This post is about two plus years in the making, and I’m going to tell some hard truths here. I promise a kind of happy ending.
About three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Maine to participate in a week long workshop at the outstanding Maine Media Workshops and College. It was a rather exciting time. Partly because I found the College such a wonderful place (I’m looking forward to returning as soon as possible, but also because this was a sort of Homecoming. I’m from Maine, but due to being in a Navy family, ‘home’ was a rather fluid concept.
If you’re not a military dependent, the moving every two or three years may not be something you think about. I suspect the majority of people are born in a place, they have deep roots to that place. They have a large family in that place that surrounds them. I don’t have that. Since my parents passed away two years ago, I’ve pretty much been a man on an island. I have a brother who is incarcerated, and I have an older sister that came into my life a few years ago (Mom apparently got busy with someone prior to meeting Dad, she went to visit the nuns and Sister was put up for adoption), but I spent most of my life not really having a concrete idea of home and family. It was Mom, Dad, Sean and I, and trust me when I tell you that living in my house—wherever it was—was not easy.
I firmly believe that while most folks are not ever really ready to be parents, my Mom and Dad were especially not equipped to be so. Mom was a master of manipulation, and Dad had a volatile temper, which occasionally led to lashing out. By occasionally, I mean daily. However, you’ll hear no crying from me about growing up in the Roley house, though. That experience is central to my journey to who I am now. I became the voice of reason in my family, and the long running joke is that the simple fact that I’m the reasonable one in my family should scare the pants off you. RUN.
I’m no angel, but I say without reservation that I have always been the good son. I took care of them in one form or another from the age of 13 on. I certainly took care of them in their later years, and my face was the last they saw. Since my brother and I have no relationship, and my sister has her own life (I love her unreservedly, make no mistake), I have had a void where ‘home’ and ‘family’ should be.
I have my own family of course; my wife and kids occupy the spaces in my brain not occupied by a fanatical love of Pink Floyd, Doctor Who, and WWE. As they grow up and make their way in the world—two of my kids are grown now—I do my best to show them the pride I have in them that I never saw from my father when I needed it. I like to think I’m an ok Dad. My Dad did not, and would not approve of how I raised my children. There is way more laughter and joy in my house than there ever was at ‘home’, but I’ve found a way to make sure that the lessons get learned. I’m more proud of this—and my kids—than I can express.
I’m also proud that my kids have something I never had: Home. They were born here in Virginia Beach. They have lived their lives here. They have a connection to this place. Sure, I’ve lived here longer than anywhere, and I truly think Virginia Beach is the greatest city in this country to live—it’s not my ‘home’. I didn’t know what that was, other than what it says on my birth certificate. Machias General Hospital, delivering physician George Bernard Shaw (I AM NOT MAKING THAT UP).
I spent the occasional Summer in Machias with the grandparents, and I had aunts and uncles and cousins there that I spent time with, but two weeks every few years is just not the same as knowing these people, growing up with them, and them knowing you. I imagine that my reaching out to them since my parents have passed on must be awkward. Yes, there’s a big elephant in the room that I want to address…eventually. But I want to get to know my far-flung family just a little? My cousins have families of their own now, and I still have a couple aunts alive and well on the planet. I’d like to rediscover who they are. I want them to know who I am.
I want to find some concept of ‘home’ that I’ve just never had.
So it was that about three weeks ago, my company sent me to Camden, Maine. six months ago, when this first came up, I figured this might be my only opportunity to fulfill my parents’ last wishes: to have their ashes scattered at Bog Lake. It’s a lake outside Machias where my parents wanted to buy a cabin and live out their days. It didn’t work out, but they asked if I would take them there. So I packed two glass screw top jars bearing some of my parents cremains. Well, you know how this started: we got lost on the way to Bog Lake. We ended up on a dirt road that led to a smaller dirt road, that led to a foot path leading nowhere. As it turns out,it’s absolutely sure: You really CAN’T get there from here. We backtracked to the main road, and without the first world benefit of GPS (there’s no cell signal up there. None.), we managed to find the road that goes around the lake. I found myself at the top of a steep downhill driveway shouting to a group of people in their front yard grilling. “HI! I’M FRIENDLY! DON’T SHOOT ME!”
I explained to the gentleman who I was, and what I was trying to do. He offered me access to his dock to perform my last duty. Then he asked me if I was from Machias, since I display not a lick of the Down East Maine accent. “Yes sir, my mom is from here, I was born here. My grandfather sold cars, and my grandmother taught high school here.”
“Was your grandfather Burt Bagley?”
“My father worked for your grandfather. Kenny McClain was his name. I’m Harlan.” This narrowed things down considerably, as I knew Kenny and Gordon, the two men that worked in the garage. “I remember Kenny, sir. I used to hang out in the garage with him when grandpa took me to the dealership.”
“Marion Bagley probably taught every single one of us.” a woman walked up. “What about Marion Bagley?” she asked. Harlan explained, and then a group of people over by the grill all waved and nodded. They all knew my Maine family. “We’re gonna give your parents a sunset,” Harlan said. Harlan invited us onto his boat, and I was able to scatter my parent’s ashes at the center of the lake as the sun set.
I’m still choked up by this act of generosity. They simply didn’t have to do this. Hell, they could have just shot me.
We made it back to town in time to have dinner at Helen’s. Helen’s was where my grandpa took me for his Rotary Club meeting when I was home. It’s also the home of the best lobster rolls on this planet. I was sad when the place burned down recently, but they’ve rebuilt, and those rolls are as good as I remember them. Better. It was late, so we drove back to Camden (not a short drive, let me tell you)
I did not get to meet up with family while I was there. I spent most of my time in class, and when not in class, taking pictures of Camden and the surrounding area. I fell in love with the place. If you have any concept of the idyllic New England Harbor town, Camden is probably what you’re seeing, even if you’ve never laid eyes on it. It’s beautiful. I remember going to Camden as a child, to see a seal named Andre. You might have heard of Andre. They made a movie about him. I think it’s got a Carradine in it. Look it up.
I got up early one morning and walked from the College down to Rockport Harbor, the next town over (like, 2 minutes walking) and sat on a bench under the stars. There’s no light pollution there. I saw stars I will never see again here in Virginia Beach. I could see the Universe, and I think the Universe saw me, because it sent me the following message: “This salt you smell in the air, this sound of the waves on the shore, the creaking of the boats in the water, and this full moon shining on the surface of the water…you have known this all your life, no matter where you lived. Maine, Guantanamo, Hawaii, Virginia Beach…this has always been part of your life. As long as you have this, you’re home.”
It just so happened that the Universe knew I was sitting on a bench somewhere near the place of my birth, I guess.
The Universe has also challenged me since I’ve returned home. To continue reaching out to my far-flung family. To make sure that the people I know in my life every day know how much they really mean to me. It has also dropped a recurring word near the front of my mind: Dirigo. It’s the Maine State Motto, and it translates to “I Lead”.
I haven’t done much leading lately. I’ve been a little lost for a little while. A relatively new job, and unresolved issues regarding my parents lack of preparation for the end have led me away from solid ground. When my grandmother died, right up to the night before my mother died, I was told repeatedly that their final expenses were taken care of. In reality, my father did not envision a universe where he did not outlive Mom, and made no financial contingencies for it. My mother, as the executrix of his estate knew this, and ignored my pleas to get moving. She had bills to pay. Three months later, when she died of lung cancer, I was then allowed to open the books as the executor of her estate, and discovered the truth: They died penniless. Of course, I found this out only after I signed on the dotted line for their funerals. I’m on the hook for twelve thousand dollars, which I’m still paying back at a snail’s pace. Strangely, I’m not made of money. So much so, that the lawyer decided to just go ahead and garnish my paycheck just was I was getting promoted to the best job I’ve ever had.
At the very least, by being the good son and taking them home, I now know what the feeling of home is.
It was all totally worth it. Also, totally worth seeing this.
Thank you, Maine. I’ll see you again soon.