Mother's Day

This weekend, on Mother's Day, we buried my mother. That might come as a surprise to those of you who know that it's been 3-1/2 years since she died. We had originally placed her ashes -- now sealed inside a black and white marble box -- in her garden at her and my Dad's house. However, when my father sold the house a while ago, we moved my mother's remains and have sought for a while to find the appropriate place to put her to rest. We are not church people, nor are we cemetery people. I'm more of the scatter-me-and-I'm-gone sort -- or at least I thought I was -- but that's hard to do when one's remains are hermetically sealed inside marble. Can't exactly scatter a marble box without risking injury and/or a lawsuit. I do know that, in the time since my mother died, I've felt as though we were missing something -- some kind of physical touchstone to remember her by.

I would like somewhere, I've realized, where I can go and remember her. This has become especially prevalent now that the house she and my father lived in together has been sold. My mother was everywhere in there, from the Pepto Bismal pink paint on the living room walls to the blue and yellow kitchen curtains to the sprays of flowers springing up next to the pool. The entire place was her.

Now that my father has remarried and moved into his new wife's home, there is no place that feels like my mother. I have photographs and mementoes. I have some of her clothes, scarves, books. I have a notebook from her days at teaching college in Glasgow, pages she filled copying poem after poem in her incredibly neat handwriting. I have cards and letters, a pair of shoes, some purses. I have items that she knit by hand. But I didn't have a place -- nor did I really expect I would want one.

We learned that the church preschool where my mother taught, in Louisville, had planted a tree in her honor, complete with a memorial plaque right next to the brand new playground. It occurred to us that this would be an ideal place to lay her to rest and so we tried for a year or so to coordinate schedules so that my sister, two brothers and various spouses, children and significant others could be present.

We aimed for this Mother's Day. My older brother, as it turned out, was on a belated honeymoon with his wife, so he was unable to be there. My younger brother, who manages a restaurant, was unable to get time off work. So it was my sister and her family, me and Chris and my father who went to the church on Sunday to memorialize my mother.

I did not have tremendous misgivings about this event. It made sense to me, that we would finally have some kind of, as the psychobabblists like to say, closure. There has been so much change in our family since my mother died, I thought it would be a resolution, some kind of punctuation mark that might allow us to move forward, intact in whatever way we could be after a death fractures a family.

My mother was a beloved and very gifted preschool teacher. She had infinite patience for her children and they adored her. So perhaps I should not have been as surprised as I was at how present she is at the preschool, how well memorialized she is. There is a path of bricks at the entrance to the new playground composed of bricks inscribed with names of donors, students, parents and lost loved ones. How strange and slightly stunning to see one of them bearing my mother's name and that of one of her classes from the 1997-1998 school year. It must have been organized by the parents of her class that year, parents who remembered upon her death a full five years after she had taught their children. How odd and unbelievably moving to know that people had remembered my mother in ways I was not even aware of.

My mother's tree is at the far end of the new playground, in a lovely shaded area. If I knew more about trees, I could tell you more than that it is a young one with a plaque at its base that reads, "In loving memory of our teacher, Mrs. Anne Smillie, October 2003." If I knew more about people, I could tell you whether or not it is always wrenching to see a memorial and skip over that brief moment between when you recognize it as a symbol of loss and that instant when you recognize it as a symbol of your loss. It feels strange and personal and gut-wrenching.

My nieces Rebecca, 8, and Olivia, 5, placed some irises next to the plaque and the rest of us took turns following suit. We had a moment of silence and then my sister and my dad took the girls inside to see a tile wall they had installed inside the church to further honor my mom. In their absence, I watched as my brother-in-law Bill dug a hole in which to place my mother's ashes. Chris helped him gather up some mulch to cover the hole with after we were done in the hopes that it would all just blend in, perhaps as though we'd never been there.

Bill and Chris went back inside and sent out my father and my sister and just the three of us stood for a moment before my father placed the marble box in the hole. My father has aged considerably in the three years since my mother died. His hair is nearly completely white, his movements are hesitant and more laborious. Of the most painful images in my life, certainly one is that of my father lifting that heavy marble box and stumbling awkwardly to his knees in order to put his wife's remains to final rest.

We took turns covering the box with dirt, then spread mulch across the top to disguise the freshly disturbed earth. By the time we were done, no child on the playground would suspect that anything had been changed in their tiny world, exactly what my mother would have wanted. And then we left.

I don't know what difference it will make going forward to know that my mother is in her final resting place. It is not that I believe she is in that box, that we have buried anything more than her physical remains. I don't know if I'll visit that spot on future visits to Louisville. But something feels undeniably concrete about having placed the ashes; it feels heavy and sad and right. It feels less to do with how we've handled her remains and everything to do with how we've honored her memory.

And it feels like it's over, which is good. Something is settled, taken care of. I'm not sure it makes any difference to my mother, wherever or whatever she is now, but it makes a big difference to me.