The Father's Son (@Jim Sano)
Against his instincts, David entered the rear of the small wooden church and gazed beyond the vacant pews to the granite altar, the crucifix, and then at the Stations of the Cross posted down each side. The silence of the empty church settled over him, and the dim glow of light entering through the multicolored stained glass windows summoned an inner solace he struggled to resist. He breathed deeply and exhaled, letting go of the emotions of what he had to face.
The faint aroma of burnt wax candles drew his attention to the shrine in the alcove to his left, to the very spot he had stood as a young boy, more than thirty years earlier. Now standing before the wood-carved statue of Mary, he could feel his eight-year-old hand securely in his father’s rough but gentle grip. He was looking at Mary’s gaze and gentle hands as his father spoke to him. “David, whenever you are lost or need to be strong, always think of Mary. She trusted in God’s plan for her. She knew he would give her the guidance and strength she needed to follow it.”
He tensed. How had his father dared to lecture him about trust?
Anger shivered through him and shattered the Church’s spell. With three long strides, he rushed outside, blinded momentarily by the intense afternoon sunlight.
He circled around to the front of the tiny church and stood atop of the steep hill looking over the harbor and islands of the humble fishing village known as Stonington, Maine. The sight was nothing less than breathtaking with the rugged coastline, the silhouettes of Isle of Haut and countless smaller pine-treed islands dotting the ocean water in the distance. Nowadays, the harbor teamed with lobster boats and old schooners docked for the night in the calm waters of the protected inlet. He could see the spit of an “island” named Two Bush for the number of bushes on this otherwise barren rock. Off in the distance, he could hear the fog horn from the Mark Island lighthouse. As he walked down the steep grade of the road, familiar sights flooded him with memories he had long ago buried deep inside. The smell of the ocean air, the clang of the rigging slapping against the aluminum masts of the sailboats, and the rhythmic sound of the waves lapping against the rocky shore made as much an impression on him now as it had each summer when he had come as a young boy to this small town for vacation, until that last year.
His father had taken him by the church before they were to travel home, and little did he know it would be one of the last times he would ever see him.
In the center of the village, he passed the local newspaper office, two art galleries, Bartlett’s grocery, the library where people were sitting on the small stoop, and a used book and art shop where he spotted his companion from his six-hour journey from Boston. With two gift bags in hand, she glanced up, and an infectiously big smile came over her face as she waved and shouted, “David!” In the late afternoon sunlight, her striking blonde hair and the brightly colored sundress that hugged her long, shapely body made it clear that she was no town native.
Before Jillian could ask him whether he was successful with his mission, David placed his arm around her and kissed her. She was a worthy distraction.
They stowed her packages in his car, spent the day together exploring the island, and the evening at the Inn on the Harbor in their room by a romantic fire and a stunning view of the quiet moonlight harbor. Jillian slept while David’s mind was racing all night until the morning hours as uninvited memories forced their way into his thoughts.
By eight o’clock, David was dressed in a fine tailored suit as Jillian wore an attractive but appropriate black dress for the occasion. They grabbed breakfast at the Harbor View Cafe across the street and then headed to the cemetery on the edge of town. Jillian stood stiffly at David’s side as he stared at the names on the gravestones. Next to his mother’s freshly dug plot was his mother’s twin sister, Marie. She’d died as a child, so he’d never met her, but his mother, Ann, had often talked about her. They were born on Easter Sunday, and Marie was the April Fools’ joke that year because no one was expecting twins. Unfortunately, Marie was born with a rare lung disease that often kept her home in bed when breathing was particularly difficult. Marie and David’s mother were remarkably close, even for twins, and with no other siblings, they enjoyed each other’s companionship more than any friend from school. When Marie’s condition worsened to the point that she could no longer attend school, his mother had carried her books home from school and taught her the lessons. By that summer, Marie had worsened. His mother had often dwelled on Marie’s final day, when she had sat with her in bed, promising that she would never leave her side, but before the sun had set, Marie had drawn her last breath. His grandmother had pulled his mother out of Marie’s room, tears streaming down her cheeks and body shaking. She’d often uttered the same thing she’d said to her mother that day: “How could God do this to Marie? She’s only twelve years old!” Over time, her sorrow had given way to anger and the inability to forgive God for not taking care of Marie. His mother told him she’d made a vow to be buried with her, to be with her always. That was one promise she had been determined to keep, and now David was making certain she did.
Jillian reached out to David, drawing him back to the present. “Are you okay, David?”
David nodded his head several times, “Yes. Yes. I’m sorry. I was just thinking about this being the one thing my mother always wanted.”
Other thoughts raged in his head. During his morning run, he had headed up a steep hill and picked a route that ran along the coastline, which, with each turn, unburied another forgotten memory as he ran by homes and docks that had seemed barely altered by time. He had slowed to a standstill when he reached the house where his mother had grown up. He recalled spending hours sitting on the wraparound porch with his grandfather and his grandfather’s old adopted bloodhound, “Duke.” Everybody assumed Duke was named after John Wayne, but he really was named from the stories his grandfather, Pops, had recounted about the many years he’d spent on Captain John Duke’s schooner, the Annie and Ruben, hauling large blocks of granite from the local quarry to Boston, New York, and Washington used to build schools, museums, and government buildings. Pops had a profound regard for Captain John and would think of him when he sat beside his dog.
David remembered evenings out on that porch with Pops and his father lighting up cigars, and occasions when the entire family gathered telling stories and laughing loud enough for anybody on the harbor shore to hear. His older brothers, Jimmy and Bobby, his sister, Abbie, Pops and Grammy, any cousins that dropped by, and his dad and mom had carried on for hours at a time. He could still envision his mother throwing back her head, giggling and smiling as she glanced over at him or put her arm around his dad. He had forgotten that beaming smile and distinct and infectious laugh of his mother. Until that moment, the picture in his mind of his mom was a distant, serious and often beaten, bitter expression that had seemed to represent her life after that fateful October afternoon in 1971, back home in Boston, where everything in his life fell apart.
He shook the thoughts away and turned to look at Jillian, startled to realize how exceedingly beautiful her facial features were. There in the unlikeliest of places, he stopped to drink them in as she blushed under his attentive gaze.
He took her hand in his. “I really shouldn’t have asked you to come today. We hardly know each other, and I’ve dragged you six hours to a funeral for someone you’ve never met. I wasn’t thinking and wasn’t really being fair to you.”
“I’m honored that you asked me to come. I just want to be here for you.” She stroked his hand.
“I haven’t really talked about my mother to anyone. I don’t know exactly what to say.” He paused, embarrassed for what he was about to admit. “We may be the only ones that show up.”
“Didn’t you mention you have brothers or sisters?”
“My sister didn’t think burying our mom warranted the flight and hassle of coming out from Minnesota, and my brother didn’t return my calls or letters.” He did not tell her that he had not even broken the news of his mother’s death to his ex-wife or his two children, which had seemed like the best idea at the time, but now that the day was here, he was feeling differently about making that decision for them.
He pulled his hand away from her and shoved both of them in his pockets as he stared at the casket suspended over the covered grave. “Growing up, she took care of the three of us for years, working long hours at a job I know she hated but was glad to have. Then, she came home every evening to cook our meals, mend our clothes so we could get a few extra years out of them, and made sure we stayed in school and off the streets. I hardly ever saw her smile, and she rarely took the time for friends or fun. She took care of us in terms of physical needs, education, food and shelter—and that was all she had to give. Emotionally she was not —.” David paused, eyed the funeral attendants shuffling around by the limo, and said more softly, “I’m sorry, I am going on too much.”
Jillian jumped in. “Please don’t apologize. You need someone to confide in about your feelings, or you just end up bottling them up but never enough to stop them from coming back up.”
They stood there awkwardly for a few minutes until Jillian spotted a heavy-set woman approaching.
The woman lumbered over to them, out of breath and wiping her forehead with a napkin. “You must be Annie’s son.”
David looked her up and down with no idea who she was. “Yes, I’m David Kelly.”
“David John Kelly,” the woman added before he could say anything more. “I guess you are wonderin’ who I am.” She paused to catch her breath. “Emma Brown. I was a close friend of your mom and her sister, Marie and grew up next door to them in Green Head. I felt like a third sister to them and grieved with Annie when Marie died so young. You probably don’t remember my coming over to visit with your mom and family on your Grandpa’s porch, but I remember you, the youngest of Annie’s clan. I feel like I know you better than my very own. Your mother used to write me—oh, once or twice a month—and I would read all about you and Abbie and Bobby, and poor Jimmy. She was so heartbroken after the tragedy. I think it sadly opened up the wounds from Marie’s death too wide to heal. I kept telling her she had to be strong for you kids, but I constantly worried about her.” Emma turned to Jillian and stretched out her hand to Jillian. “It is so nice of you to come with David.”
Jillian smiled. “I’m pleased to meet you too. I’m Jillian Miller.”
David spotted John Colby, the funeral director, approaching them.
John patted David’s back, shook his hand, and greeted him with the hushed voice people reserve for sleeping babies and funerals. “David, I hope things have been set up to your satisfaction.” Without waiting for a reply, he waved toward a huge spray of flowers. “Did you notice? From your friends at IMS.”
David glanced at Jillian, knowing she’d shared the location with his secretary to ensure they would send something. She returned a half-guilty smile.
David collected himself. “Thank you, John.”
After a brief welcome to the two women, John glanced around at the empty landscape, as if to check for anyone else climbing the hill to the funeral, then stepped up to the casket, cleared his throat, and stood more erectly—a sure sign he was ready to begin.
David had left the ceremony up to the funeral home. Because his mother had long ago abandoned religion and God, as she had believed they both turned their back on her sister and herself, he had decided against anything tied to the Church. John read a short meditation on her behalf, and then David read a poem called “Remember Me” that had been recited at Marie Kelly’s funeral, one she had picked out before she died.
After the readings, David turned to the casket. “Mom, you can finally rest from all your years of sweat and heartache. You can be with your sister again, the one you loved most in this world, and lost without ever knowing what the purpose was.”
As they lowered the casket into the grave, he tossed a clump of soil and a rose on top then turned and walked away.
While Jillian stood by the gravesite deep in thought, Emma caught up with David under a honey locust tree. “David, I want you to know your Aunt Marie’s life did have meaning and purpose, at least to me. I admired your aunt’s strength and her incredibly positive spirit. Others would have been mired in lamenting that life was being robbed from them, but not Marie. She took the smallest things, and not only made us appreciate them but also to realize how important they were: a smile when someone entered the room, the tiniest wildflowers along the path we would walk to pick blueberries, or sitting to look at the view of the harbor from the hilltop. She would ask how I was, even when she was obviously having a difficult day herself, or would help out the family down the road because she knew they had so little. Marie believed she had a purpose no matter how compromised or shortened her life would be, and she loved your mom more than herself until the end. Well, when I grew up and thought about what my life was going to be about, I thought of Marie. Her example made quite an impression on me. She is the reason I have spent the past fifty years helping to build a network of support shelters in Maine and several in Burundi and Nigeria, Africa. I’m not telling you this for egotistical reasons, but to let you know how much your aunt’s life impacted mine. I cherished and loved Marie almost as much as your mom did.”
He looked directly into Emma’s eyes as she spoke and surprised himself with how differently he viewed his mother as Emma’s words unfolded.
Emma continued, “I also loved your mother like a true sister. She wrote to me as if I were the only one with whom she could share her struggles and feelings. Losing Marie was like losing half of her heart. Then losing her first born so tragically was plainly too much to bear. But your mom knew she had a job to do, to take care of and raise all you kids the best she could. She desperately wanted all three of you to have a better life, and she believed you, especially, had the strongest chance to fulfill that wish.”
Emma gave David a hug and then pulled a tissue from her purse to wipe the tears from her face, as Jillian approached. Emma said, “It was so good to see you again, and I do pray your mom is smiling once more with Marie.” She turned to Jillian, “It was so very good to meet you too, Jillian. Maybe you will come back this way some day under happier circumstances.” Emma leaned in to whisper in Jillian’s ear, “And your mate here may be a looker, but I believe deep down there is something there that would make him a keeper.” She hugged Jillian, and then David, before turning to walk back to the funeral home for her car.
David watched till she disappeared into the parking lot, not realizing he’d been holding his breath. He let out a deep sigh and looked around him. The men from the funeral home were patiently standing off in the shade of an oak tree, waiting for David to leave so they could finish their work. Other than them, the place was empty. He shook his head—this was all his mother’s life had amounted to. Mourning her sister and working herself to death to take care of her children on her own, with only one soul showing up to pay respects. Not even her other two children.
His mother had no idea how good life could be. The bitterness and sadness that had overshadowed her life, robbed her of any chance of living it well.
He took Jillian’s hand and started back towards his Porsche 911 GT2 convertible. As they walked, his thoughts drifted back to a summer night as a boy when he was playing street hockey with the neighborhood kids and an orange convertible sports car with a unique engine sound drove slowly down the street. Charlie Cassavette, wearing sunglasses, long sideburns, combed backed hair, and an opened polyester shirt with a gold chain glimpsing through, was driving the most distinctive car David had ever seen in a town where people could barely afford a third-hand, oversized car from the early sixties, often with one different colored passenger door and a hood that wouldn’t entirely shut. Charlie was driving a 1973 Porsche 914 that rode low to the ground and had only two seats. The passenger side was occupied by an attractive girl David didn’t recognize. Every kid had stopped playing to watch him driving through, their open-jawed mouths matching David’s own expression, except David’s was not jealous or envious, but rather determined that he would not only own a car like that someday but the moment as well. Charlie had called out to David, “Someday, Little DJ. Someday,” and sped off into the early summer evening.
As he held the door for Jillian and glanced at her, her long legs, her flawless ivory skin, and soft blonde flowing hair, he smiled and thought he had it all.
What else could he possibly need?