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Ashes to Ashes

The story of Cape May is a story of fire. Of massive hotels – the largest in 19th century America – felled by persistent flames. First, the Mount Vernon in 1856, packed full of leisure guests yet still unfinished, its exposed wood an open invitation. Then, the Atlantic and the United States Hotels in 1869, alighted by fire from a nearby shop. Last, the Ocean House, in the biggest blaze of them all, which roared through Congress Hall and revisited the Atlantic, consuming forty acres of beloved coastal town. Gas lamps tipped inside timber frames, and arson disguised murder, and in a place surrounded by ocean, they could never pump water fast enough to damper the flames. To look at the Cape May coastline now, with its postcard Victorian mansions perched on the very edge of New Jersey, it’s easy to forget how many times it has risen from ash.

We spent our vacations at the Clinton Hotel, a three-story, modest Victorian with rickety front steps and shared bathrooms and doors that slammed no matter how gently you tried to pull them closed. We’d eat peach pie for breakfast on the top deck, watching beachgoers below lug wagons full of chairs and sand toys and babies in sunhats three blocks to the water’s edge. We’d share small talk with Linda and Ezio, the old Italian couple who owned the hotel, and let them kiss us on both cheeks to say hello, as the smell of garlic and tomato sauce wafted from their ground-floor apartment.

The Clinton was our middle-class ticket to the shore. To the quaint yet exclusive Cape May we couldn’t have afforded otherwise – air conditioning in summer be damned. It was closed this season, although Ezio is still alive and ninety-three. When he sells the hotel, its structure now wilted and its paint flaking, it will be razed and replaced by a faux-historic property before most notice it’s gone. Were it 1878, the Clinton would be all too easy to burn.

My grandmother preferred the warmer coastal town of New Port Richey, Florida, where she could dip her toes in the Gulf of Mexico’s bath water and boast about the weather (good, again) whenever you called. I don’t know the last time she’d been to Cape May, or if she’d even liked it as much as the rest of us. I don’t know when she last waded into the murky green water that pummels its shoreline, kicking up crab shells and startling sand pipers. I don’t know that she wanted to be laid to rest there – “at sea” is rather broad – but the dead don’t always get a say.

So we carried her ashes in a fragile pink salt urn, one that sparkled in the afternoon sun, and my mom released it to the waves. She tossed wildflowers into the wind, and a thumb of whiskey, while we washed away our tears with sea spray. The speed boat’s nose cut through the chop, splashing our faces with bursts of water like spit takes, forcing us to laugh at a really bad joke.

We had chartered the boat from a local captain on the Wildwood side – just across the cement toll bridge from Cape May that charges fifty cents one way. We arrived at the marina to an assault of Trump flags, flapping from atop fifty thousand-dollar boats, no doubt frenzied with economic anxiety. As we wobbled aboard, we realized our captain had a flag of his own. It was smaller – more unassuming – and I waited for my mom to notice it, wondering if it might be the thing that broke her. But tunnel vision has its perks, and she clutched the box that held the urn more tightly. After six months of waiting, she was determined.

My grandmother didn’t die of COVID-19, but it robbed us of our said goodbyes nonetheless. Before she died, I hadn’t seen her in almost three years. A trip to New Port Richey, with its thick air and strip malls along high-stakes five-lane highways, was too easy to put off. This year, though, I had written “Visit Grandma” on my to-do list. As pandemic plans go, most items on the list remain unfinished. But hers is the only one crossed out.

Instead, we held a Zoom memorial – another product of the now – and her children and their spouses and her grandchildren and their spouses called in from Colorado and Pennsylvania and Rhode Island and Spain. My aunt asked us to share a favorite memory with my grandma, and I couldn’t think of one. I remembered how, on my nineteenth birthday, she told me to stop twirling my hair because it made me “look simple.” I remembered how, the last time I saw her, she told me I say “like” and “um” too much, when her generation was taught to communicate clearly. I remembered how, one way or another, things tended to revolve around her, which, as a kid, felt like a false promise, and as an adult, felt tiresome. I remembered why I never booked my ticket to Florida.

But being the center of attention requires talent, and my grandmother had it in spades. She sang, and played piano, and assumed whatever character wasn't yet cast. Before cancer began scheduling her social calendar, she performed in singing competitions with her regional group of the Sweet Adelines International. She voiced old-time radio shows for the local theater, and reveled in repeating the zingers from her scripts out of context. She once sent all her grandchildren hi-res headshots of herself – just so we’d have them. She was fickle but feisty, and she was funny as hell. At her best, she was a sparkler, burning fast but bright.

My parents have visited Cape May every summer for the past twenty-five years, and yet they always get helplessly lost. My mom second-guesses every turn, so my dad stops the car suddenly, and vacation calm is vanquished. So it was inevitable that we got lost driving back from my grandmother’s sea burial, weaving the car through residential streets like a mouse trapped in a maze. It was inevitable that we drove past Kelly’s, the Irish dive bar on the Wildwood side, a white block of a building with a Celtic green sign, where my grandma once slept in the booths as a child while her Irish parents got properly knackered.

My grandma loved to play characters with an Irish brogue, an accent that was likely in her blood, but which she’d perfected as The Mayor’s Wife in a local production of Bye Bye Birdie. Friends and family knew her as “Mickie” after her surname McDermott, passed down to my great grandfather and thirteen of his Irish siblings, most of whom stayed behind.

My fiancé and I were supposed to be married in Ireland this year, another item on the to-do list left unchecked. The wedding destination was a wine-drunk idea we forced into reality. A comedy of errors in Irish bureaucracy that included a birth certificate drug deal, a personal injury lawyer, and we think, maybe, an actual leprechaun. My grandmother thought this hero’s quest to obtain our marriage license was hoot, chiming in with her brogue to add color to the story where it warranted. She never planned to come to Ireland, but we had talked about FaceTiming her in to watch the ceremony. She wanted to see my red dress offset against the green environs and listen to trad music and catch a glimpse of “home.” Maybe her ashes will drift there now, from one side of the Atlantic to the other, completing the journey.

When we dropped the pink urn into the waves, we queued her recording of “Stardust” on the boat’s speaker, and her voice warbled in the wind, the sound of a time forgotten and forgotten time.

“You wander down the lane and far away Leaving me a song that will not die Love is now the stardust of yesterday The music of the years gone by.”

Our captain drove us out to the ferry line, where the ferry connects Cape May to Lewes, Delaware. If we ever took the ferry, he said, we’d know where my grandmother was laid to rest. He gave my mom a set of wind chimes to remember her mother in the breeze, and I marveled at how people can meter kindness.

The boat rolled, and we toasted my grandmother with plastic cups of Jameson and looked out at a shoreline that had burned so many times, yet there it stood. Half an hour later and the winds would have been too strong to sail. Cape May, of all places, knows how quickly they change.

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