It will be the past
and we’ll live there together.
Not as it was to live
but as it is remembered.
It will be the past.
We’ll all go back together.
Everyone we ever loved,
and lost, and must remember.
It will be the past.
And it will last forever.
– Patrick Phillips
I found the box in a small, seaside boutique in Laguna Beach, CA, a few days before Christmas. It was compact, rectangular in shape, and carved out of curly maple. On the lid, an inscription: “Our memories of the ocean will linger on long after our footprints in the sand are gone.” Perfect, I thought, as the saleswoman carefully wrapped it in tissue and secured it into the cardboard gift box that I would place into my carry-on and take with me on my flight to Seattle.
Except that it wasn’t perfect, as I discovered upon my arrival at my grandparents’ beach house two days later. It was too small. We had kept more of her than I had remembered. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew I had to do something. The hideous black box was no longer an option.
The next day, feeling determined, I pawed through boxes labeled “Sarah” in what had once been my grandparents’ dog kennel and now served as a repository for all the items that remained from my parents’ Olympia house. There must be something in here that will work, I thought.
And then, among the photo albums and mementos from my high school bedroom, I found it. I paused for a minute, thinking, running my fingers along the ridges in the dark wood. The words “A Scientific Cigar,” and “Aromatic – Mild – Satisfying” made me giggle. No, I couldn’t possibly. . . Could I?
I opened the box to find a treasure trove of items contained inside. A handwritten note my dad had written to my mom, years ago, penned in his messy scrawl. A gold ID bracelet that had once fit my child wrist perfectly, now too small, my name engraved in cursive next to a tiny diamond star. A trio of pink Elvis Presley postage stamps (Mom’s favorite singer). A photograph of our beloved West Highland Terrier, Max. And an amber colored agate stone found – by me – on the shores of Case Inlet.
I carried the box into my grandparents’ bedroom and set it down on the nightstand. I opened the hated black receptacle and removed the thick plastic bag, surveying its contents. For a moment, it struck me how squeamish I’d once been about handling this bag, how afraid I’d been the first time I’d pried open the black box. But now, I was almost businesslike in my approach. Isn’t it bizarre how the passage of time can make even the strangest things seem normal?
Inside my suitcase, I retrieved a small lavender (her favorite color) pouch, emptied out its contents (my jewelry) and gently folded the thick plastic bag inside, zipping it closed. Secured inside that soft purple bag, nestled among the items already living within the cigar box, all that remained of my mother – that we hadn’t already scattered into the sea – just fit.
Now, I can understand why a weathered old cigar box might seem like an odd place to store my mother’s ashes. But believe me when I tell you: it is not just any cigar box. Clean and without any trace of cigar smell, it once belonged to my great uncle Vernon, who died when I was twelve. He and my mother were very close, and for much of his life he served as a gentle buffer between her and her mother (his sister), a domineering and frequently emotionally abusive woman. When Vernon died, the cigar box was one of a handful of things that my mother salvaged from his house in San Francisco, and she – perhaps inexplicably – gave it to me as a present. Maybe because it felt like a relic from a bygone era and I’d always been drawn to all things vintage, I loved that box. Over the years, I’d used it to store everything from trinkets to art supplies to photographs. And now it would contain the last of my mother, along with a handful of cherished items that reminded me of her. As I placed the box on a window ledge overlooking the sea, I smiled and thought, “Perfect.”
The next morning, Christmas Day, dawned bright and beautiful. I sat at the living room table, in the same spot where Grandpa used to park his wheelchair, spending hours watching the tides roll in and out, never tiring of the view. As I drank coffee, marveling at how blue the sky was for December, how serene and still Case Inlet was, like some enormous silvery mirror reflecting the heavens back upon themselves, a large flock of Canada geese descended from the sky and gracefully alighted onto the surface of the water. “Look Grandpa,” I found myself saying aloud, “Your favorite.” And then I smiled again.
For now, my grandparents’ beach house sits empty. But I know that someday, this house will once again bustle with activity. There will be summer potlucks and clambakes and bonfires on the beach, just like there were in the old days. People will gather for parties on the deck and they’ll swim in the sea and have sleepovers on the outdoor balcony, and laughter and love and life will once again pulsate through these walls. It will look different than it once did, but it will be just as joyful. Those of us that remain, and who remember, will make sure of that.
But sometimes, before you can move forward, you have to go back. Not to dwell in the past, but simply to make peace with it. To look every monster that has held you in its grip square in the face and say, “Enough.”
And that black plastic box? That soulless, impenetrable, ugly receptacle with a faded sticker bearing my mother’s name slapped across the front? I happily, and with great joy, threw it into the trash. And I didn’t look back. Not once.
Until next time, friends.