My Dad’s Ashes Odyssey, pt 2

Itinerary: 

  • Thursday: Fly to Richmond, Virginia
  • Friday: Drive to Salter Path, NC
  • Sunday afternoon: Drive back to Richmond

Dates: July 21-24, 2016

Our Odyssey:

Just three weeks after our first ashes-spreading trip for Dad, my mom, brother and I headed south from Virginia to North Carolina’s Outer Banks for a short weekend on Salter Path, near Atlantic Beach. This is where my family vacationed every year when I was growing up. We stayed at many different hotels, houses and motels over the
years, but when my family found the Oak Grove Motel when I was in middle
school, we knew we found the place where we would return every year since.

The Oak Grove Motel

The Oak Grove Motel is not, by
any measure, a particularly “nice” place. The bathrooms are pretty
outdated and stained with residue from the hard water, the bedding is a bit
scratchy, and towels used to hang in the windows as curtains (they’ve since
upgraded this). All this said, there really isn’t a better spot to spend a
leisurely trip to the beach. The motel is ocean front, with a private board
walk going to the beach; the rooms have kitchens; the AC is cold; the town is
quiet and undeveloped; and every room comes with two rocking chairs sitting
outside the door. It couldn’t be quainter. Beyond all this, rooms are less than
$100 per night – a steal for this area.

Knowing my parents as I do, it is
a no-brainer to me why this place suited them so well. It’s easy, unpretentious,
casual, and simple. It’s utterly underwhelming – and when you’re looking to
unwind by the ocean, nothing is more relaxing.

Until you hear the roosters
crowing in the mornings – because this place also has a little farm.

Boardwalk to the beach

Since this was our most consistent
spot to stay when visiting the beach as a family, it was the obvious choice for
where to stay when coming to spread some more of Dad’s ashes. My dad loved the
beach more than any other place – he loved swimming, boogie boarding, getting a
bit high or a bit drunk, and playing with us kids in the sand. He also loved
fishing, taking us out for seafood buffet dinners, and spontaneously going jet
skiing. The ocean gave my dad access to all of his favorite things.

My dad, mid to late 1990s, after a fishing trip

I’ll always remember summer days
when Dad would come downstairs and say to Mom, “Linda, get the bags
packed, I want to go to the beach for week!” and we would leave the next
day, if not that afternoon. And more than once our week-long beach stays turned
into two on a whim. I didn’t realize it growing up, but the fact that both my
parents had jobs that made it flexible to take time off was incredibly lucky.
Neither of them made much money, but the time off and the little money had was
put to great use making family memories. My family always prioritized family
trips – we didn’t go far, mind you. The furthest we would go was south to
Disney World in Florida, and we never went north. But we went to the mountains,
we went to Shenandoah National Park and Luray Caverns, we went all up and down
the Outer Banks over the years, to Virginia Beach, and to the many amusement
and water parks in Virginia.

My mom and dad fixing dinner one night while on vacation over 20 years ago.

After my dad died and my mom made
the decision to have him cremated, she told me, “He never let the grass
grow under his feet, why would I let it grow on top of him?”

I definitely take after him to
that end (nevermind that I look just like him with my blond hair and green eyes
or that I’m stubborn like him and can have a bit of his temper, too).

My first trip to the beach, late 1980s. My dad is standing behind me. I hate the sand on my first trip to the beach.

So I guess it goes without saying
that this trip to Salter Path and the Oak Grove Motel was a trying one for us –
it was our first time ever going there without Dad (he was with us in ashes and
spirit form, but not in real-life form, and there’s a big difference). And with
the motel being up for sale, we’re not certain we’ll ever be back.

When we got in early Friday
evening, I was amazed to see how little had changed since I was last there,
nearly 10 years ago. Nothing else had really built up around the area – there
was a new condo complex a half mile away, but otherwise, the town was as quiet
as always. Many of the same restaurants, and very few new ones, are still
thriving, including the Big Oak Drive In next door to the hotel, which takes
you back in time with it’s drive-in, walk-up food counter and delicious seafood
and BBQ offerings.

Mom and Dad on the beach circa 2005.

That night we got dinner at one
of the new places – a spot called Amos Mosquitos in Atlantic Beach. The place
was packed and there was an hour long wait, but with drinks from the bar and an
outdoor pier from which we could watch the sunset, there wasn’t much to
complain about. And the food itself was phenomenal, and the portions huge
without being overpriced. We were happy and full when we left!

The next day we spent at the
beach. My brother and I swam together for a bit in the warm water. It was the
best water for swimming in that I’ve been in. The temperature was perfect,
there were very few other people around, and we saw no signs of sharks. The
rest of the time at the beach I read and napped.

My mom had packed three small
mason jars each containing a small amount of Dad’s ashes – one for each of us.
That evening before sunset we went out to the beach to spread them. I left the
hotel room a bit ahead of them to have a few moments up on the deck overlooking
the beach alone. While I sat there I looked at the ashes. I hadn’t really
looked at them so close yet. I was surprised to see small chunks mixed in with
the dust – my mom later told me that it was bone, because a body doesn’t fully
become ash when cremated. I picked up one of the pieces out of the jar – the
only physical, solid thing left I can touch of my dad.

When Mom and Travis joined we
headed down to the beach. Mom spread hers first in the ocean. I put some in the
sand and then waded out further in the ocean with the rest, and Travis put his
in the ocean too. Then we hugged and cried a little bit before going up to the
room. We stayed up talking for a while that night.

The next morning we left pretty
early to head back to Richmond, Virginia, since it’s a four hour drive. It was
very bittersweet – I love that my family took this trip and that we have so
many left yet to do, but it was hard being there without my dad getting us up
early to make the most of beach time, or boogie boarding with us, or helping me
catch sand crabs, or making fun of me for checking out cute guys, or yelling at
me and mom to get ready faster. I missed him a lot that weekend.

My favorite picture of Dad and Travis, around 2000

Next weekend, on August 20, marks
six months since he passed away. In some ways it’s hard to believe it’s only
been six months; in others, it’s hard to believe it’s ALREADY been six. While
I’ve been diligently marking every month anniversary, this one feels important.
I will be taking the weekend to spend time in Madison with Tim, giving myself
space to grieve and cry a bit, and space to do things that I enjoy (like hiking
or spending time in water) and that rest my soul. In just another 6 months,
we’ll see my dad’s birthday, Thanksgiving, my mom’s birthday, Christmas, my
birthday. Then we’ll have made it a full year.

One full year.

Mom, Dad, Travis and me in St. Thomas in 2012.

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