At Ogunquit Beach, where Maine meets the North Atlantic Ocean, we sprinkled my great-aunt Rosemary’s ashes. The sky was dripping and cold and grey, and I watched her sister pour her out into the sand, like she had always been a part of it. I want the same thing when I die. Dust to dust, and I want to go to the ocean. Mostly though, I don’t want to be in a box. I don’t want to turn to a stew, slimy on velvet with no way to get out.
My husband finds the idea of cremation disturbing. He wants a singular place, somewhere labeled and set aside that people can go to visit. But the ocean is a place, and when I go to Ogunquit, I see Rosemary again. I don’t want people to look at a flat grey stone and think that I am under it. I don’t want to be wrapped and placed in a box like a museum artifact, buried in a place that does not feel like home.
Rosemary died when I was eight, but even when I was little, I knew I wanted to be like her when I got old. I knew I wanted to have long silver hair that I could tie back. I knew I wanted to sit on a porch so it looked like I knew all of the answers in the world and had made peace with the ones I did not. Rosemary gave me her jade Buddha necklace before she died, and a carved wooden bird painted blue that sits on my bookshelf. I want to be able to rub Buddha’s belly when it hangs around my neck, to feel a piece of Rosemary against my chest in the morning, but I rarely wear the necklace. It feels like a responsibility—like having a Buddha there will require me to be serene and accepting, to go with the flow and recognize the universe. Wearing it feels like a commitment, an acceptance of the universe as it is, which is something I don’t know how to do as well as the Buddha, or as well as Rosemary seemed to.
How it happened was that I woke up, bleeding. After eleven weeks of pregnancy, the baby was coming out and I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t know it until I looked down, but I knew it all along. The blood was just a sign, a phantom of life lost. I only saw the heartbeat once, on a screen at seven weeks. A flutter of grey on black. I couldn’t handle the thought of the baby coming out, and what to do with it, its tiny hands and tiny feet and tiny new kidneys, and so I went to the doctors, and they took it out for me. They gave me a little fleece blanket that the nurses had made. At first it made me angry, to feel like we were sad people, the kind of sad people that need little fleece blankets to feel better. But after, when my body was empty, it was nice to have something solid, something real that I could look at.
The women in my family are titans of fertility. They conceive and bear babies with mythic speed and ability. I imagine my grandmothers as salmon, struggling upstream their whole lives to get to the place they started, the place their mothers started. When they finally get there, they spawn and die. My great-great-grandmother had a baby nearly every winter until she died, during the delivery of baby number seventeen. The numbers of children in my family history are staggering—15, 18, 20, 14, 17—all usually born within about 25 years or less. But after the advent of birth control—3, 3, 3. Those women had a choice, and their choice was clear. The women that didn’t have a choice, they are the ones that I wonder about.
Rosemary’s mother, my great-grandmother, went on a date with a man in 1931, and he raped her in the back of his pickup truck. I don’t actually know where he raped her. It could have been in the cab, it could have been a convertible or a van and not a pick-up truck, or it could have been in the forest or in his apartment or in a wet dark alleyway. It is an important detail that I do not know. I doubt she ever told anyone. For some reason, I assume it was a pickup truck. Either way, there was no choice for her to make, no way for her to adjust the consequences of his actions.
In 1931 it was not okay for women to be pregnant out of wedlock, and it was not a time for women to be given much credit for rape accusations. Nobody wanted her to talk about it, and nobody wanted her to keep the baby. But my nana kept the baby. She was sent away to some shame-house, where she carried the baby to term and delivered. I remember my mother telling me that part, but now I don’t know if it is true or something that I made up, like the truck. After nine months, she had Rosemary—my favorite person.
I kept thinking, after I started bleeding, “What do I do with the baby if it comes out?” The toilet? The trash can? A small grave in some patch of grass somewhere? I was still in my first trimester, so people think of it like it isn’t real. But there was a real thing inside of me, a thing that took up space. Because it was my baby but wasn’t quite, because it was a real thing but not a real thing yet, nobody asked me, and nobody told me what they did with the body. The word body doesn’t even seem right, but it was a body. Medical waste, or in a jar somewhere, I don’t know. Doesn’t that seem like the kind of thing that a mother should know? I wonder, but the thing is that I only saw the heartbeat once. The thing is that it was my baby but wasn’t, that what would be is not what is. And I can’t quite process that, because it felt like it was my baby. And it feels like all of those babies, those staggering numbers of babies that came before me, they mean something too. When I think of them, my predominate feeling is fear. I cannot think of bearing that many children without imagining my own body collapsing in on itself, without reflecting on the number of years and the percentage of life that it took my grandmothers to bring them here.
Catherine Brien, my 7th great-grandmother, had 15 children in 20 years. Only four lived to adulthood. Five died the same month they were born. The other six all died under the age of three. Catherine bore and buried, bore and buried. And there was no one there to help her, no one there to make it stop. I can surmise that the Catholic priest told her she was doing God’s will, bringing children to earth to be baptized and saved and sent back. But I wonder what she thought about it. If she had known she could take a pill and it would all stop, would she have? Is that even a fair question? Because what could have been is not what is.
The Buddha says that desire is the root of all suffering. And maybe I only give the Buddha credit because he is old and golden and almost forgotten, so foreign to the West. Maybe if he were wearing loafers and parted his hair to the side and I ran into him in the grocery store I wouldn’t care what he thought. Maybe the only reason I like his asceticism is because it is foreign asceticism, charming and exotic. However, I am fairly certain that the Buddha is right. What I don’t know, though, is whether he was right to think the solution is to stop desiring. A more useful answer, possibly a more productive answer, and certainly a more practical answer, to me, is that we suffer. We don’t stop desiring because it hurts us. We learn how to grieve.
My mother says that when I was little Rosemary remarked on how perfect I was, how even though I was tiny, I was perfectly proportioned, like the statue of David, like somebody had measured and carved me out. When I think of cremation now, I think about how long it took my body just to make a one-inch fetus, how sick I was and how much I cared about it. And that is something. I do not mind burning my own body, but I understand now why my husband doesn’t like the idea of it. Our bodies are not our own—they are evidence of others. And when our bodies are left behind, I am not sure what they mean.
Catherine Brien’s children were all buried in a churchyard, but when there was no room left the priest dug up their bodies, and cleaned their tiny bones, and put them in the crypt. I went to where they were buried. I saw the church. I wanted to ask, can I see the bones? I thought, there will be so many children that were Catherine’s—I’ll be able to know which ones they are. But I didn’t ask. And I don’t know where their bodies are. Too much time has passed, and that will happen to us too when we are gone. Whether we are buried in a churchyard or sent to sea, our great-great-grandchildren will not know us there. But I see Rosemary when I go to the ocean, without a stone, without a marker. And there seems to be something holy about that to me, even if cremation seems like desecration to some. Standing at my ancestors’ graves is never as moving as it seems it should be. To me, a graveyard is a poor place to remember our dead, and a poor place for our dead to stay. Dust to dust, and I want to go to the ocean.