“Skipping Stones”

Memoir by Carol Dray

The day after my mother died my brother and I drove to the house in North Haven. It was the same house my grandparents had built in 1950. It had been sold and remodeled since my parents were forced to sell it four years ago after my mother’s fall and subsequent slow decline. After that she entered into the business of dying, moving in and out of institutional care. My mother never saw her home again. 

In the end, after regaining some level of independence, the last place she called home was a room in an assisted living facility in New Jersey, a floor above my father who continued his faithful devotion to her. 

When she died the night before, I was midway through dinner with friends at a local restaurant, holding court and feeling slightly tipsy. My phone vibrated on the tabletop and with a hasty unease I excused myself from the table. 

Outside my sister described my mother’s last breaths with my father by her side while I had been sipping on pinot noir and chomping on slices of warm bread dipped in exotic olive oil. 

Back in the restaurant I pretended nothing had happened. My husband glanced at me quizzically, gently placing his hand on my shoulder, silently wondering what had been so important to pull me away from the table.

But I just shrugged, having no idea what to say, and carried on. Ever the caretaker of feelings, who was I to ruin the evening for everyone? So there I sat for what seemed an eternity listening to the banter and the clinking of silverware against dishes, smiling and nodding trying to follow the conversations. 

Yet I wasn’t present at all. My gut was in a knot but my mind was completely clear of any thought. I felt lifted and unwrapped, bare and exposed. On the verge of becoming unhinged, I twisted my wedding band around my finger a thousand times in my lap under the table like a mad person. Finally, mercifully, the check was paid and we parted from our friends. My husband led me to the car down an alleyway under the glow of the moonlight. I lost my mind in the dim public parking lot, and clung to my husband and screamed and screamed and screamed. My husband held me but he couldn’t help me. 

I didn’t want to have my brother visit me at home the next day. I wanted to go to my father. I wanted to touch my mother once more, comb her cornsilk hair before her body was taken away to lay on a hard, cold slab alone with no warm hand to squeeze. 

I had assumed my brother would want to do that too, and didn’t think to cancel our visit scheduled weeks before. We spoke that morning, sharing our grief, but he was already on the ferry from Connecticut to Long Island. Shocked and speechless again, I didn’t have the heart to tell him not to come. Numb, exhausted, and spent from uncontainable sobbing throughout the night, the thought of moving from my bed seemed an impossible feat. 

“Snap out of it,” I could hear my mother say. 

It wasn’t as if I didn’t know my mother’s death was imminent. Just a couple of days before, at her bedside, with her limp body lying on a water mattress in an institutional warehouse of bodies just like hers, counting her shallow breaths under a morphine coma, I kissed her hollowed, rice-paper cheek and said my usual goodbye before I left her room. She may have squeezed my hand back.

But even in that moment I had no conscious feeling that I would never see her alive again.  But death has no timeframe. It comes when it comes, unannounced, with no fair warning. I didn’t know there is no such thing as preparing for the permanent state of death. I didn’t know I could never let go of her.

After lunch at my parents’ favorite spot later that day, the Corner Bar, my brother and I, with our spouses, drove over the bridge from Sag Harbor toward the street where our grandmother and then our parents lived and where our own legacy began. It had been a long time since my brother had been back and he grew excited and animated seeing all the familiar scenery that was such a part of our growing up, which had defined us and rooted us. 

But my thoughts were elsewhere, dominated by images of my dead mother. My swollen eyes burned in their sockets. Feeling weak and listless, I leaned my forehead against the cold windowpane to feel something other than my broken heart. With soggy Kleenex in clenched hands, I stared out the car window, resenting this intrusion on my misery, my guilt, and my sorrow.

It was a gray, frosty day in January and the view from the bridge was a foggy imposter of its peak summer self, with no boats in sight, just empty slips and choppy seas. On the apex of the bridge looking out over the harbor, my brother continued his reverie of memories.

“Remember when we used to call this the ‘million-dollar view’? Now, it must be the billion-dollar view,” he joked, breaking the silence, referring to how expensive the real estate had become since the time when we were young. 

A mile from the bridge we coasted past our parents’ home; it was still recognizable but greatly enhanced and remodeled with a built-in pool and full second story. My father’s studio had been converted into a poolhouse and the landscaping had been upgraded considerably. 

Everyone had their opinion of what they liked and didn’t like about the improvements but all agreed that my father’s specimen trees were still the property’s crowning glory. I had found frequent excuses to drive by the house while running errands and had watched it change, but it always made me feel melancholy and the trips became fewer and farther between. 

Seeing it again after a very long time, in my state of bottomless grief, only intensified my feelings of loss. Lingering there at the edge of the driveway, stalking the only dwelling we could reliably call home during our childhood, I instead recalled my last stinging and shameful image of it: that of the Dumpster that had sat front and center on the last day of the tag sale.  

At the end of that weekend sale, all the picked-over remnants of my mother and father’s treasures collected over a lifetime, that even the stingiest scavenger couldn’t put a value on, were dumped into the container. A few late stragglers were turned away and the final clean-up commenced. My father struggled to his feet and defiantly heaved his favorite lawn chair on top of the heap. 

  “Jesus Christ,” he raged, climbing into my sister’s car. Steaming, he buckled up and looked straight ahead, fearing what lay ahead for him and his ailing, fragile wife.  No one dared to say a word.

We parked a few yards away from the house and walked down the hill to Sunset Beach, a stroll we had taken a hundred times with our grandparents, our parents, and our own children and grandchildren. Some things never change. Time stood still for a few minutes as my brother and I found the rock where we’d all pose for family pictures year after year, generation after generation. He put his arm around my shoulder and we stared out over the bay where we’d been taught to swim by our grandmother, and where our mother had taught our children. I saw her there floating on top of the water in her signature rubber swim cap and nose clips, her heaving, buxom bosom keeping her afloat, laughing, with a child tugging at her; always a child with her. But the mirage faded and I leaned into my brother. 

“She’s really gone. We’ll never see her again. I can’t take it,” I said breaking down sobbing and burying my face into my hands.

“Yep,” he said, squeezing me, his voice cracking. He bent, searching the rocky beach for something and picked up a skipping stone. He stood and with perfect form skimmed the stone out across the misty bay just like our mother had loved to do.

“This one’s for you, Mom.”

And then, one by one, the four us searched for the best skimming stones and began firing them off in her name and spirit in spontaneous, rapid succession, competing for the most skips. Behaving like children again, racing and laughing, jostling and hugging each other there on Sunset Beach, for a few brief moments, I let go of her and forgot about the end of time.  A new, happy memory had been born in her name from the same place our earliest memories of her had sprung.

The next day I drove to New Jersey and, together with my father and siblings,  planned my mother’s memorial service. A week later she was buried under gently falling snow. My father wrote her eulogy and her children and grandchildren, along with relatives and friends, honored her life with loving, humorous, and touching commentaries.

My mother still dominates my dreams nine months after her death. We had a complicated, fractured history, prickly with misunderstandings and painfully held grudges. But we persevered, and long before she died I had let go of the past and believed she and I shared an even deeper love born from the one that was almost lost.  

Some days before she sank into her death sleep, holding my hand at her bedside and searching my eyes for understanding, she told me some secrets she had kept to herself all her life. Her stories answered some questions and healed some old wounds but they also opened up many more mysteries about what really made her tick — and so, then, who was I?

When I walk in her footsteps now along the same streets she shopped, bathe in the same ocean, skim stones on the same beach with my grandchildren, grab a cup of coffee in her favorite shop along Main Street, it brings me no comfort. I am just reminded that I am motherless. 

And I wonder. 

 


Carol Dray lives in Bridgehampton and writes in her spare time. When not writing, she is thinking about writing. She also enjoys photography.