Three Questions — and a Fourth
In which my mother finally understands my obsession with Oregon.
“Where will your baby play?” my mother asked me as we stood side by side, facing wave after wave of oncoming ocean. Sand washed up over our bare feet immersed in the frigid waters of the Pacific.
It was 1996 and summer along the Oregon Coast. I was pregnant. Five months in the belly, four to go. Or so I thought.
My mother was visiting. She had grappled with my move from Ohio to Oregon when I was only one-month pregnant. Why did I need to move two-thousand miles away? My parents weren’t wealthy; how would they fly often enough to be there for me?
I rubbed my belly that day. At five months pregnant, my stomach protruded but it was noticeable only to her and me. I took in the salty air, peppered by smoke from the night’s campfire. I breathed in the burnt sugar smell I would carry with me forever. The baby would too.
Why had my mother asked about where the baby would play? “What do you mean, Mom?” I stared down at the tide with hands on my back to hold up whatever life force was in me. “He or she will have the entire Oregon Coast as a playground.” I swept my arms up and down the coastline. There would be no need for slides or swings when tide pools and sea stars tickled the baby’s toes.
I tossed off the question and brushed sand off my feet.
But a few specks of my mother’s words followed me home, lodged themselves deep into my subconscious.
Our baby boy was born four weeks early. I had cheated Mother Nature on the last month. We named the boy Davis.
Eighteen years later, that baby, Davis, returned to Oregon for college. He not only found a playground, but after college, he made Oregon home.
“Where will Devin be buried?” my mother asked, over the phone, she in northern Ohio, and me in what felt like a million time zones away.
It was the year 2000 and my first husband, Devin, had died of leukemia. Across the miles, I revealed his wishes to her. “He wanted his ashes scattered along the Oregon Coast.”
That should have come as no surprise, as that request was something I considered too, when my time came.
“But where will you go, to visit him? Where will his grave be? How will you honor him?”
Devin, the businessman, had endured rounds of lengthy negotiations with his leukemia. Sometime he won and went into remission. Only one time, he lost. In the end, he asked to have his body cremated. It was one of his last wishes. His final deal.
My mother was a devout Catholic, unaccustomed to new customs, ones that didn’t involve cemeteries. After all, her Sundays, our Sundays as children, were built around church activities and visiting burial grounds. It had always been that way for her. Graveyards were just an extension of the family home. In her generation, her faith stipulated a body should be buried.
The question had been asked after Devin’s diagnosis, after our move to treat his diagnosis, and now, after his death. Where will you go to visit him if there’s no grave?
“Mom, I’ll get on a plane and head to Oregon. Like I did before our move, like I’ve done since.”
There was a quiet on the other end of the line. She would never go against Devin’s wishes, so intrinsically tied was she to him. I had fought her on many fronts about my marriage to my then-divorced boyfriend and we had married outside of the Catholic Church.
Here I was fighting her again. “It’s not about what you or I want.” It was what Devin wanted.
“Oregon…Who is in Oregon?” My mother asked as we sat peering out the window at a large pin oak with fluttering leaves hanging on through winter.
It was 2015. My eighty-seven-year-old mother now experienced significant cognitive decline.
To while away the time as we sat in the community room waiting for chair volleyball, I scrolled through photos on my iPhone, showing my mother pictures of her grandson, Davis, whom she saw frequently, but not since he had left for school in Oregon.
It was Christmastime. And Davis’ flight was set to arrive in sleet and snow that evening. I was anxious to see him.
“My son Davis is in Oregon. Your grandson. I’m sure he will come visit you when he comes home.” I patted her on the knee.
My mother beamed.
The two of them had always been close. She had called him My little snuggler. He still snuggled with her when required in her old age. She took hold of my phone and stared long at the grandson who possessed the dark hair and rounded ears of my father, the caramel-colored eyes of the Italians and the smile of Devin’s. He was a grandson she knew to love, even if she didn’t know his name.
“But what is Oregon?” asked my mother, scrunching up her nose and emphasizing the state name. She was the same woman who had once chastised me for moving to Oregon when I was pregnant, for wanting everything Oregon in the way she wanted everything Italian.
“It’s a state, Mom.” A state of mind, a state of restfulness, unlike dementia. It was a place of healing, but not of cures.
Oregon was a place I went when life fell apart. It was a place where my thoughts rumbled and tumbled in the arctic waters of the ocean and became like agates smoothed over.
What was Oregon? In 2018, it was a place I went after my mother died. It was a place of remembering for me. I remembered her first three questions with clarity as I stood out in the middle of the surf, daring the brash waves to wash upon my feet: Where will your baby play? Where will Devin be buried? Who is in Oregon?
The corners of my mouth turned up and I opened my lips to catch the sea mist and the rain. That day they were one and the same.
In those drops of pureness, I felt my baby’s birth, my first husband’s life as he desired it with his ashes scattered over the shore he loved, and I heard my mother’s question What is Oregon? And I felt now she finally understood.