My parents and I first visited the coast of Maine in the early 1960s. Even as a young child I was just as enchanted and mesmerized as my parents were by the things we saw and heard at the edge of the continent. Watching the ocean, rocks and sand engage in a timeless, rhythmic dance filled us all with a sense of peace and completion, and it set up a desire to return--which we did, again and again. Over the years we ultimately explored the entire coastline of Maine, but our favorite destinations were those between Kittery and South Portland. Some of my happiest memories were formed while walking on the beach at Long Sands or sitting on the rugged cliffs at Cape Elizabeth with my parents. Simply put, the area became a home for our souls.
Years passed and circumstances changed. Children were born, my parents aged and while we never lost our love for those special places in Maine, it just wasn't feasible to make the trip or, eventually, any trips. My father died in 2004 and then my mother developed serious health problems and died in November 2012.
The loss of a parent is always difficult, but perhaps even more difficult for only children. I watched for "signs" that they were still with me, and there were a few--especially when I'd see geese fly over me as I visited the cemetery. My parents loved Canada geese and my mother collected many paintings, carvings and figurines. Each time I'd see geese in the sky, I'd think of my parents--especially my mom--and take that as a sign that all was well.
As I had helped to care for my parents for years, travel had not been an option. During the last year of my mother's life, I ventured no further than 30 miles from home, and aside from the times that I stayed with her at her house or in the hospital, I hadn't spent a night away from home since 1999. Finding myself with the "freedom" to finally travel was certainly a mixed blessing, but when Wayne and I discussed a possible vacation in June 2013, I knew where I wanted to go....
It had been 31 years since I'd been to the coast of Maine--the "home for my soul." We decided we would drive my mother's car, and after making some necessary repairs, it was deemed ready for the road. As our plans started to come together, an idea came to me. A few days before we left--on a day full of "coincidences" and odd happenings--I went to the cemetery where my parents are buried. With a trowel and small plastic baggies in hand, I knelt before my parents' graves and carefully dug up a small bit of dirt from one grave and then the other. At least symbolically, I knew I wanted to take my parents with me on this journey.
We left Virginia on Saturday morning, June 15th, and it felt so good to drive 30 miles, 60 miles and on and on towards Maine. As we entered West Virginia, a Red-Tailed Hawk flew towards us and landed on a sign just by the side of the interstate. We made note of this and remembered the spiritual symbolism of animals that I'd researched for a piece in the "Tales from the Garden" section of my website. A hawk is considered to be a messenger, protector and visionary spirit who leads to an awakening of the soul's purpose. Hawks represent the higher levels of consciousness and the need to see the "big picture." To the Ojibwa, Red-Tailed Hawks tell you to be observant and pay attention to the signs and symbols that will be put before you. "When the hawk shows up in your life, be sensitive to the messages it may carry and be receptive to your own intuition" (http://www.spiritanimal.info/hawk-spirit-animal). I was wide, wide open to this idea and wondered if any of the "messages" would be related to my parents.
Around 10:30 am, we stopped at the Pennsylvania welcome center on I-81 North. I was so excited about actually being in another state that I snapped a picture of the sign with my cell phone and sent it to my oldest son.
We got back in the car and sat there for a moment with the doors open before starting the engine. A woman walked by, did a double take, and said that she had the exact same car--a 1998 Buick LeSabre. She said that her car was white instead of gray and added that older Buicks were such great cars. It was a brief, friendly exchange--nothing more, nothing less--and within minutes we were back on the interstate, heading north.
We stopped for lunch near Jonestown, PA and while we were there we also filled up the car with gas. We were surprised to see that it had gotten nearly 32 miles per gallon! Wow, yes, good car! It had been an easy drive to that point, with little traffic and clear skies and we were making good time.
We got on I-80 East just north of Hazleton, PA, and then decided to take a break from the interstate by getting on Route 209 that goes up through the Delaware River Valley. I've always enjoyed the flexibility of traveling by car because you can stop when you want or take one route or another, knowing that you'll ultimately get where you're going. Shortly after we'd gotten on 209 North, we watched someone stop to help a turtle safely get to the other side of the road. Continuing with the theme of animal symbolism, turtles represent the need to stay grounded, while patiently and peacefully moving forward.
We stopped several times to take pictures along the Delaware River. At Dingman's Bridge, we watched some kayakers paddle under the narrow toll bridge and come to shore. Like the turtle, we were still moving forward, but we were taking our time and enjoying the scenery of the area.
Refreshed from this sidetrip, we got on I-84 to head east. Somewhere in New York just beyond the Delaware River Valley, we passed a white 1998 Buick LeSabre--and there was the woman from the welcome center in Pennsylvania! We waved to her and her husband as we went by and we said it was a funny "coincidence," given the stops and route changes we'd made since we'd last seen them.
We stopped again at an overlook on I-84 with impressive views of the Hudson River Valley, and just before 6:00 pm, we crossed into Connecticut. We took the exit for the Connecticut welcome center and when we got out of the car, I grabbed my camera to take some pictures of the garden area in front of the center.
We walked back and sat on a picnic table near the parking area to talk about how much further we should drive that evening. We didn't have reservations anywhere so we decided that we'd keep going for at least another hour, though we hoped to be off the road before dark. As we were sitting there, a white 1998 Buick LeSabre pulled in next to our car! I got up and started walking towards it, just as the woman opened her door and got out. She laughed and said she'd told her husband, "There are our neighbors again!" I gave her a hug and jokingly said that we should have considered carpooling.
I asked where they were headed and she said she was going "home"--to Maine. She'd been born in Maine and had grown up there, but for the last forty years she and her husband had lived in Mississippi. When her mother had died nine years before, she'd made the trip from Mississippi to Maine by herself on a Greyhound bus, but she hadn't been "home" since then.
I told her that I'd traveled to Maine many, many summers with my parents and that I'd brought some dirt from their graves so that they could make the journey with me, in spirit. She immediately understood and liked the idea and then said she couldn't wait to stand by the ocean, hear the waves, smell the salt air and be a part of all things Maine again. She'd grown up in a neighborhood that was bordered by a small, private beach on a quiet cove and she urged us to visit it if we had a chance.
When she and her husband walked into the welcome center, I went back to the picnic table and told Wayne about our conversation. This woman's passion for Maine was so strong and I related to so much of what she said. Given that this was our third encounter with her, with "hawk's wisdom" we felt that we were exactly where we needed to be--sitting on a picnic table in Connecticut, headed for Maine. I still didn't know if any of this had to do with my parents, but I had a very strong feeling that my mom and dad were somehow participating in these events.
When the woman and her husband came out of the visitor's center, she had a coupon magazine with her and said they'd just made reservations at a Holiday Inn in Danbury. She showed me the magazine and the coupon she'd marked, but my eyes locked in on the address: 80 Newtown Road. Chills went all over me because I suddenly knew that my parents were with us....
When my mom went into the hospital on November 25, 2012, I'd packed her small train case with her toothbrush, hairbrush, lotions, robe, slippers and a book. Sadly, she had no need for any of these items....
After her death on November 28th, I brought the case home with me, but I simply couldn't bear to open it. I was coping with her death pretty well in some ways, but the thought of opening the suitcase and disposing of its contents was something that I just wasn't ready to do. As a result, the little suitcase had been--unopened--under my dining room table for six months.
The night before we left, I decided to take my mom's train case, even though I had one almost exactly like it in a basement closet. I carried it to my bedroom and set it on my bed. As soon as I opened the latch, her scent rushed up to greet me. Through my tears, I took out her robe and slippers, threw away her toothbrush and hairbrush, put the book on a shelf and her lotions in my bathroom. As I got to the bottom of the case, I was surprised to see that she'd saved a brochure from a place we'd stayed in Nags Head, North Carolina in the early 1990s. She also had four identical "old style" postcards from a motel in Connecticut, but I had no memory of staying there. I started to take them out, but then stopped; if my mom had saved the brochure and postcards for all those years, there was really no reason for me to thrown them away. I put them on the bottom of the case and packed my things on top.
So there in the Connecticut welcome center parking lot, I went to the car, opened the case and dug down to get the four old postcards from the Holiday Inn on Newtown Road in Danbury, Connecticut. When I explained their significance to the woman, she was just as stunned as I was. Then she said that this was all "God's doing"--that nothing happens by chance--and I knew she was right.
At that point, I realized that instead of a "vacation"--or even a "mission," as I'd called it--we were actually on a pilgrimage. Still standing in the parking lot, Wayne started singing a country gospel song and the woman joined in:
After they finished the song, we exchanged names, addresses and phone numbers and she said (a couple of times) that Wayne was an "angel"--a real angel. I asked if she would mind if he took a picture of us and she said she would love for me to send it to her. She held her magazine--opened to the coupon she'd marked--and I held one of my mom's postcards, which I gave to her before we left:
With safe travel wishes and "God bless you," we were on our way again. We passed the exit for the Holiday Inn in Danbury, CT and continued to the town of Sturbridge, Massachusets. As a child I'd toured Old Sturbridge Village, and while it might have been interesting to visit again, we already had a place we wanted to go in the morning.
We were both tired and hungry after driving nearly 600 miles and we didn't really feel like going out after we'd found a motel. But as we drove through the town, we spotted a little Italian restaurant about a half mile away from where we were staying and--despite the hour--ordered chicken and broccoli alfredo to go. While they were fixing it, I walked out to the car and when I turned back toward the restaurant, I spotted something through the window that gave me chills--again! Hanging on a side wall of the restaurant was a painting that my parents had in the den of the house where I'd grown up. I got my camera, and with a "doe in the headlights" look on my face (as Wayne said), I took a picture of it.
I told him about the painting and I said I didn't know what had become of it. Perhaps my parents sold it when they moved to a different house in the 1980s, or perhaps it was still in their attic; I didn't know. But seeing another reminder of my parents reinforced the feeling that they were with me, and just before I went to sleep I also noticed the stylized images of Canada geese on the bedspread....
The next morning--Sunday, June 16th--we ate breakfast then drove towards Salem, New Hampshire to the site of "America's Stonehenge." We got there just after it opened for the day. Wayne has always been intrigued by the stone structures built by ancient peoples and several years ago he had the opportunity to visit THE Stonehenge. This site was far larger than I'd expected and we spent a couple of hours walking around and taking pictures.
We left Mystery Hill with more questions than answers.... As we started for the coast, we saw many signs for a route 111 and we took notice of this, too, because these numbers tend to run through both of our lives....
Instead of making a proverbial beeline to our destination in Maine, I wanted to drive north along the coast of New Hampshire. For many years, my parents and I had stayed on the interstate until we reached South Portland, but the year that we first took the coast road, we discovered places that became our most treasured spots in the southern part of Maine.
Hampton Beach in New Hampshire was a bit of a surprise--very crowded with wall-to-wall shops lining the road and with pedestrians criss-crossing in front of us. We drove just beyond the congested beach area and pulled over at a meter beside a sea wall. There, under overcast skies, we had our first real chance to see the northern Atlantic with its rock-strewn beach. Two girls who were visiting the U.S. from Russia were walking on the rocks and they offered to take our picture.
We continued a slow drive up the coast road and when we crossed into Maine I felt such a sense of wonder: after 31 YEARS, I was really back! We drove through Kittery and then did a quick tour of Ft. McClary--a place my parents and I had visited. Some sort of re-enactment was just ending when we got there, but I found I wasn't all that interested. Instead, I was thinking of the last time I'd been there with my mom and dad. It was the first of many powerful memories triggered by a visit to a familiar place.
But finally we arrived at our motel on the southern end of Long Sands in York, with beautiful Nubble Light in the distance. As we got out of the car, some Canada geese did a fly-by. I smiled, got us checked in and we both headed for the water.
As we sat on some large rocks at the edge of the breakers, Wayne told me to listen to the sound that the smaller rocks made when a wave broke and then receded over them. Indeed, it sounded just like applause--the rocks were applauding for each big wave! I sat there just fully soaking up everything from this beautiful place where my parents and I had spent so many happy times.
Wayne wandered along the rocks for a while, pausing to pick up a few. Then he walked back to where I was sitting and started to quickly write something in the sand before the next wave rolled in.
We drove out to Sohier Park on Cape Neddick and while I was surprised to see that mansions had replaced some of the cottages there, the area was basically unchanged. As I've said, when you turn your back to the world and face the ocean, it really hasn't changed at all....
I got Wayne to take a picture of me with my arms outstretched in a "hug." In that moment I could so easily remember my parents sitting on the rocks at Nubble Light--young, healthy and vibrantly alive...
We finally walked over to Fox's Lobster House and had an amazingly delicious dinner, then we drove back to Long Sands to watch the dark, restless ocean. The next morning after breakfast at a favorite restaurant, The Goldenrod, we began a long, slow trek up the beautiful coast. We stopped every mile or so to take pictures, to relive memories and--just as importantly--to create new ones. ♥
The two little baggies of dirt from my parents' graves went with us, and we spent nearly two hours walking on the Marginal Way--a path along the ocean near Perkin's Cove. The beauty of this area is simply breathtaking and we took hundreds of pictures.
We walked back down the Way to Perkins Cove, and as I looked at the boats in the harbor, I felt that I was going to be given another "sign"--that perhaps a boat there had my mother's name on it. I was somewhat disappointed when I didn't see anything obvious. Our attention shifted when a tour boat started coming into the harbor just as a sailboat started to make its way out. I waited for a collision that didn't happen (but boy, it was close!), and as the sailboat safely made its way past us, I had to laugh when I saw its name:
We continued north along the coast, stopping at Ogunquit Beach before going to Two Lights State Park on Cape Elizabeth. This was where my parents had first fallen in love with the coast of Maine and the site that we had visited most often. Somewhere there is a picture of me at age six, sitting on the rocks with my Mr. Ed puppet tucked under my arm, and holding a piece of plastic over my head to keep the rain off. My parents had been ready to leave due to the weather, but I was rooted to the rocks and had no desire to go anywhere. Even then, I think I knew that part of me "belonged" there and I continued to have that feeling each time I visited as a child, teen and young adult.
A storm was brewing all around us as we entered the Park, and the ranger on duty warned us to pay attention to the weather; there had been lightning strikes reported just to the south. We went out on the rocks and watched the storm in the distance, and it literally went around us, both to the north and to the south. We watched it rage along the horizon and tried--but failed--to get pictures of the streaks of lightning that created bright, transient bridges between the clouds and the sea.
After the storm, we said goodbye to Two Lights State Park and drove five miles up the coast to Portland Head Light. The skies were clearing up nicely and we took many, many pictures. It's easy to see why this is the most photographed lighthouse in North America--most of our pictures look like "stock" images! Due to the storm, the light was on, as well as the fog horn. We walked along the trails and thoroughly enjoyed our time at this popular, scenic spot.
When we got back in the car, the used GPS device I'd bought before we left home helped us plot a course to the neighborhood beach that the woman had told us about. (We actually saw them drive past our motel the first evening that we got to York!) The sun was starting to set and everything took on a warm glow. I marveled at the thought of having such a pretty, peaceful spot in your back yard... People from the neighborhood--and their dogs!--were all enjoying the evening there.
While we didn't see the woman on the beach of her childhood (which would have been fun), we WERE surprised to see a gray fox run in front of us through the back yard of a house near the beach parking lot. Spiritual interpretations of foxes vary by culture, but most notably they represent cunning, strategy, quick-thinking, adaptability, cleverness and wisdom. As it turned out, we actually weren't very wise, clever or quick-thinking that night: by the time we left South Portland and started the drive back to York (a distance of about 50 miles), the only places open were gas stations and convenience stores. Our dinner of yogurt and popcorn didn't quite measure up to the delicious meal we'd had the night before at FOX'S Lobster House!
That night we talked about our further travel options. At one point we'd discussed the possibility of driving north to Acadia, and I'd also thought that it might be nice to head northwest and go through parts of Vermont that my parents enjoyed. Ultimately, we decided that we'd start for home the next day; I just had one more thing I needed to do.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013 dawned clear and bright over the ocean, but dark, foreboding clouds loomed to the west. It was time....
I carried the little bags of dirt from my parents' graves in Virginia down to their favorite Maine beach, and Wayne brought his guitar. The tide was just starting to go out, so I knew I'd need to work quickly.
With this part of my "mission" accomplished, it was time to go home. We walked back to the motel, gathered up all of our stuff, checked out and drove down the street to a restaurant to get breakfast. As we pulled into the parking lot, this is what I saw on the car in front of us:
As I thought back over all the odd "coincidences" of the last couple of days, I could see how "kismet" or "destiny" had worked in our lives. After we ate, I said I wanted to go back to Nubble Light for a few more minutes to say goodbye, so we drove to Cape Neddick and again marveled at the beauty of the lighthouse, the sound of the waves and the incredible opportunity we'd had to make this pilgrimage to Maine.
Two women approached us in the parking lot and asked where we were from in Virginia; they'd driven up from Northern Virginia. Wayne talked with one of the women and I talked with the other one, who was originally from Massachusetts. She said that this was her favorite place in the world. Her mother and grandmother both loved York, Nubble Light and the southern coast of Maine and she'd been coming to this spot on Cape Neddick since she was a little girl. I said that I'd also come to this area since childhood and added that this trip had turned into a "pilgrimage" and a way to honor my parents' memory. She said her mother passionately wanted to make one last trip to Maine, but she died (from the same thing that ended my mother's life) a week before they were planning to leave. To symbolically honor her wish, they'd had an image of Nubble Light engraved on her headstone....
We continued to chat for a few minutes and then she went to the gift shop and I wandered around the grounds, taking pictures and looking at the benches that were engraved with sayings or with the names of people who had gone on before. Most of the benches at Nubble Light and also along the Marginal Way have been installed as a way to honor and remember fellow lovers of the coast of Maine. This one seemed most appropriate that morning:
I thought of something I needed to ask the woman I'd been talking with, so I caught up with her as she walked out of the gift shop.
"Please tell me... What was your mother's name?"
"My mom's name was Marsha," she replied.
I smiled and kind of laughed and said, "Well, if you'd said 'Ruth' I guess that would have been totally over the top on the 'coincidence' scale!"
Her jaw dropped and she quietly, incredulously said, "My grandmother's name was Ruth--and I was named for her...."
As chills started again, we talked about how there are no "chance" meetings, not even in a parking lot on the coast of Maine.... I wished her and her partner much success and happiness (they'd gotten engaged the night before by the lighthouse!) and as we left beautiful Sohier Park, I continued to "repose, reflect and rejoice."
We drove to a shop in Short Sands to buy a few gifts, then started back down the road towards Long Sands. As we approached the area where I'd put the dirt into the ocean, I impulsively told Wayne to stop the car.
The tide was out and the beach was wet and wide. I quickly got out, walked down the stairs, picked up a broken shell and made my way across the dark sand. ALL of it was starting to hit me and I cried as I tried to write a message that would somehow express everything that I was feeling.
After I finished, I walked back to where Wayne was waiting for me and he held me in his arms as I cried for the loss of my parents--especially for my mom who'd died just six months before. I cried because I missed them both so much and yet I cried tears of gratitude, too. I was so very thankful for the life they had lived, for the life and the love they had given me and for the opportunity and blessing to return to this sacred place and feel their presence so strongly.
I took several pictures of my note in the sand and it wasn't until we were home that I noticed the second heart in the water above and to the left of the one that I'd drawn. The beauty and simplicity of this "random" pattern in the sand and water made me feel that they knew, they understood, and that they were at peace. Perhaps some things--like the love between my parents and me--and the timeless dance of the tides--are eternal....
The first part of the drive back to Virginia turned out to be very stressful. The dark clouds to the west soon delivered torrential rain and there was horrendous traffic on the interstate. We found ourselves in Danbury, Connecticut that evening when we were too tired and frazzled to go any further. Of course I tried to get a room at the Holiday Inn on Newtown Road, but unfortunately there were no vacancies. A motel nearby--and a surprisingly outstanding dinner at the New Colony Diner 5--helped to ease the tension of the day.
The next morning, Wednesday, June 19th, the weather was beautiful, so we drove back through the Delaware Water Gap Recreational Area and went to Dingman Falls (which was well worth the trip) and we also went to an unusual place in Hickory Run State Park in Pennsylvania called Boulder Field.
These stops took longer than we'd expected--especially the latter--so we didn't get back that night until nearly 10:30. It was good to be home.
The next morning there was one last thing I needed to do to "close the circle" and to complete the "mission." We drove up to the cemetery in Nelson County where my parents are buried and I carefully gathered up the two rocks that had traveled with us from Long Sands in York, Maine.
As I finished placing the rocks on their headstone, the church bells struck the hour and then hymns began. I wasn't familiar with the first one, but as I stood there in front of my parents' graves, again telling my Mama and Daddy how much I loved them and missed them, the bells began playing "Jesus Loves the Little Children"....
I will always feel the loss of my parents. Always. But after this pilgrimage to the "home for our souls," I hope I can now picture them sometimes walking along their favorite beach at Long Sands, York, Maine--shoes in hand, beautiful, healthy and at peace.