(This post is part of a series of essays that I’ve written about the Camino walk that my friend Mary and I embarked on last October.)
To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour. William Blake
I have found that if you love life, life will love you back. Arthur Rubinstein
True explorers want to go where no one has gone before. Abraham- Hicks
It started with a spoon, a silver spoon, tucked into my backpack as talisman, a reminder of my roots, my actual roots as I rubbed it each morning on the bottom of my feet for extra-grounding and my familial roots as well. I had inherited it, this spoon, tarnished and bent, when I was a girl, given to me by my grandmother with our name “Helen” engraved in cursive on its stem. And for some reason, it had called out to me when I was preparing for this three week pilgrimage on the Camino route along the northern coast of Portugal and Spain and into Santiago de Compostila. It had wanted to come along. So here we were, sitting at a table in the hotel’s breakfast nook, my spoon and I, and my friend Mary, in the border city of Valenca, Portugal on a spacious morning of rest and replenishment after our first seven days of walking the many kilometers of coastline on boardwalks and beaches and cobblestone streets along the Atlantic sea. And, as we sat there, we were marveling at what I had just noticed that very morning. The design at the stem’s flair, on both front and back, and on the back of the bowl of the spoon itself was that of a scallop shell, the symbol for this Camino pilgrimage, the image that marked each way-marker beckoning us forward, the type of shell that was tied to almost every pilgrim’s pack and was said to be carried by St James himself as he walked along these same paths. And here it was, the scallop, clearly carved into my Grandmother Helen’s silver spoon!
“Tell me more about your mother’s family!” Mary encouraged as we soaked our bread in olive oil and peeled our local clementine oranges. The spoon and its scallop engraving opened up a conversation that morning about the Perry side of my family. Mary already knew a little, four years earlier had attended my mother’s memorial service in Maine, had heard stories about my mother and my mother’s mother, Grandma Helen, and her father, my Grandpa Perry. “Does she have any siblings?” Mary asked, settling in for a session of breakfast storytelling. And I’m not sure why, perhaps it was the spoon, sitting there between us, that encouraged me to dive deep into Perry-family memories. I told her about my Uncle Fred, and his wife, my Aunt Nancy, how I adored them, and the four boy cousins who lived in Massachusetts in a big sprawling house with a swimming pool and tennis court and hosted our family’s Thanksgivings every year. I shared how my mother was devastated when her younger brother Fred had died when she was in her seventies, how she and Aunt Nancy were like sisters, how they traveled together to Florida in February each year after his passing. I told an ocean of stories about my family before I focused in on Uncle John and the cove he calls home in coastal Maine.
I reminded Mary that she had met my Uncle John and my Aunt Anne at the memorial, how he was the one who shared stories of his older sister, my mother, in front of the congregation during the service. “Uncle John is the best!” I exclaimed. “Everyone loves Uncle John! He exudes life with every step he takes, and lifts you off the ground with his hugs!” I told Mary that my uncle was brilliant with his engineering mind, but it was his enthusiasm that swept over me like a wave of invigorating pleasure and inspired me every time I was in his presence. He was as bright a character as the rhododendrons he and Aunt Anne grew on their coastal property. And he had sailed his way through the great lakes and all along the coast of Maine, had climbed the face of cliffs and knew the White Mountains of New Hampshire with heart and soul, and he and Aunt Anne were partners in these adventures, both naturalists and spiritual-seekers, and, together, with their beloved dogs had camped their way across the country on many a trip out west to visit their daughters, my three girl cousins in California and Washington. I told Mary that my Uncle John seemed to know something about everything, but not in a know-it-all way, that he was generous and kind and loved us all, his nieces and nephews and his great nieces and nephews, his beloved girls, his granddaughter, his life partner, Anne. I told Mary that I was so glad to have an Uncle John alive in my life and living in Cundy’s Harbor, Maine.
That evening, like every other evening on our pilgrimage, after our day of walking, Mary and I feasted on a meal of local fish and greens, salad and fresh-made bread, and the most wonderful of olive oils slathered on top of everything. And now, we were back in our hotel room, organizing and re-packing for the next day’s journey. I stuffed the silver spoon into its special pocket and took out my cellphone to check my e-mails. And that’s when I gasped. Or maybe I didn’t gasp. Because I was on the Camino path and synchronicities were the norm. It was an e-mail from my brother that brought me the news. “My Uncle John died!” I told Mary. “It was peaceful and easy and he was looking out at the cove. His heart just gave out.” I immediately wrote to my Aunt Anne and to my girl cousins, told them that I was on a pilgrimage, that I would be carrying my love for them and Uncle John all the way to Santiago and to the sea beyond.
And that’s what I did. All the way to sea, I held them dear to my heart. And the next day, in a moment of walking alone on a country road surrounded by grassy fields and up a hill to the opening of a eucalyptus and pine forest, I noticed a Camino trail marker, an ancient granite stone engraved with the traditional scallop shell pointing me into the woods. And on top of this marker was an altar piled high with rocks and wildflowers and tiny treasures placed there by fellow pilgrims as they journeyed by. I thought of Uncle John and I picked up a pebble from the dirt road, held it as I welled with appreciation for my uncle and his well-lived life, and, like my fellow journeyers, I added the pebble to the altar’s offerings. And I started to walk. And I honestly can tell you that it hadn’t been more than a moment and I hadn’t gotten to the woods yet and that I was under nothing but a canopy of blue and white-clouded sky, when something told me to look up, and that’s what I did. I looked up at the sky and I saw it, way up in the sky, a tiny feather floating down, and it wasn’t my conscious mind guiding me as I looked up, as I reached out my arm. And somehow, it didn’t even seem remarkable at the time; in fact, it seemed quite ordinary. Because my uncle, who lifted us up with his hugs and with his buoyancy — why wouldn’t he offer a feather-light gift? I just stood there, looking up. And with my body still and my palm wide open, it landed with ease and I clutched it for a moment, then placed it in my pocket and made my way into the woods.
Uncle John and Aunt Anne lounging on their hammock: Cundy’s Harbor, Maine
At my aunt and uncle’s house, Cundy’s Harbor, Maine: July 2013