Spreading my mom’s ashes: A promise kept

All of a sudden, not one – but two – loons popped up onto the surface of the water ahead of us. Was this some sort of sign from my parents? Photo courtesy USFWS/Gary J. Wege

May, 2021

By Joel Gleason
For Points East

Toward the end of 2012, my mother’s health began to seriously decline. The timing of it was a bit of a surprise. We’d just witnessed her successful struggle to come back from knee surgery two years earlier, during which physically she’d been down and out, but all the while retained her indomitable spirit and keen mind. She’d rallied and enjoyed life more than any of us in her family ever expected. All of a sudden it became apparent that the end was near, and over the last few months of her life we took to visiting her as often as we could. Her grandson JP was at sea and couldn’t be there, but he was due home soon. Each day Mom grew weaker, but she hung on. Even after entering hospice in early January of 2013, she refused to give in.

JP finally arrived home and we went to see her on January 30, just a few days before her 95th birthday. He was surprised and saddened at her condition, so weak was she by then that she could only speak in a whisper. After a short visit JP gave her a hug and said we would be back the next day. We left at 3 p.m. Eight minutes later we were in the car when my cell phone rang. She was gone.

“I guess she was just waiting to see her oldest grandson,” said the woman on the other end of the line.

Per her wishes, my mother was cremated, with instructions to spread her ashes in Lake Winnipesaukee where I had placed Dad’s 13 years earlier. I brought her remains home and placed them on the shelf in my bedroom closet. And waited for spring.

Spring came – and went – and for reasons I’ve forgotten, I didn’t get to the lake. The next spring was the same, and the next . . . and the next. Seven years went by, and Mom remained on my closet shelf, despite constant prodding from my children. Each year I seemed to find an excuse, until it was too late, and the ice returned to the lake. Perhaps I was lazy. More likely, I didn’t want that final separation, which meant she would finally, truly, be gone from me, leaving me as the patriarch of the family.

But as the new year arrived in 2020 I was determined to procrastinate no longer. So as the weather warmed, I asked JP to ready our Boston Whaler, so we could at last grant his grandmother’s final wish. The coronavirus, and its restrictions, were in place so my daughter Andrea couldn’t leave New York City. But my son Randy was free, and he agreed to meet us in Tuftonboro, N.H., at 11 a.m.

We reconvened at the town landing. JP backed the trailer down the ramp and we launched the Whaler. The battery was too low to turn the engine over, but with a couple of pulls on the cord it started and ran smoothly, so off we went. After about a quarter mile, the motor sputtered, then quit. We got it restarted, but after a short time it stopped again.

Randy took out our aluminum paddle and began paddling toward a nearby marina. The old paddle, weak with age, broke and sank to the bottom. We began paddling with the wooden seat and our hands and managed to find our way to a nearby marina. It was closed. After some tinkering, we found the problem – lack of fuel – and got back under way. The sky was filled with cotton-ball clouds, but the early season sun that peeked through was strong and bright, and it was warm. We proceeded up Moultonboro Bay in a light chop.

“Where are the loons?” Randy asked. “I don’t see any.”

“They’re breeding. They must be in the cover along the shoreline,” I said.

The year after Mom’s death, on a cruise to Maine, Randy and I had been having dinner on the deck of a restaurant in Camden, Maine, when suddenly a single loon appeared in the harbor below us.

“That’s an odd place for a loon,” I said.

“It’s Mom,” said Randy. “She’s telling us to get her up to the lake, so she can be with Dad.”

I didn’t answer, but I never forgot what he said.

Twenty minutes later we were approaching our beloved old “camp.” Purchased by my folks for a few thousand dollars in 1961, and only partially constructed, it was now a multi-million dollar piece of property. Though our original cottage had been torn down and completely rebuilt, it didn’t appear that much different from what I remembered when I’d last been there some 20 years before.

We approached the spot near “Turtle Rock” (named by the kids years before), where I had deposited Dad’s ashes. Randy said a few words, and I said goodbye. Then what remained of my mother slipped slowly out of sight.

Next we took a nostalgic cruise further up into Green’s Basin and then over to Lees Mills. None of us spoke much, but each of us knew it was perhaps the last time we would visit this cherished place with all its memories. On our return, we slowed as we again passed “our” cottage and entered the narrow passageway between Whaleback Island and the mainland.

All of a sudden, not one – but two – loons popped up onto the surface of the water ahead of us. I slowed the motor to idle, and the only sound was the whisper of the engine and the trickle of water running along the hull as we progressed.

We watched for a minute or so, as the two beautiful birds alternately dove and swam on the surface. Then the moment passed, and I reached down for the throttle to resume speed and head home. But before I could do so both loons abruptly broke into a beautiful, warbling chorus of song.

I have never, ever, heard the call of a loon in the daytime.

I am not a particularly religious person, and I’ve often wondered if there is anything beyond the life we live. And I certainly don’t believe in reincarnation. But the ancient Greeks, Indians, Chinese, Native Americans and some African peoples did.

Could they all have been wrong?

Or was this a sign, letting us know that my parents were rejoicing, and thanking us for bringing them together again?

To me, it’s just too obvious to be a mere coincidence.

Joel Gleason, a long-time contributor to Points East, holds a 100-ton USCG Master’s license, and has been boating out of Marblehead since he was six. Though New Hampshire has no laws regulating the spreading of ashes, one is encouraged to first check with local town or county officials prior to doing so.