Ashokan Farewell

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By Suzanne Meagher

The spring weather conditions had not been accommodating. His first two flights had been delayed and the last cancelled. It appeared that the entire east coast was fogged in. When he finally landed in Albany, he rented a car and with no minutes to spare headed toward the farming community which had been his home for the better half of his growing up years. As he sped along in the pounding rain, he thought about his grandmother. His life path had led him away from her, in the direction of the big city, the bright lights and always, the music.

The teeming rain continued and the ineffective wipers scraping and snapping futilely across the windshield could not keep up with the deluge. As he struggled to hold the speeding car in its lane, thoughts of her continued. The septuagenarian who had already raised her family, mostly by herself, was now too tired to raise her grandchildren. Of course she was sympathetic. Their no-good father, who had been her only son, had deserted his family and now his wife had succumbed to a three year struggle with cancer. She had never even seen the children. They had to be a mess. How could they not be? No father and a mother fighting cancer couldn’t be effective for raising small children. Sean knew her story by heart.

Father Shay had come to her door. She knew immediately what his request would be. “John Shay, don’t come to my door begging for help for those children. I know they are my grandchildren, but I’m tired, and I’m out of money. Their mother never saw fit to darken my doorstep and yet she expected that I would take in her family. No, John, I won’t do it. Please don’t ask me again, and I don’t much care about what Jesus would do. Where was he when John died and I had two children to care for on my own? No, you can’t step into the parlor. Please go away.”

As Sean pulled the heavy oak door open, a strong gust of wind yanked it back and nearly knocked him down. He righted himself and pushed inside. The flower-scented country church was packed, so he inched himself along the rear wall to a point where he could see. He settled his case on the stone floor between his feet and crossed himself with the water he had touched in the cold, stone font.

The funeral Mass was ending. He was too late, and he was convinced that he had let her down. He recognized many faces as they turned to watch the pall bearers carry her coffin down the narrow aisle. Father Shay led the assemblage following the casket, followed by the altar boys, his sisters, and their families. He lifted his case and hugged it to his chest as he inched across the congregation to the doors of the church. The young man stopped and awaited the approaching procession. When it paused before him, he soundlessly raised his hand and the coffin was gently lowered to the slate floor. Sean rested the case on the flower covered lid of the coffin, removed his violin and leaned it against his shoulder. He nodded to the pastor and smiled at his sisters. Then he tenderly caressed the bow against the waiting strings. The mystical notes of the waltz, “Ashokan Farewell” drifted from the instrument and he was returned to the moment when he and this violin had first met.

Even she had admitted that the kitchen was “hotter than the hinges of hell”. It was the same every morning when she fired up those two wood stoves to make the bread and scones which were to be their lifeblood. By dawn she had pulled fifty or more loaves and dozens and dozens of scones from the ovens which were promised and delivered to restaurants, inns and private homes in their community. His new responsibility was the delivery of the baked goods. While he waited for the goods to be cool enough to be pushed into the paper sacks by his sisters, the young boy tiptoed about the farmhouse through rooms they had been forbidden to enter. In the dining room he paused before the carefully polished oak sideboard. Perched upright in its hand carved wooden case sat a gleaming, antique violin. As he reached to hold it in his hands, Sean heard her low, forbidding voice before he saw her. Her words had remained with him for all of these years. “Don’t ever touch it if you don’t mean it.”

The aged pastor gently grasped his arm and Sean returned the violin to that carved wooden case. As he bowed low and lovingly kissed the coffin, he whispered, “See, Grama, I did mean it.”

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