Carry Me Back to Old Virginny

Never had those words meant so much than right after my mother died

I have a blue pillow on my bed with the words "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" embroidered in multicolored thread across the front. My sister made it for my mother years ago, when my family lived in Chicago. My parents did move back to Virginia, land of their hearts, after years spent away in different cities. I grew up there. My mother gave me the pillow when I later moved with my husband some 3,000 miles away from the friendly Blue Ridge Mountains to the more imposing Cascade Mountains in Oregon. I've had the pillow on my bed ever since.

The pillow reminds me of my teenage years, driving my old Ford Pinto down Highway 29, back and forth 20 miles from our farmhouse in the country to my high school in town. It reminds me of evenings on our back porch, rocking on the swing and listening to the crickets ramp up their racket as the sun went down. It reminds me of hot, muggy days, swatting away the flies, and long winter nights watching "The Waltons" or maybe "Hee Haw"—about the only two shows our TV seemed to carry at the time.

I left those days behind me over 30 years ago when I stuffed the pillow and a whole bunch of other stuff into a little blue Honda and drove to Oregon. My parents stayed in Virginia. When my father died, my mom moved to Maryland to live near my sister. Then my sister died. I basically grabbed my mother, hoisted her onto an airplane and moved her to Portland to live near me. She was 92 years old at the time. One year later, my mom died. As per her wishes, she was cremated and I was faced with the daunting task of bringing her ashes to Virginia for burial next to my dad. Never had the words "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" meant so much.

We'd talked about this end part of life multiple times, my mom and I. She actually relished discussing all the details. "After I'm cremated, Jule," she'd begin, after pouring herself a second cup of coffee and settling back in her chair, "we'll just all pile into the car and drive down to the cemetery. You'll bury me there next to Dad, and then maybe you can have a small reception. I doubt many people will come because I'm so old, so it shouldn't cost too much. You can pay for the lunch out of my estate. How about fried oysters? Maybe we can get a couple of platters of them?"

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"Mom," I said, "you do realize you won't be with us, right? Because you'll be buried next to Dad by then." My mom always acted like she couldn't wait to attend her own funeral.

"Oh, I know that! I'm just saying, get the oysters. And maybe some of those little ham biscuits. Let's get out a notepad!" My mom would pull out a notepad from under a pile of papers and go to work planning. She planned her whole funeral, from the prayers prayed to the songs sung. She told me who to invite to play the piano. She paid for her burial services in advance. Always the party planner, she planned a great old bash.

But she forgot one thing: She forgot we'd be sad when she died. And she certainly forgot about the part where I'd pack her ashes into a carry-on bag and head to the airport.

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I never actually opened the box that held my mom's ashes. But I held it. It didn't weigh much. My mom was small, not even 4'11". Initially, I put the box in a cupboard in my bedroom, leaving the door open a crack so my mom wouldn't be closed off. I felt like she'd want to hear the chaotic sounds of our family life keeping her company. People definitely get weird feelings about ashes (called "cremains" by funeral directors) or at least I did. I actually tried not to think too much. I knew the box didn't really contain my mother's thoughts and feelings—her personality—but it was all that was left of her body. I felt a heavy weight of responsibility towards caring for her. I was also terrified I'd forget the ashes in the craziness of getting my extended family of 20 back to Virginia for the service.

I didn't forget them. On the morning of our departure, I stoically walked towards the cupboard, lifted the urn and placed it in a brand-new square-shaped black bag that I hoped would fit underneath the airplane seat in front of me. Again, I tried not to think too much. I strapped the bag around my shoulder and kept it with me all the way to the airport security line. I never put the bag down; I was afraid I might lose it. I'd called the airline some two or three times, just to make sure there wouldn't be a problem at security. They never told me that TSA would have to run a chemical test on the inside of the bag.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," the security agent said, "We have to get a kit for…" he paused to look at the paperwork I had handed him, "your mother, Mizzell." My kids and my husband passed through security while I waited with the agent. Apparently, these chemical kits are not readily available.

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"I'm sorry for your loss, ma'am," the agent respectfully said. "Can you tell me something about Mizzell?"

It was a strange request, if polite. How to describe a beloved mother to a stranger while waiting in airport security? I looked across the conveyor belt to my husband and children waiting on the other side. They all had the same tentative look on their faces: Is mom OK? Is she going to crack up and cry? I smiled at them. "I'm fine!" I called out. And I was fine. I had my mom's ashes in the bag, but my mom wasn't there. She was somewhere else, maybe inside of me, telling me to smile and wave and carry on. My mother was the strongest, most courageous person I knew.

"Oh," I said to the agent, "my mother was amazing. Joyous and energetic and full of life."

He smiled and nodded. "That's nice to hear." He swabbed the inside of the bag with a Q-tip, held it to a piece of litmus paper, and said, "OK. Everything looks good. You can have Mizzell back now." I zipped the bag and joined my family.

Everything else went smoothly. I carried my mother's ashes from Oregon to Virginia, and we took them to the little church down the road from the home I spent my teenage years in. Many of the same people who lived on that country road came to the funeral: Betty Bowman and Arlene McDaniels organized a big spread with all the fixin's (no oysters, but there was fried chicken); my mom's best friend, Mildred, and her husband, drove out from town; Brenda, her way-more-than-a-housekeeper, showed up with her husband, as did Jake Henshaw, the farmer who mowed my parents' hay. It was a full house, many more people than my mother had anticipated while planning the event.

We carried the ashes on to the cemetery where my father, uncle and grandparents were buried. There was a bit of a mixup at the gravesite (the grave-tender had forgotten to drain the hole of water after several weeks of rain), but we waited patiently while he did so.

"Mom and Dad must be laughing about this," my sister commented. "That's good old Greene County service for you!"

It had taken some time for my parents to get used to the slower pace of life in Virginia when they moved back there after years of city living. They often joked about it. But I looked around the cemetery at the green rolling hills, swatted away a fly and smiled. I had done it. I had carried my mother back to Old Virginny, and it was a job well done. We left the cemetery to carry on with the celebration of my mother's life. It was a great one. There was only one thing missing: my mom. Oh, how she would have loved to have been with us.