As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, September 20, 2020.
My mother brought up the plot again during one of my Saturday afternoon visits to her apartment.
She wasn’t talking about the most recent episode of “Mad Men,” her favorite TV series at the time. No, at age 75, she was thinking about a neatly defined chunk of earth, perhaps at St. Francis Cemetery on Smithfield Avenue in Pawtucket or St. Ann’s in Cranston. A burial plot.
“We have to figure out where I’m going,” she said.
“No place soon,” I replied, looking for a laugh. Mom stayed on point.
“We’ve got to talk about these things,” she said with a resigned smile.
Her own parents were buried alongside each other at St. Francis. We had visited their gravesite recently. But when it came to Mom’s final resting place, she would be on her own. She and my father had split when I was 9 years old.
The reasons for their breakup were a mystery to me then. In the midst of the pre-divorce separation, I sometimes whispered to the darkness at bedtime, praying for a reconciliation.
“I’ll always love your father,” my mother told me years later. “I just couldn’t live with him.” Dad echoed her words, at least the eternal part.
I didn’t realize it when they divorced, but my parents’ kindness in speaking of one another, absent other feelings, was a gift to my brothers and me. It also revealed how complicated relationships can be.
Unlike my mother, Dad had no concerns about his burial. “Get a Druid to send me off,” he once told me, flashing his wicked sense of humor as he smoked a Winston in my living room. When he died suddenly two years later, my brothers, mother and I hastily made arrangements with Boyle Funeral Home in Providence.
There was no funeral Mass — Dad hadn’t gone to church in decades — but we did request that a Catholic priest attend the wake to say a prayer. The one who showed up on that crisp October morning had a shock of white hair, thick glasses, and an Irish brogue. When he stood by my father’s ashes to address the gathering, he asked that we all bow our heads and remember “our beloved Ronald.” Problem was, my father’s name was Donald.
Head still bowed, I snuck a look at my brothers. Their eyebrows were raised like mine. The priest’s faux pas may have left other families aghast, but for ours, it was as if Dad had returned in that moment to reaffirm a maxim he lived by: life is absurd. The stammering clergyman corrected my father’s name at its next mention; I’m pretty sure Dad would have been disappointed.
We chose Swan Point Cemetery for his burial. My mother insisted on paying for the plot, while my brothers and I covered the cost of the bronze grave marker. “Will there be a second name on the plaque?” the gentleman at Swan Point politely inquired. No, we said. Dad was flying solo, as usual.
Two decades later, as my brothers and I went through Mom’s belongings after her passing, we discovered an unmarked envelope tucked away in an embroidered green purse. It was a letter from my father, written five years after he had moved out of our house. Dad’s wit and sarcasm are nowhere to be found in the two typewritten pages. He rues not having met expectations, “even my own.” And the last sentence made my eyes well up: “The only one I ever truly loved was you.”
My mother eventually told us her final wishes. When I visited Swan Point months after her death, a blanket of damp leaves obscured the bronze marker at the gravesite that once memorialized Dad alone. Kneeling down, I brushed the fallen foliage off the plaque, which now had two names instead of one.
My mother and father, together again.