PROMISES KEPT

By Wayne Rapp

April 26, 2021

As we came off Interstate 271 in northeast Ohio and flowed onto Interstate 90, I reached over and placed my hand on the wooden box in the back seat of the car and gave it a gentle pat. The box contained the ashes of my wife, dead now a year and nine months. Three other family members and I were driving parallel to the waters of Lake Erie. With Cleveland behind us, our destination was roughly 330 miles further east, at Oswego, New York.

It was a warm sunny summer day. As we rolled steadily along the highway, I thought back to my first trip along this route. It had been winter, just a few days before Christmas,  58 years ago. My fiancé, Anne, and I were in a train car on our way to her hometown in Upstate New York to get married. We had flown from Los Angeles to Cleveland, where we were trapped, snowbound. We had a choice: wait for the weather to clear—who knew how long that would be—or take a train to Syracuse. Eager to reach our destination that night and with Anne’s family waiting on the other end, we opted for the train.

I met my future in-laws for the first time at about three o’clock in the morning. After driving the 40 miles to Oswego, my soon-to-be father-in-law only got about two hours of sleep before he had to go to work. No one from my family was able to come to the wedding, but Anne’s family took me in and made me feel welcome. My six-foot three height elicited a common observation from her relatives as I met them in the following days: “He’s a tall one, isn’t he?” (Her Italian family members tended to be on the short side.)

Anne loved to tell everyone that all she did in preparing for the wedding was bring home a guy and a bridal gown, and that was pretty much the truth. Her job at the time was teaching in California; the wedding was scheduled during Christmas break. This was long before cell phones and free long-distance plans, so the family in Oswego just made decisions about the wedding as questions arose, without consulting us. Anne and I were definitely out of the loop. 

I met Anne’s brother, who was to be my Best Man, the morning of my arrival. Three of her cousins were groomsmen. The day of our wedding, December 30, 1961, was bright with sunshine. Being from Arizona where the sun shines most days, I was unfamiliar with Eastern winter weather. I soon learned that the sunniest days are the coldest because the clouds hold what little warmth there is to the earth’s surface. It was hovering around zero, but I was getting married that day and, as the old saying goes, I had my love to keep me warm.

*

Lake Ontario played no part in my first visit to Oswego. You don’t see much of the lake when it’s ice-covered and topped with snow. My introduction to Lake Ontario would come a year and a half later, when Anne and I returned for a summer vacation with our six-month-old daughter.

The Lake, as it was commonly called, was the focal point of many activities during our summertime visits to Oswego. Several of Anne’s uncles and cousins owned power boats, so there were always opportunities to go fishing or just to glide across the blue water and explore the coves and inlets along the shoreline. There were the family picnics in the parks along the lake. I soon learned that, for the Italian family I’d married into, picnics didn’t mean sandwiches and chips or hotdogs on the grill. They lugged their cooking pots out, and the women cooked pasta sauce with sausage and meatballs while the kids swam, and the men played bocce and drank beer. There was a lot to like about this culture.

If you just wanted to pick up some food and eat by the water, you went to Rudy’s, a small place with only a few tables inside, but there was a large, well-staffed counter where you could order fish sandwiches, Coney hots, clams, and other traditional lakeside takeout food. Rudy’s was popular any time of the day but was especially crowded in the late evening. People liked to watch the sun go down while they ate. 

While Lake Ontario can be the source of fun for the residents of surrounding communities, it can also be the location of tragedy. Sadly, our family learned that during one of our vacations. Two of Anne’s uncles were killed when the boat they were riding in exploded while they were on the water. We learned that the boat had recently been repaired, and the engine compartment had not been properly vented. Fumes collected under the cover, causing the explosion. Life vests were below deck and the fire prevented them from being reached. Both uncles drowned trying to reach shore. A third occupant, a priest friend from Connecticut, survived. One of the uncles was Father Ray, the priest who had married Anne and me; the other was a prominent local contractor. As tragic as this loss was, it could have been a lot worse. Several family members told stories of being invited to go out on the boat that day but had other obligations and had to decline. 

Anne’s grandmother died a few months later, some say of a broken heart. She never recovered from the loss of her “boys.”

*

All of these memories, the bad and the good, flowed through my mind as we left the New York Thruway and headed to Route 104, along the shore of Lake Ontario. We were almost there. For many years, our visits to Oswego had followed a ritual. On the way into town, we always diverted from the main route and drove to the water. It was the first thing Anne wanted to see, her beloved Lake Ontario. The ritual was reversed when we left town. The drive by The Lake was the last thing we did before heading home.

As the water came into view this time, my heart surged a bit in anticipation, as I knew that when we left town, it would contain my wife’s ashes. Her children and I would be left with a tiny amount of her ashes in miniature urns, all that remained of a physical life well lived. Of course, the wonderful memories live after her.

Anne loved poetry and had eclectic tastes. She was fond of quoting the poet Langston Hughes:

Folks, I’m telling you,

birthing is hard

and dying is mean-

so get yourself

a little loving

in between.

Hughes’ exhortation became a mantra for Anne. This was how she lived her life, and her secret to getting a little loving was to give a lot of loving. Along with her work as a teacher, Anne gave her time and effort to help those in need: She volunteered at Children’s Hospital, at our church, and our children’s schools. She, along with three other women, started a Respite Program to give low-income mothers a much-needed break from their difficult lives. She recognized that even the smallest act of recognition and kindness could have a lasting positive effect on a person.

A perfect example is what I call her ministry of cards. It wasn’t just family she sent cards to, but friends as well. She seemed to know everyone’s birthday and anniversary. She didn’t overlook a Graduation, First Communion, or Confirmation. She sent Get Well, Sorry for Your Loss, and New Baby cards. Her commitment was unbelievable. During her Celebration of Life, a woman I didn’t know came up to me and said that several weeks earlier she had received a birthday card from Anne. Not unusual, I thought. Then she added, “It was the only card I got.” The woman was uplifted by being remembered. It helped to make her day special. That was the impact of Anne’s devotion. She was a woman sensitive to the pain and loneliness of others.

*

As I stood at Lake Ontario that early Sunday afternoon, waves crashing behind me, and greeted thirty plus family members, I knew that each of them, young and old, had received more than one card from Anne. I talked about this day being a ‘promise kept’: We were fulfilling Anne’s wishes to have her ashes scattered in The Lake. I told them that it was a day of sadness, but I hoped that by the time we parted, we would have also experienced joy. I reminded them—not that they needed it—of how much Anne loved each of them, how devoted she was to family.

It was time for sharing. One of my grandsons jumped in. He told a story about overhearing a phone call where Anne was telling someone that she didn’t want to live long enough to become a bitchy old woman, and he had said, “It might be too late, Grandma.” That got a big laugh. A sensitive poem from her sister followed. Then some highly emotional reflections and stories. More laughter followed by tears. Just like life. When everyone had had an opportunity to share, it was my turn to transition the ceremony to its end: scattering the ashes into The Lake.

I had printed out my final remarks, not sure I could say what I wanted off the cuff. I told the group that Anne had left me too soon. Even though she had given me almost 56 years of her life, it was not enough. It would never have been enough. I wanted more. More memories, more fun. More time, although I knew she gave everything she had to me.

Always the teacher, Anne taught our children and me how to love, I told them. She taught us what family meant. And devotion. Acceptance and commitment. Sacrifice. What it meant to put others first.

She taught us what family meant. And devotion. Acceptance and commitment. Sacrifice. What it meant to put others first.

Speaking directly to Anne, I said: “The hardest lesson of all you taught us was to let go. But you were very firm about it, very clear. We all understood your wishes. Difficult as it was, we were able to let go before in the hospital because we knew you wanted to be free of the pain and to soar with the angels. To be with your heavenly family.

“We did it then, and today, after healing a bit and gaining strength, we do it for the final time. We bring you home to rest in your beloved Lake Ontario, the soothing water that you never forgot. We know you are at peace. We ask that you help bring us to that same peace. Goodbye, Anne, beloved aunt, sister, grandmother, mother, and wife. We love you and will carry you in our hearts forever.”

The lake was rough that day, water higher than I ever remember during all my visits. With caution, each of Anne’s children was able to scatter a portion of her ashes into Lake Ontario. Those who didn’t participate in the scattering ceremony added a colorful flower to the water as a farewell. With tears flowing and holding onto each other in lengthy embraces, we finally left The Lake. Our sorrow was complete. Now it was time for some joy. To a big Italian family, that typically includes food and drink. We had plenty of both at a sister’s house and shared more memories.

As I moved from the outside deck to the inside and back again throughout the evening and looked at all the beautiful faces—young and old—I thought how fortunate I was to be part of this wonderful group. I remember how strange it felt when this western guy had first arrived in town and met Anne’s eastern family. I wondered if I would ever fit in. I give more credit to their friendliness and acceptance than to my charm, but it did happen. When Anne’s grandfather, the patriarch of the family, introduced me to one of his compadres by saying, “He’s-a no Italian, but he’s-a nice-a boy,” I knew I had arrived.

*

Too soon, it seemed, it was time to leave our Oswego family and their gracious hospitality. To follow the ritual Anne had established, we left town by way of The Lake, one last ride along the water that now carried her ashes. We didn’t stop. My eyes followed the ebb and flow of the waves against the shoreline and the glint of the sunshine on the distant blue water. 

As we drove, I wondered what to make of this weekend. I had been without Anne’s physical presence in my life for a year and three quarters. Would this final act of surrendering her ashes bring a relief or just create a bigger hole in my life? Fortunately, Anne had left behind a poem from one of her favorite poets, David Whyte. I had read it on the trip but had decided that it was too long to share with the family. And in my emotional state, I didn’t think I could get through it. The poem is called “Everlasting,” and part of it spoke to me as we left Lake Ontario behind:    

…when everything we know has gone,

when my heart has stopped and yours

no longer calls to mine through the distance

of our time together – others will live in this life

and this love and this light, that we have set

in motion…

Sitting in the passenger seat next to my daughter, who was driving, with one of my sons and a grandson in the back seat, I knew that this was Anne’s final message to me. She would be with me for as long as I lived through our beautiful children and grandchildren. And if I lived long enough, our great grandchildren. The challenge had been met. I had kept my promise to her by bringing her ashes home, and I will continue to keep my wedding vow, my promise to love and honor her “all the days of my life.”

Photo credit.