Road Taken: Finding Mom
My father was raised a Jew; my mother, a Quaker. Neither had much use for religion, though, so my childhood weekends were spent doing yard work. Our house sat on three acres of land, and my siblings and I were the yard crew, raking up weeds, rotten apples, and dead leaves.
In third grade, when Jay Follensbee insisted I’d go to Hell when I died because I didn’t attend church, I decided I’d better get religion. I told my parents I needed to go to Sunday school. After much discussion, they finally agreed to send me to a Unitarian Church about 10 miles away.
I lasted three Sundays. My dress had an itchy petticoat, and I spent class squirming in my chair, scratching my stomach. So despite Jay Follensbee’s threat, after the third Sunday I told my parents I wasn’t going anymore. I can’t remember if I ever told them why.
Not long after my Sunday school experiment, my mother announced with great indignation that the congregation of the local Episcopalian Church had fired their assistant minister because he had helped the first African American family move into our community. The hypocrisy of the congregation’s action was not lost on me, even at eight years old. Between this event and the itchy petticoat, I decided I didn’t need religion. And I managed to live my life well enough without it.
Until my mom died.
During the final days of her life, my father, siblings, and I huddled around her hospital bed in the intensive care unit, stroking her hands and hair. In a morphine haze, she suddenly asked my sister, Nancy, who had found religion in her 40s, to pray. As Nancy did, Mom began to whisper, “Take me home, God. Take me home.” At some point, she drifted into unconsciousness. Over the next 24 hours, her breathing became slower and more labored, until one breath became her last.
Without religion, I found no comfort in thoughts of Mom in some kind of happy afterlife, reunited with family and friends who had arrived before her. For 57 years, she had always been there for me, but now I had no idea where she had gone. Not knowing consumed me.
Three months after Mom died, my father, Nancy, and I drove to Westtown School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to spread her ashes in the arboretum there. Mom had been a “lifer” at Westtown and had loved that school with all her heart.
Pulling into the arboretum parking lot, I was sure we were in the wrong place. Mom had spoken about the arboretum with such reverence that I expected stately wrought iron fencing and a gate guarding the entrance. Instead, we saw a simple wooden sign and a seemingly random stand of specimen trees planted on a sloping hillside.
Nancy found the spot. Three evergreens had grown together over the years; their lower branches formed a natural shelter. Stepping into it, I inhaled the sharp scent of fresh pine needles. My father removed a plastic bag from the black box he had carried into the arboretum. Undoing the twist tie, he turned the bag upside down. As Nancy and I steadied him, he began to spill the contents onto the ground. We rotated clockwise, and as we did, the ashes formed a chalky circle on the bed of pine needles. When the bag was empty, we stood inside the circle, held each other tight and wept. At that moment, I knew where Mom was. She was there with us, under those three evergreens that had grown together.
She was home.
Carolyn Rundle Field ’78 is a freelance writer, the former editor of Wilton Magazine, and a reformed advertising executive.