Reconnecting, Remembering and the Ritual of Saying Goodbye
On taking my father’s ashes to The Blowing Rock
As we drive away from our Cleveland Heights home, I feel a sense of foreboding. Vacations always make me anxious, at least until we’re down the road a bit and I can relinquish control because it’s too late to turn back.
This time, it’s West Virginia that settles me down. The coils and twists in I-77 become more prevalent as we pass Charleston and head toward Beckley, the hills steeper, the foliage greener and lusher than it is in Northern Ohio. I breathe deeply and feel my shoulders relax. It has been almost 10 years since I drove this route, and oddly, it feels like coming home.
My mother is traveling with my husband and me, as my sister has a full carload, with her husband and two boisterous young boys. It’s a family trip and we’re on a mission. We’re taking my father’s ashes to The Blowing Rock, as he requested before he passed away, four and a half years ago.
He used to joke that he would leave us a list of places to sprinkle his ashes. “A teaspoon at Penn State,” he’d say, “And a teaspoon in Trafalgar Square...” We’d cut him off at that point, laughing that he’d better leave us a lot of money so we could afford to take time off work and travel around to so many places.
In the end, only a few of his favorites made the final cut — we did the Penn State trip two summers ago — and Blowing Rock, North Carolina was one of them.
The village of Blowing Rock, located in picturesque western North Carolina just off the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, is known for its namesake, a rock formation with breathtaking views of peaks and forests.
There’s a legend, too — that a Cherokee brave threw himself from the rock, torn by conflict between his duty to his tribe and his love of a Chickasaw maiden. The maiden wept and prayed to the Great Spirit until one evening, the brave was blown back onto the Blowing Rock and into her arms. Thus, a romantic explanation for the rock’s strange wind patterns that even make it snow upside down.
Those same wind patterns make it difficult to delicately and surreptitiously sprinkle ashes off the rock as well — we don’t want Daddy all over us, after all!
So we split up, and wander down the various paths where the wind isn’t quite as strong.
“I found a nice, cool, shady ledge,” my husband tells me. “It seems like the kind of place your dad would have enjoyed sitting.” I almost cry with the sheer magnitude of the emotion because he’s there with me, participating in this ritual of goodbye. And because he’s right — my dad loved impressive scenery but also his creature comforts and would surely have looked for a quiet place to rest, out of the blazing sun.
Our young nephews participate too, and while they were too young to understand the ashes on the Penn State trip (our first pilgrimage in my dad’s name), my sister and her husband opt to explain the mission to them this time around. They seem to approve, and the older boy hopes we will do other things “to remember Grandpa”. Looking around at my family, my heart is full.
A bit later, butterflies flutter near us, reinforcing the sensation that my father is there too. Butterflies, after all, represent metamorphosis, transformation, and in many cultures, the possibility of life after death.
We duck inside the museum when the heat starts to become prohibitive. The artifacts, photographs, and stories connect us to the past, to the soul of the place.
This photograph of Mildred the Bear, who lived at nearby Grandfather Mountain is of particular interest. We wonder how the photographer got so close, and how on earth they got her to pose in this manner. Possibly a bit of honey on the sign?
We later learn that Mildred was quite a celebrity. Born at the Atlanta zoo in 1966, she was brought to Grandfather Mountain by North Carolina photographer Hugh Morton to increase the black bear population. By that time, she was almost completely tame (a result of being bottle-fed and hand-fed her entire life) and was known as “the bear that didn’t know she was a bear”.
Mildred loved interacting with people, but she bonded with Morton especially. She lived to the respectable age of 26, passing away in 1993. She gave birth to several cubs during her lifetime, leaving her mark on the area’s wildlife habitat.
I never got to visit Blowing Rock with my father, but I know that he, a true animal lover, would have adored Mildred’s story.
The next day, my husband and mother and I drive a few miles to the Moses Cone Memorial park. The impressive manor, completed in 1901, houses the Southern Highland Craft Guild, featuring gorgeous arts and crafts available for sale from local makers.
We enthusiastically participate in a guided tour of the house, hoping to gain some inspiration and motivation for renovating our own century home, nine years the junior of the Cone Manor.
Moses Cone, the influential textiles magnate, spared no expense when he built the place, pledging to spend $25,000 on his mansion when reasonable housing could be found in the area for a mere $200. But like all old houses without consistent maintenance and attention, the unrelenting march of time has taken its toll. We’re glad to see that the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Eastern National and the Southern Highland Craft guild are collaborating to restore it.
Exiting the house, I keep a close eye on my mom, who is strolling a bit ahead of us. I watch her gaze out over the ridge to the heart-shaped lake below, and I catch a tinge of sadness clouding her face.
I grieve for her as well, for the years she thought they would have together after retirement. I almost can’t bear to imagine what she’s going through. I glance over at my husband, my partner for half my 47 years.
The fleeting thought is a hot ache in my stomach — what would it be like if he were gone, this person I share everything with? How would I go on? Losing a parent is devastating enough, but a spouse? How does my mother wake up in the morning, get out of bed, and put one foot in front of the other to navigate her day? Would I keep myself busy, as she does, or would I simply fade away?
This trip is about reconnecting and remembering. It’s a time to celebrate, to be thoughtful, to rejoice in time spent together. It’s a potpourri of emotions and sentiments, steeped in reminiscence.
I feel close to my family here, and to my dad as well, but every time we leave some of him behind, it feels a bit like saying goodbye all over again.
I, too, am connected to these mountains, to their gravitas, their primordial splendor. I feel peace in their vastness, and the mountains and the forests instill me with a greater sense of calm than any ocean.
We laugh one night at dinner when we realize that my sister and I are already planning to return someday, perhaps to drive the entire Blue Ridge Parkway.
And we smile when we realize goodbye won’t be forever, after all.