“We begin on a journey, and having journeyed afar we return to the place we began , only to know it for the first time” T.S. Eliot
And so, we reach the place where we began, or to put it more precisely where Mim began, really. August 2nd, 1912, Ettrick, Trempealeau Country, Wisconsin.
This house, right here.
I had reserved the last ½ of the last 1/3 of mom for this exact spot in the universe.
While leaving some of her ashes on the farm up on Hagestad Lane that her grandfathers had built was totally appropriate; it leaves us all a place to actually go, a tree to sit under, a view to capture, a sense of her to recall; the very last bit of her needed to be right here, in the garden of the actual house in which she was born almost 100 years ago now.
But, as is life’s want, all things do not run in a direct nor smooth nor appropriate course.
When I put to voice the plan that I had laid out in my head those years back; to take the bits of Mim on a final journey and end at the small clapboard house in Ettrick, so many things were unseen, unplanned. The unusual and unique would overtake us at every turn.
Carolyn inserted the last twist in the road upon hearing of our plan. “Yes, the house is still there!” “But you might not want to knock on the door and ask them, you may want to just sort of ‘do it’ and quickly” “They are not the nicest people in town”.
This said to us, in perfect Midwestern politeness, “trailer trash, armed and watch your flanks.’
So Mim’s final, final, adventure would be just that, an adventure. She was the queen of trying things untried and exploring places unseen. I garnered my love of travel and sense of the unexpected in all places and people directly from her. I had literally seen the world through her eyes and in her manner my entire life and if I was to remain true to my original objectives here, then full steam ahead.
We cousins were in two SUV’s, looking not a little unlike a SWAT team or at the very least undercover NARCS…waaaay under cover, but shady none-the-less.
We drove into town, keeping in mind “town” is about 500 people so it’s nothing more than a few interlaced streets, like the ancient, rickety picket fences that surround the dusty yards, some of them still unpaved. We found the house.
It was sitting next to a public golf course (certainly not when Mim was born) and across from some apparently hard lived, two stories apartment buildings. It was and still is a poor farming community in rural Wisconsin.
The house itself was non-descript, dirty white sided with a lean-to addition of a sleeping porch and a lot of grimy, chintz covered windows. As we did the initial reconnaissance, driving slowly by, easing through the apartment parking lot, looking for signs of life from within, the only person in sight was a young boy on a bike, scribing lazy summer circles in the parking lot and eyeing us with what can only be described as the jaundiced eye of someone who knew every car and every person in town and we, most certainly, were none of them.
Our car, driven by Andy, pulled up the lane behind the house, hidden by huge hedges of lilac and privet and flanked by the golf course on our right. Mark, driving stealth vehicle #2, lay in wait across the street like an SVU stakeout and much like the perps on SVU, Claire and I, while “strolling” down around the corner to survreill the scene, were, ourselves, under the watchful lens of Cousin Mark.
And exactly like a perp on SVU, we were totally, naively, stupidly unaware.
Upon closer inspection, there was a huge bank of blooming peonies right on the corner of the lot! Peonies! Mim’s favorite! And mine because they were hers.
To this day I wait for the peonies at my front door to sprout every spring and march upward into the thin light, wait for their buds to swell and then attract the ants which will help them unfurl into fragrant explosions of delight. I wait patiently until they can no longer hold themselves upright under the joyous weight of their exuberance and like a parent, making sure their children are well suited for the season, I tie a restraining cord around their base and help them live their brief lives with dignity and beauty. The process, from first thrilling sprout to the last fall mulch, is a ritual reminiscent of MIm.
The peonies will be perfect.
So, with Claire as my ‘watch’, I dive into action and spread the last remaining ashes over the pale pink puffs of the peonies and stand back….to……realize….that the ashes have coated the leaves and the flowers and look like a heavy dusting of some toxic insecticide placed by a total stranger on this unsuspecting garden patch!
I dive in once more, not looking about, my mission clear, shake the poor unsuspecting blooms and spread Mim’s ashes down into the intended dirt.
The shaking was a bit more ardent than I had anticipated so, in fact, it looks like I was now maiming the poor peonies, thrashing their heads about and beating on their leaves with purposeful force.
Oh well. Finally, mission accomplished. Mim was complete in her journey and we beat feat back to the getaway car and the Cousin Patrol was off………….with only the young boy still quietly observing our frantic antics. What was he thinking? Who would he tell? What had we done?
We would be long gone.
As we left Ettrick behind us now, we stumbled upon a large pile of Victorian brick that had been built by “Uncle Andrew”, one of Mim’s more prosperous relatives in town. Even today, it is grand in every sense, commanding of attention, demanding of a photo.
Once again, we 7 made not a little spectacle, laughing about our stealth dump of Mim, snapping photos like drunken tourists and inserting ourselves into this country idle with Fillner abandon.
A mother appeared.
We were caught and felt obliged now to go up and explain ourselves and our connection to this house.
Midwestern values prevailed, again.
They had just purchased the home, knew nothing of its lineage and were gracious, welcoming and invited us in for a tour. Never ones to shy away from an old house, in we went.
Delightful, historic, relevant to us in its connection to our family tree and……….oh yeah………now a home for rescue research monkeys that frolicked in elaborate caged runs, in and out of Uncle Andrew’s ancient barn.
The perfect end to a journey that celebrated a life well lived, full of pathos and humor….and a bit of the absurd to prevent us from ever taking ourselves, or anyone else, too seriously.
The next day, as Claire and I continued forth on our adventure towards home and the other cousins fragmented off on their personal journeys back to their lives we all received this in our mail.
The laughter could be heard throughout the states we were all traversing and echoes in our family for generations to come. The ‘updates’ from each of us carried us on until we were all safely in our respective homes and basking in a job well done, a life well lived and a family well connected, once again.