A Mother Remembers

My Turn by Diane Johnson

How Far Can Memory Travel?

Kevin Grey Harris. All photos courtesy Diane Johnson
When Alice called me that week she began to tell me of the places she had taken my son. “Kevin loved the Santa Barbara Mission, of course,” she said, “and I took him to the beach at Carpinteria and all along the creek trickling down our canyon.”

At first I thought that she was telling me about the places they had visited during their years at the university. But then she mentioned the antique silver spoon and added that she planned to take him to Paris the next month when she attended a theater conference highlighting one of her own plays. That’s when I realized that she was talking, not about experiences in the past, but about scattering his ashes.

When it had come time for his memorial, my daughter, Noelle, and I had purchased small golden cloth bags with appliquéd flowers and tassels hanging from the drawstrings, and handed them out to special friends who did, indeed, take his ashes to points far and wide—New York City, where he had been an actor/writer with the Red Moon Ensemble; Long Beach, California, his hometown; the Santa Barbara of his college years—among various locales. I had forgotten.

There was so much I had deliberately forgotten.

Eventually, Noelle and I took our own golden sack to fabled Big Sur, California, where Kevin had lived and worked one year while he took a sabbatical from his studies. It seemed appropriate that the perfect memorial repository would most certainly be Pfeiffer Beach, the most famous of coastal sites along a memorable and rugged coastline. And too, Kevin had lived on Clear Ridge during his sojourn, which happens to climb precipitously above that very beach, so that he would have heard the waves from there each night, crashing through the massive portal in the boulder near the shore.

We arrived one afternoon on a Mother’s Day, turning off Highway One and onto the three mile winding Sycamore Canyon Road to its end, parking among the Monterey Cypress, older and more windswept than I had remembered, and walked out onto one of the most notably photographed beaches in the world. It didn’t disappoint.

The wall of cliff still rose abruptly to the left, closing off any passage further south, but the beach spread out wide to the right, strewn with rocks and little tide pools to ford, becoming soft and sandy as it wound and undulated along the ridge going north. And the enormous rock. The one with the hole big enough for a small boat to crash through. The waves breaking through that opening still exploded upon the shore.

I, too, had brought an antique silver spoon for the task and we picked our spot just at the water’s edge and began to take turns, ceremonially tossing the last of the golden bag’s contents into the air and towards the sea. But I had failed to remember the strength of the wind which comes up in the afternoon on Pfeiffer Beach and the ashes flew back, into our hair and our eyes, onto our coats and the sand. Then we were crying and laughing all at once and there was nothing to be done but close up the sack and poke around the shore for a memento. A pebble, a shell, an amulet.

And then we left the beach and drove back up the canyon and down along the highway to the Nepenthe Restaurant where Kevin once worked. Most appropriately, Nepenthe, in Greek, translates to “isle of no care” and “a place to find surcease from sorrow.” There, at the windowed end of the curving bar, we sat and ordered two martinis, for that is what he would have done, and toasted him knowing that all the time he would be chuckling and saying—“You silly girls.”

When we left Nepenthe, walking across the stone terrace, we passed by happy tourists, lounging, dining, all the while gazing upon the sun sparkled Pacific and fabled Big Sur Cliffs. I thought of my son dancing upon that very spot at the annual Bal Masque one year, robed and bangled, his skin painted blue for Krishna. That was the year I was a Mime and his godmother, Melanie, was a Unicorn and his stepfather, T.M., was Himself in the Fifties, Harris Tweed with leather elbow patches.

I opened the golden bag as we passed by and sprinkled some of that magic dust around Edmund Kara’s majestic Phoenix Bird sculpture
by the stairway—in memory.

So Kevin has been taken around the world. And I know he would especially enjoy Paris.

After seven decades in coastal California, Diane Johnson has returned to her prairie-Norwegian roots in Minnesota with her husband and cat, allowing time to reflect upon and write about change and transformation. She belongs to the Lake Region Writer’s Network and writes the blog: snowbirdredux.com.