal. I said a quiet hello to him as we left the decadent celebration, and once again I wondered how long it would take for me to face the idea that dad was now no more than a shoebox of dust. It still didn’t feel real. Telling ourselves that dad was there somehow offered me some comfort. But the idea of actually seeing – and holding – the small box of his remains felt too real. Last fall I still wasn’t ready. God bless those folks at the funeral home. They’d never once called to tell us to come and pick him up. In fact, the funeral director had even said, shortly after dad’s death, that there was no hurry. I’m not sure most funeral homes are so lax. Don’t know, but I’d like to believe that we’ve been given some good, old-fashioned small-town care here. Yeah, it’s felt nice to know dad was there, taken care of and safe. I feel silly saying that, but there it is.

And here we are. I think we Conants are ready. Tomorrow would have been mom and dad’s 56th wedding anniversary. They married on 10/10 in Manhattan’s upper East side on a fine fall day. After their service they celebrated at the Harvard Club (a Yale man at the Harvard Club? Shhh…) and as they entered the limousine to take them away into the night, they received a telegram of congratulations. Can you imagine? There’s a photo of them, somewhere, in the back seat of the car, leaning in to read the message. It was truly an entirely different era. I think it’s just as well my father’s no longer here with us in this modern world; he was an old-school gentleman and scholar. His was a world of typed correspondence and hand-written notes… it was a slower, gentler world; a world of telegrams, paper and ink.

Although my mother doesn’t come out and say it in so many words, I can sense she might be starting to wonder at how things will end for her. I’m sure she wonders how long she’s got. How can you be 80 and not have such thoughts? I know that I, at 52, have come to understand in a much more profound and real way just how limited our lives are. As comfortable as we humans may have become at ignoring our ultimate fate, there still comes a moment or two when the idea finally gets your attention. I tell ya, knowing that in the next couple of hours I’ll be putting a box with what’s left of my dad’s body into the back seat of my CRV is a little surreal. And it makes this whole idea of actually dying begin to feel very possible. ! Look, I know this is business as usual; all of us deal with death. And at some point in many people’s lives they’ll be faced with the receipt of a loved one in powdered form; in a box, a bag, or if the comedy of life insists, all over the kitchen floor. (I was greatly relieved when Danny told me that the cremains were inside a bag which was then inside a box. !) I shouldn’t be making this such a big deal. But when it’s your first time, when it’s your deal, it is big. I do feel I’m readier for it than I was a year ago, but to be honest, my heart begins to race at the thought of holding dad’s remains. This morning I was missing my father deeply. Maybe having what’s left of him back home again will help soften that. And then again, maybe not.

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The experience of ‘picking dad up’ was made easier by the good-humored funeral director who welcomed us inside and never let up with amusing anecdotes and corny jokes. It wasn’t a show meant to distract – it was this fellow’s genuine personality. He recounted stories about terrifying nuns at Catholic school in his youth, and allowed Elihu his own boisterous expression as he bounded through the halls and jumped down half the staircase on our way out.

We then took dad out to lunch before heading back to mom’s. We hadn’t prepared her for his return, but in that I’d mentioned it recently, I suppose it wasn’t such a surprise. Mom doesn’t let on much of her inner feelings, and while she didn’t cry, I think I saw her eyes moisten just a bit. I’m glad that dad is home again, on this, the eve of their 56th wedding anniversary. Very likely he’s still somehow nearby, smiling and wishing his love upon us all, hoping that we can still feel his presence, and wishing very dearly that we should not be so sad… After all, this is a family of some deep-seated good humor, and we’re also pretty good about getting back to the simple things in life, which at the end of the day, are the reasons we’re all still hanging around.

IMG_0146A fine, rainy fall day as we head out.

IMG_0155Nostalgic for the way things used to be, I swing by Martha’s on the way to town. Still can’t believe she’s gone, too.

IMG_0166One year ago this week Saratoga’s Banjo Man, Cecil Myrie died. I see the Jamaican flag on Broadway and it reminds me… It was purely by coincidence that the Jamaican flag had been hung above Cecil’s makeshift memorial last year. Now it’s hanging at the other end of the strip. (We’ll be planting a memorial tree for him soon. Took a year to pull off!)

IMG_0179The Burke Funeral Home. One of the famous North Broadway mansions of Saratoga Springs.

IMG_0186Ok, this seems quite unexpected and unrelated… But our host insisted on showing us this very fancy, custom shower from the ’30s. Water came in at ya from all directions. Turns out mom and dad had one very much like it in their first NYC apartment on W 57th. And why shouldn’t it have had the finest appointments? “It was a very high class building” she reminded me, citing neighbors like Jose Ferrer, only a few doors down…

IMG_0189Elihu jokes around a bit with Nancy. She is, as my mother (also named Nancy) would say, “a good egg”.

IMG_0188So this is it. Sheesh. No pomp or ceremony. Tom just finds our box in the pile of other folks waiting to go home too.

IMG_0196I take a quick pic of the Palazzo Riggi from the second floor window.

IMG_0202Elihu’s like a ghost as he runs to the door, while I and my host (whose hand is in the far right) are making a much more measured and middle-aged descent down the carpeted staircase.

IMG_0203 (2)Finally, here we are. They even gave me a carryout bag. ! Oy. Bob in a bag. ! I do like the way it matches the mums, I suppose. !?!

IMG_0214Now this is the life to which my father could have grown accustomed with little effort. This fine Saratoga home belongs to the Wait family, the matriarch of which was once a board member for dad’s Festival of Baroque Music.

IMG_0234We’re at the Olde Bryan Inn. It’s a cozy place, perfect for a rainy afternoon lunch with dad.

IMG_0218Hmm, do ya think anyone suspects dear old dad is sitting right beside me??

IMG_0222Ah well, here’s to you, dad. Miss you.

IMG_0258We didn’t give mom much warning, but she seems ok. As she gives dads remains a heft, she says that she misses Annie (her cat who died two weeks ago today) a lot too – letting on that she must also be missing her husband. She never says so, that’s not her way. But she’s gotta be missing him, and especially today, on the eve of their anniversary.

IMG_0271She assesses the box, and the accompanying note of verification. (Dad’s correct date of death was December 27th, but as we couldn’t get anyone to formally pronounce him dead until the 28th – he died shortly before midnight – it will forever be legally recognized, albeit incorrectly, as the day he was legally pronounced dead. Oh well. We know.)

IMG_0302Within moments, it’s life as usual. The box sits in and among all the other day-to-day crap and clutter. Mom goes back to unpacking her groceries, and Elihu’s got his nose in a book on amphibians.

IMG_0307A closer look at the newly discovered book given to him by grandma.

IMG_0310And shortly thereafter, a live specimen in hand.

IMG_0324You’re a good-looking creature, little one. Please hunker down safely before winter, won’t you? You are one of the simple joys that keeps us going here on this sad, funny, ridiculous, heartbreaking and incredibly challenging planet. Good night frog, good night to all. And welcome back, dad. I know it’s not really you there in that box, but still.

It’s nice to have you home.

 

Ashes December 30, 2013

Today my dad will be cremated. Not something we haven’t talked about, not a word we’ve never uttered before, still it feels bizarre. To know that your father’s body will be put into an extremely hot oven and burned to ashes. On one level it seems out-of-body strange, yet on another it seems as practical and down-to-earth as it gets. Certainly (at least in my heart) it honors the body so much more than filling it up with chemicals, inserting plastic filler or wires to hold things just so… And yet, it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around. It’s just not something most folks have to deal with more than a few times during the entire course of their lives – and even if we do have to make these end of life decisions, it’s not dinner table conversation. But maybe it should be. Maybe it would be a little easier territory if we made it less mysterious.

As I’ve gone through the past two days, doing errands and catching up on life, I’ve been constantly, ever-so-subtly aware that my father still exists. That his body, just as I saw it last, still lies in Saratoga, his white hair just so, so too his beard, those certain spots on his forehead, and those marvelous hands. They all still exist, I tell myself over and over as if clinging to this fact to make things better. As I drove to the grocery store I took the long way around, passing the funeral home and pondering my dad, still there, somewhere within that enormous Victorian mansion, lying there, hands on his chest in his navy blue flannel pajamas. It’s a refrigerated room, of course. Can you imagine how cold he is? I think. But he’s just a body, I remind myself. Just plain old organic matter that would become a stinking mess if you left it out. I go around and around, considering both sides of this idea to no fruitful conclusion. There is none to be made.

I had to pull over and park. I sat, studying the house, looking into the upstairs bedrooms-turned-offices and just wondered at this unknown world. In the end, it’s just a business for these guys. My father is just another body and I am just another client. But in what limited experience I’ve had with professionals in the death industry, I can say that they are by no means cold and jaded. While it may be business as usual for them, the folks I’ve met so far have been extraordinarily compassionate and kind. This funeral home is on North Broadway, a street lined with ancient trees and opulent mansions from the grand years of Saratoga Springs. Just across the street is the new-moneyed, Disneyesque Riggi mansion, all bedecked for the holidays in thousands of tiny white lights. A few houses to the north is the grand white house of Charlie Wait, the president of the local bank. I remember my dad getting a business loan on a mere handshake with Charlie’s father years ago. I remember the lobby’s vaulted ceiling and the huge oil paintings on the wall. I remember how they chatted like old friends…. I laugh to myself at dad’s final address. He was forever making jokes about wanting to be rich, forever positing funny scenarios of himself in that good life – instructing the staff, taking his lunch on the patio, making important calls… So now here he is, residing on tony North Broadway. It makes me smile. I snap a picture of the funeral home, and now starting to cry, I drive home through the rain.

Last night I called my mom. Didn’t stop by, as I’d been too busy trying to find Christmas gifts for Elihu and shopping for the produce that I’ve gone without the past week or more. To be honest, while I’d thought also of her throughout the day, I’d quickly turned my attention to something else, as I was afraid to consider how she was really doing. I have a full life and much to do to keep my mind off of dad’s passing, but mom, she lived virtually in service to him. Truly, her life was in her home; her cats, my brother, my dad. And all my life mom has always cooked exceptional food for us. In dad’s final days, while things did become radically different, she took no less care in feeding him. Rather than spending her days researching recipes, she was now more concerned with quantity of food ingested, the times of the feedings and their caloric content. And she did it well. She stayed on top of things. She’s always stayed on top of things. But now there’s no pressing matter to stay on top of anymore. We talked about it, she herself realizes that she’s got some thinking to do. What will she live for now? How will she define herself? These are questions we all have to face – certainly I myself have some personal experience with those particular questions! But I have a child, and for the time being, no matter what happens to me, I am primarily defined by that role. But to be partnerless, childless, occupationless…. that is something different. Yeah, mom has a challenge ahead of her. And while it may be a transitory challenge, the one most immediately before her – and me too – today, is that of saying the final goodbye to dad as we knew him.

I’ve asked the funeral home to please call us when dad’s on his way – and the crematory, which is a good forty-five minute ride across the border into Vermont, will call us when dad’s ‘going in’. Or whatever terminology they use. The funeral guy himself wasn’t too specific in his language – I still find there’s a lot of dancing around the truth here. While he was enthusiastically supportive about our wanting to know exactly when it was that dad was being cremated – his language was surprisingly euphemistic. Hm. Probably how they need to speak for the comfort of most people. For me, his vague, cryptic language was not so reassuring. But I guess most folks probably appreciate it. Again, I wish this was all easier to talk about. I’ve also been wishing I knew what we could do to mark this final passing of dad’s body… Mom and I had talked about raising a glass of wine to him as he went up to the skies, but is that fair to Andrew? Then, last night, I got it. We’ll light a candle. And then, when dad is gone, we’ll blow it out. Up will waft that thin trail of smoke, and up will waft dad, out and over the snowy Vermont countryside. From that vantage point in the sky I’m sure one can see Greenfield… Then the ashes will come home. Some will be dispersed in the lake where dad spent his boyhood summers, some will go to the veteran’s cemetery, and just a tiny bit will remain here with us.

It’s funny how sentimental we are as humans. Even though I may believe that dad is in a much better place, and even though I know full well that his soul is no longer attached in any way to that old man’s body lying in the funeral home, it still means so much to know that we’ll have something left of dad, even if it’s just a box of ashes.

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Post Script: Dad’s obituary is now up on the funeral home’s site at www.burkefuneralhome.com and folks may make remembrances there if they choose… I’ve heard many stories and anecdotes about dad recounted in the past two days – some I’d even forgotten – so I encourage people to share any one of them publicly on the funeral home’s site…  thanks again for all the love and support.

Btw – dad passed at 11:51 p.m. on the 27th, but as he wasn’t officially pronounced dead by a ‘professional’ until the following morning, the date of death will legally be considered to be the 28th. Sheesh.