An Ongoing Journey To Fulfill A Mother's Last Wish
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week, for interesting stories about the way we live now.
Sunday was Mother's Day, of course. That's a day to show our moms just how much we appreciate them. But for many people, it's a bittersweet day, particularly for those whose mothers have passed away.
Today, we speak with one woman about her quest to fulfill her mother's last wish, and that's a quest that's taken 10 years and counting. As Daniele Seiss' mother struggled through her last days fighting terminal cancer, she told Daniele that she wanted her ashes to be spread at a special place from her childhood. It was a rock located in the mountains of southern Virginia. And Daniele Seiss writes about her mother, and her search, in "My Mother's Ashes," a story featured in this week's Post Magazine.
And she's with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
DANIELE SEISS: Oh, thanks for having me here.
MARTIN: Now, you know, you start this story thinking it's going to be kind of a madcap adventure. You know, one hears - sort of funny stories about trying to find a place, a final resting place, for ashes, and you think it's going to be easy. But this one - first of all, the story isn't - it's an adventure, but it's actually a very poignant one. And it was harder than you thought it was going to be.
So first of all, tell us a little bit about your mom and your relationship with her. She was a really special lady.
SEISS: She was very special, and I think a lot of people found her special. She was an unusual person, and her approach to mothering was different from most. I mean, she was more a friend, I think, than traditional mom role. You know, she was - we liked to do adventurous things together.
MARTIN: Well, she broke the mold, in a lot of ways, in the fact she became an engineer, and went back to school to become an engineer at a time when a lot of moms - especially single moms - didn't do that. And she was a woman in a male-dominated field and...
SEISS: It was difficult for her, and she didn't talk about it a lot. You know, I know she, you know, experienced a lot of, you know, difficulties in school and at work with the male chauvinism, and things that you didn't really discuss, you know. And it was just sort of like, you know, unspoken. That's one of the reasons why she maybe didn't encourage me so much to get into engineering when I was in school.
MARTIN: But she was kind of your hero.
SEISS: She was. She was.
MARTIN: You recognized her for being as brave as she was, and as forward-thinking as she was. So, why was this particular rock so special? Why was that the place that she wanted to have as her final resting place?
SEISS: Well, she sort of lost her religion early in her life, and this was her holy place. This was the place where she would go to sort of feel the surroundings of nature, and that was a regular practice for her and...
MARTIN: Was that a place that she would go to meditate and to...
MARTIN: OK, so this was the point at which some people may be asking, OK - so why was it so hard to find this rock? I'm sure there are a lot of big rocks in Virginia...
MARTIN: But it's been 10 years, and you still haven't been able to find the rock?
SEISS: We didn't look year after year. We looked for a few years, and then I realized that there was going to have to - we're just going to have to take a different approach because, you know, we covered just about as much territory as we could, based on the information that we had. And part of it was, you know, me not wanting to part with her ashes. And so I was a little - you know - hesitant to go back, at some point. So it was like, maybe I just didn't want to get rid of them.
MARTIN: I think that is part of the story that a lot of people will relate to. Could you talk a little bit about that? I mean, there's something about - now, everyone - obviously - doesn't practice cremation. I mean, for some people, the burial of the physical body is an important part of their leave-taking. It's - perhaps - an important part of their spiritual practice.
But for your mother - first of all, your mother is very practical; she didn't want all that. But then for you, and then for your brother, what was the meaning that took on - kind of living with the physical presence of her? Why do you think that became so important?
SEISS: We had both been raised Roman Catholic. We weren't used to having, you know, our deceased loved ones cremated. It was - we were used to a more traditional burial practice. And I think - I didn't expect it to be that difficult. But, you know, it was something that I've always respected. I thought that, you know - I found cremation to be a better practice and, you know, I'm practical in the same way that my mother is, as far as that goes. It just seems more realistic, when we have such limited space these days for burial, and it's expensive and - but both my brother and I became attached to the ashes in ways that we didn't expect to be and then - I don't know. It made it a lot more difficult to try and part with them, try to take them and spread them.
MARTIN: You were an adult when you lost your mother, and I think that that is something that people might feel a sense of shame around; that they were so undone by the death of a parent. You know, that is the normal course of things; that children are meant to bury their parents, and that we often think of it as this huge tragedy when it's the other way around - which, of course, it is when it's the other way around. Could you just talk a little bit about that, just how profoundly your mother's death affected you?
SEISS: Whatever your age, I don't think you're ever ready to deal with the death of a parent. I don't think that's something that people realize until they come to it; that it's a lot more profound than, you know, than you would expect. And for me, a lot of it was that, you know, I had - I suffered from serious depression; at the time, I was going through a rough time with that. And Mother was sort of a stabilizing force in my life, even when I wasn't around her a lot and - just knowing she was there, you know; knowing that you have that parent to rely on.
And, you know, having her go was just devastating, in that sense of losing that security. So there was that, and also just the sense that - the unfairness of it; that, you know, she was so young, and she had just gotten to a stage in her life where she felt, you know, like she could enjoy herself. You know, she'd had such a rough life. And there was such a grave injustice in it, for me; that she would have to - and after having such - you know, after being depressed for so long and, you know, having suicidal thoughts, there was a guilt involved for me as well; of thinking - you know - here I am, wanting to die so much - at the time - and - you know - here she is, giving up her life. And I wanted to trade places with her. It's just like a - I wanted to, you know, take on her suffering. I wanted to be the one that was going and so - so it was particularly difficult, in that respect.
MARTIN: Is it hard to talk about, even now? It seems that it is.
SEISS: It is, yes. I appreciate that. It is somewhat difficult, still, to think about, exposing those feelings ...
MARTIN: What was it like writing this piece, then, about that - and kind of laying out just all of the - both the - if I may say, kind of the funnier aspects of it, which is that - which a lot of people can relate to; it's actually been a theme in some movies, like what to do with the ashes of a loved one, and when they have very specific requests - but also your own struggle and pain about it - around it. What's it been like to write that?
SEISS: It was actually really - well, I learned a lot about myself. And it was very cathartic, in some ways. It was very difficult as well. And when I started, I wanted it to be sort of a humorous piece. I wanted to have a lighter take on, you know, as you say - you know, there are so many funny stories about ashes.
But as I got into it, I realized that there were all these emotions that were surfacing. And there was just so much, and I just - I had to be as honest as I could with it. And it came out a bit more weighty than I first intended.
MARTIN: Weren't you still looking for that rock? Are you still looking for it?
SEISS: Still looking for that rock, yes. Although, you know, I may have some leads on it now, so there'll be a follow-up to the saga, perhaps.
MARTIN: Daniele Seiss is a writer and editorial aide at the Washington Post. Her story, "My Mother's Ashes," was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine. It's called, appropriately enough, "My Mother's Ashes" And Daniele was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios.
Daniele, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
SEISS: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's been an honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.