My father was not a particularly religious man, and his desire was that, instead of a church service, we have a big party to celebrate his life. We had held a drop-in event in honor of his memory back in December, shortly after he passed away, but most of the family was unable to attend then. My aunt Brett had passed away less than a month before Daddy, and her family had held a few memorial events for her in England, where she had lived (and raised her children) almost her entire adult life. My cousins thought it would be nice to have some of her ashes in the river, too, though, as she had loved Maine as a child and young adult, just as my grandmother had loved Maine. Although I wished fervently that my father had loved the Lord, I knew that I could honor his memory and my mother by participating in this somewhat unorthodox event.
My sister had spent hours and hours preparing for this party. She had come up with the idea of making etched glasses for the participants to take home, and I know my mother had helped with some of those. They were beautiful, each one unique. Everyone was invited to choose a glass and drink out of it for the party. Jenny had also purchased all the supplies: table cloths, everything needed to consume all the food, etc. She had prepared menus. (I did my part by cooking all the things that needed an oven or a crock pot over on the mainland.) My cousins Ruscha (who flew in from England) and Kaf were on the island with Jenny, and they had prepared the specialty hors d’oeuvres and a special English tea station in honor of their mother, and they had helped to decorate the house.
Rocky Ledge has a huge screened-in front porch with a large window on either side of the centrally-placed front door. There was a line strung across each window with pictures hung on it with tiny clothespins; one window featured pictures of my father, and the other window featured Aunt Brett. There was a table placed in front of each window with larger pictures featured. Along the end of the porch with the round meal table, there was another long line hung along the screen that featured pictures of our grandmother, Elisabeth, Aunt Brett (Betsy as she was called back then), and my father, along with their siblings and other Maine friends and neighbors with whom they had shared their childhood. In front of the porch, near the rocks, my sister and cousins had set up the old writing desk, and on it were a few more pictures as well as dissolvable paper and a jar of water; we were all invited to write a message (or messages) to our loved ones and place those messages into the jar, which would then be poured into the river with their ashes.
(Top left: cousins at the writing desk; Clockwise: all available space was used for seating; Uncle Peter gives his tribute; Uncle Alex gives his tribute; my brother Ryan listens attentively.)
Just about every neighbor on the island came to the party. It was amazing to see people whom I had not seen in 30 years. We came to a time of sharing remembrances of my aunt and father, and everyone found a place somewhere on the porch or just inside the door; some stood, some sat on the floor, and all the chairs and couches were in use. My Uncle Alex read the tribute he had written right after my father passed away. I had read it then, but it was good to hear my uncle read it with his own inflections. My father had been a man of many talents including music and his amazing ability to fix cars. Daddy had been a leader in the army, where he won two bronze stars in service to his country. (It was interesting to me to hear my Uncle Peter give his pacifist take on that service, and I have to say that he did give my father his due. While my father fought in Viet Nam, though, my Uncle Peter had been home protesting the war; the microcosm of the Blachly family reflected the struggle of our country during that time in our history.) It was a bit surreal to hear of how my uncles had so looked up to my father; Uncle Alex said that they all thought Dad could become president some day. Dad’s adult reality was a little different, but it was really sweet to hear them pay homage to him. Several car stories were told, including a somewhat hilarious one by cousin Kaf who shared how Daddy taught her to drive once she had moved to the US and was pregnant with her first child.
Other people shared as they felt led, and then my four older girls sang a song whose words are actually a famous poem: In Flanders Fields. ( A version can be heard here.) Poor Lindy could not finish as she was sobbing too hard, but the other three gamely made it to the beautiful finish. My father did not fight in WWI, but he loved this song, and he particularly loved it when my girls sang it for him. ( And I love it when my girls sing, too, because they have such beautiful natural harmonies, and their voices naturally complement each other.) Several people cried during their song, and I was one of them, as I remembered how my father would always beam at them with tears in his eyes as they sang. It was a fitting song for the moment.
When the time came for the ashes to be placed in the river, the generosity of our island neighbors came into play. We had three of our family boats in operation, but that was not nearly enough capacity to take everyone out into the river. A few of our neighbors with larger boats piled our children and extended loved ones into their vessels so we could all be out in the river. My mother, Eric, Jenny, Ryan and I were in Eric and Jenny’s boat. As all the boats came together in the river, my Uncle Peter directed us in a round of “Oh, Give Thanks”, which has become over the years a family blessing–one which we had sung every year at Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania (on the family farm belonging to the descendants of my grandmother’s family. Maine is the heritage of my grandfather’s side.)
“Oh give thanks, Oh give thanks, Oh give thanks unto the Lord
For He is gracious and his mercy endureth forever and ever…”
When the first group gets to the second line, the second group enters. We did this with four or five boatloads of people, each boat getting their direction as Uncle Peter pointed to us. As the boat motors were cut off, the singing echoed across the water. Then a sacred silence set in as we drifted in a block down the river gently together. My cousins had released their mom’s ashes and then my mother handed Ryan and me an American flag. We unfolded it and held it aloft as she leaned over the boat and released Dad’s ashes into the river. When she was finished, she pressed play on her phone, and Taps rang out over the hushed river. My brother Eric uttered a few words as benediction, and all the boats started back up and headed back to their respective docks to unload their passengers. It was a lovely way for everyone to be involved in that special, last good-bye. (Mom did not release all of Dad’s ashes into the river, though. Even as I write this, she, Gladys Mae and Little Princess are traveling the entire country, visiting places she and Dad loved, leaving some of Dad’s ashes in each place. It is meaningful for Mom and the girls, and I am glad they get to do that.)
(Putting Daddy’s ashes in the river as he requested. Photo Credit, HLND photography)
As the sun set, everyone departed for the mainland. Jenny sent her children across the water with my children. Cousin Margaret sent her children back across with her husband, Catlin. Left at Rocky Ledge were my mother, my brother-in-law Matt, and the eight first cousins. It was Jenny’s 40th birthday, and we were ending the day with a celebration!
Kaf and Ruscha had arranged for two small ice cream cakes from Witch Spring Hill (our favorite ice cream stand!) to be brought across and stored in the tiny freezer. They had also purchased the largest bottle of champagne I had ever seen. Margaret pulled out her guitar, and we sang to Jenny; the cork on the champagne was popped and champagne was served all around. (And it was GOOD champagne, too!) Now, our family is fairly talented bunch. Most of us either sing, play an instrument, conduct orchestras or chorales, play in rock bands, lead worship in churches, etc…..some of us excel in visual arts like painting or photography…some of us excel at a few of those mentioned. So when Margaret started playing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” on her guitar, we all responded by singing in a ridiculous number of harmonies. Then, she switched gears and , using the same chords, starting singing another song. Some were still on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while others made the transition to the new song. This went on through about a half dozen songs…so at the end, we had a harmonizing medley of about six songs. It was so much fun. Some of us danced with Jenny as we celebrated the 40’s club….exclusive to those of us female cousins who fit that description. The neighbors on the back side of the island started shooting off fireworks, as they had promised, in honor of both the 4th of July (the next day) and Dad. We had a wonderful time.
Top photo: Family picture on Sheep Island the day of the memorial; 2nd row: 8 of 11 first cousins in my generation; Star Child and Little Princess sister bonding time; folks at memorial on the front porch of Sheep Island Rocky Ledge. Bottom Row: more shots of the memorial on the porch
It was late when Margaret, James (her brother) and I headed back across the water. The sky was black with a million white stars in it. The river was black, but as we headed home, the fireworks exploding over the island were reflected in the water behind us. Since I was facing backward, I had the perfect view of it. It was magical. Margaret, James and I began to sing as we motored across. It was the end of a perfect day honoring my father and my aunt. I had seen relatives and family friends whom I had not seen in ages. I had been able to celebrate my father’s life. And while I had already said everything I needed to say to Daddy when he was alive, I was glad for the closure.
The next few days would be a whirlwind of activity. July 4th was a busy day. We started the day with cousins tie-dying T-shirts on the porch at Rocky Ledge, followed by an adult cousin’s frigid swim off the rocks in the cove at high tide. The afternoon would find the majority of us down at the waterfront in Bath rocking along to Hollowbody Electric Band, my Uncle Peter’s rock band. It was a great afternoon of making absolute fools of ourselves dancing in front of the crowd, hooting and hollering for the band, and catching up with cousins. Cousin Margaret’s husband, Catlin, took my boys and their two children to ride the carnival rides. I was grateful to avoid that particular festivity. When the show was over, the boys and their second cousins volunteered as the roadies, gladly ignoring child labor laws for the privilege of carrying their great-uncle’s band equipment. The Handy Man spent most of the day working on the rewiring project. My sister and cousins warmed all the left-overs up down at the Todd Cabin, where my girls were staying, and we all feasted together. That night, the boys went down to visit their friend, Thomas, and they spent at least an hour playing with sparklers. I sat in the chair while they played, and I could see the fireworks of several small towns around us reflecting in the water of the river. It was a discordant fireworks show, with the sound reaching us well after the next round of explosions were happening, but it was a beautiful show nonetheless.
(Top, L-R: Me, Margaret and Kaf at Uncle Peter’s concert; Cousins Tie-dye; my brother Ryan between my girls on the lawn at the concert. Bottom, L-R: Uncle Peter on stage; 1st and 2nd cousin kids’ breakfast at our cabin…LOTS of pancakes! ; Little Roadies)
The next day the wood for the new pier was delivered. Uncle Peter brought the wood in at high tide, and those of us who wanted to witness the event went over early so we could see this happen. It was a LOT of wood, and it made Uncle Peter’s boat look so tiny. We unloaded the wood (I use the word “we” loosely. I helped with about 1 1/2 boards and then got out of the way.) After the wood delivery, my big girls took my sister’s girls, and they headed to Portland for light-house touring and shopping. They had a blast. Meanwhile, my boys greatly enjoyed an afternoon on the island. The girls returned, and since some of our cousins had departed, my big girls were invited to stay the night on Sheep Island. They learned the wonders of a night on the island. Meanwhile, my mother and I had run up to Cundy’s Harbor and had filled the boat gas tanks as well as purchased some lobsters for dinner. Omie (my mother) and I cooked the lobsters in the sea water Little Princess had hauled up from the dock for us. The Handy Man and the little kids ate steak while Little Princess, Omie and I dined on lobster. It was delicious! My brother came back across the water to get Omie, and they headed back to the island.
July 6th was a day of great activity. Omie, Gladys Mae and Little Princess left us to head out on their cross-country journey. They were heading into Canada and then out to Seattle, Washington, down through California, and east again through Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. They would ultimately travel over 10,000 miles, visiting places that had been special to my father, leaving some of his ashes in each of those special places. They would be gone five more weeks. It was a difficult goodbye, and tears were shed all around. I knew I would miss them all terribly! Mom was dropping my brother Ryan at the airport on the way out, but first I followed them as far as the transfer station so Little Princess could redeem the bottles and cans for some pocket money.
(Omie, Gladys Mae, and Little Princess get ready to embark on their cross-country adventure)
The girls had all cleaned the Todd Cabin, and we did a few last loads of laundry there. That afternoon, I persuaded the Handy Man to head over to Sheep Island for one last goodbye before I had to take him to the airport. Eric, Matt and Jenny were working on rebuilding the pier, which had snapped a stringer a few days before the party. Uncle Peter showed up and offered to take the Handy Man and me sailing. Since Dee had not yet participated in a sail, we left Sweet Pea with my sister, and we three went sailing. It was magic, being on the family boat, the Royal Tern, again. As we headed out, Uncle Peter asked me if I wanted to man the tiller, and I was so happy to do so. As I sat there, all my sailing experiences came rushing back. I remembered Grandpa teaching me to sail. I remembered my father sailing with the family, and how we would lie up on the fore deck or on the aft deck. I remembered the rules of the river, even as I was asking Uncle Peter about them. It was magical. We landed back at a neighbor’s dock, and then we headed back to the other side of the river. The Handy Man had a flight to catch.
(L-R, Top: Uncle Peter manning the tiller as captain of the Royal Tern; I took my turn; Dee not taking any chances with her life jacket on. Bottom: The Handy Man enjoying the sail; the Royal Tern at her mooring.)
Dee and Sweet Pea moved back up to the cabin for the night. Lindy and Star Child spent one more night on Sheep Island. The next morning, Dee, Star Child, and Lindy, accompanied by Sweet Pea and Star Child’s dog, Journey, packed up and headed for home. Dee’s little Scion could have doubled as a clown car at the circus, the way they were all packed in there. The boys and I were left. We had one more night in the cabin, and we spent much of the next morning cleaning to make sure it was as nice for the next tenants as it had been left for us. Barbara, Melina’s mom, had generously offered her washing machine, and I used it to wash the last load of cabin linens. Meanwhile, the boys and I made two trips to the transfer station to get rid of all our recyclables and trash. We finished cleaning and headed out. Saying good-bye to the cabin was bittersweet for me. I was ready to head home, but part of me could have stayed for much longer. We finally left around 1:00 that afternoon.
We headed south and spent the rest of the afternoon with Melina and her family. They had house guests, and we all spent a few pleasant hours talking and getting to know each other while my boys thoroughly enjoyed playing with new friends. We left late in the afternoon and made our way back to New Hampshire, where Grammy Frannie (my friend Tammy’s grandmother) awaited with her warm hospitality. We spent a fast night there, then headed south to Pennsylvania. We stopped in New York City for fast food and a potty break, and finally arrived at our friends’ home late in the afternoon.
(Lil’ Adventurer loved playing at Melina’s house! The monopoly board was one that Melina’s father, Frank, made for her one Christmas. When we were teenagers, one rainy day, Melina, Luke and I were very bored. We made up our own Monopoly board using names of places and things familiar to us. Instead of railroads, we named the four sailboats that our families owned. Instead of jail, it was “up the creek without a paddle” I loved seeing this amazing gift Frank had made for Melina. It was like a moment of our childhood immortalized.)
We had arranged to stay a few nights with my friend Gayle-Rae’s mother-in-love, Carol. We all went to Hershey’s Chocolate World museum that evening. We toured the museum and bought milkshakes. The boys were having fun with their friend, Josh. The next morning, we all went to church together after going out for breakfast. Gayle-Rae’s family headed back to Georgia, and I made a few phone calls to our cousins in the area. Cousin Bill got back to me and invited the boys and I out to the family farm for lunch. We had a fabulous time with Bill and Cathy and their children. The boys got to see the farm, I got to see all the changes that had been made since our last visit. It was wonderful to be back in the house where I had spend all my childhood Thanksgivings.
(Top photos at Hershey’s Chocolate World with Gayle-Rae, her son, her mother-in-love, Carol, and her niece…bottom photo with Bill and Cathy and their children)
On Monday we headed back into DC. I took the back roads and drove the boys past the house where I spent most of my childhood years in Maryland, and then we headed to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History before going to see Grandpa. We had a short visit with Grandpa and then headed back down into Virginia to spend the night with my cousin Amrit and her family. We had a nice visit with them, and then, despite my better judgment, we went back into DC to say one last goodbye to Grandpa. I am glad we did. We had no way of knowing it, but it was to be our final goodbye. (Grandpa passed away in August.)
(clockwise, from top left: Amrit, the boys and me at the Smithsonian, Grandpa selfie)
Finally, twenty-two days after we had left Georgia, we returned home. We arrived to the excited greeting of two dogs who were overjoyed to have children home again, and my husband who was also overjoyed to have us home again. Sweet Pea greeted us with huge hugs, too. It was a very happy reunion.
It had been exhilarating. I had recovered memories and friendships I never expected to recover. I had bonded with family. I had been given so much in the way of emotional healing. I was exhausted!
As I finish this post, here at the end of 2016, so much has happened since this trip. All that is for another post, but looking back from the perspective of several months, I know that this trip was profound in so many ways. I will be forever grateful that the Lord allowed me the gift of going. And it is my sincerest desire to go back again next summer. We shall see how the Lord leads….