Grieving My Mother One Year Later

Morgan Talty, a chronicler of the modern Penobscot experience whose debut story collection was published this month, writes about grief—and how to honor our ancestors.

We buried Mom last July. She had passed away in February 2021, but due to COVID—and the ground being hard in winter—my sister and I decided to wait to hold any services for her. Mom was cremated, and for the months between February and July, her ashes rested in an urn on my dresser, right on top of a small wooden chest that holds my father.

I don’t know which day I should mourn my mother’s passing: in February, on the day I went to her apartment to check on her, banging on the door, behind which she was, unknown to me, dead in her bed? In July, on the day we gathered at the Lucy Poolaw Cemetery on the Penobscot Nation to put her to rest? Or do I mourn her every day across those months between her passing and her burial?

I’m still trying to figure this out.

Of the things I kept of my mother’s, one object was a cigarette. A Newport. My sister took the rest of the smokes. For a year, that one cigarette stayed in my car. I don’t smoke anymore, but I did think about smoking it. Mom and I used to drink coffee together in the early mornings, the room hazy from our cigarettes. We would talk, she would ask me to heat up her coffee or to add more sugar; “too sweet,” she’d say, and I’d have to remake the cup. But there was no one to smoke with now, so why pick up the habit?

When I got to the cemetery this past February, on the one-year anniversary of her death, I went to her grave. It was morning, the day cold and gray. I had just dropped my wife off at work. The snow covered the cemetery, going up past my knees. For her birthday she was not around for in October, I bought Mom two plastic cardinals on stakes that I put around her grave site, and I could just see the tops of them, bright red against the snow-covered pines in back of the cemetery. I stomped through snow, carrying that one cigarette with me, and at her grave, the unlit cigarette hanging out of my mouth, I dug and dug and dug with no gloves, my hands wet and red and cold, until I unearthed a flush marker which read: Loving Mother, Carol Morgan.

In the cold hole, I crouched down and spoke to her. I can’t remember what I said. Maybe how much I missed her, how much I wished she were here to nag me to bring her some money (she was terrible with it), to bring her some coffee filters, to bring her cigarettes. She always needed cigarettes. I took the Newport from my mouth, broke it in half, and sprinkled the tobacco over the ground—an offering, sure, but also something much more than that: an attempt to bring back to life those early mornings.

I’ve passed some milestones since her death. She’s been gone for my birthday, for Mother’s Day, for her own birthday, for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for New Year’s, for my birthday again, and for Mother’s Day again. Next up is the day we buried her: July 24. It’s getting closer, this milestone, for me and for anyone who is grieving her passing. How will I mourn her on that day? How will I honor her? Will it be as blue and clear and warm as it was when we gathered, family and friends, clumps of dirt in our hands that we tossed on top of her urn with a thump? Or will be it cloudy? Will it rain, softening the earth under our feet as we crouch down to say hello? Will I crack and shatter like the ice that winter I found her dead?

I have an idea: to honor her is to honor the earth, the ground that holds her ashes, the very thing without which we could not live to gather and mourn anybody. Like my mother, the earth will die one day, and us with it—but until then, don’t we have an obligation to love and tend to this place as we would love and tend to the ones who created us?

Morgan Talty’s debut story collection, The Night of the Living Rez, is out this month from Tin House Books.

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