Where do you visit a loved one when there is no grave?

My father died Christmas Eve 2009. He was cremated. I do not know where his ashes are. My step mother would not want me to know. My Dad was raised a Catholic and once read the Sunday sermons at mass, but he was not a practicing Catholic at the end of his life. I don’t believe a person’s spirit stays in one place, but I would have liked a place to lay flowers and to sit and talk with him.

Instead, I visit our 3 homes in Northern New Jersey, the places where we were once were so happy as a family.  I start at the home where we first lived when my Dad got custody of us in 1976. The house looks the same, with the boardwalk to the front door. I study the yard to the side of the house, where he taught me how to throw a softball. I ring the doorbell to ask permission to walk around back, but instead, the present home owner invites me in.

He is my age and says his family is fourth generation from the town, Oakland, New Jersey. I walk up the stairs to the family room. Some things have changed (the hardwood floors). Some things have stayed the same (the mirrors my father hung on the cathedral ceiling). We walk onto the back deck that has since been rebuilt. I look into the back yard where my brother and step mother once crawled with our cat’s bell, trying to catch our mean neighbor. We think the neighbor hit our cat with a baseball bat. I share this story with the present owner, and he laughs. The nasty neighbors are still there, and he’s had his own run-ins with them.

I didn’t know if the neighbor on the other side would still live there, but I baked him cookies just in case. His wife, deceased 10 years at least, had once taught me how to soften the butter when making chocolate chip cookies. Her cookies were the best. I still follow her technique, and my children do the same. I see him outside, and I step over the little rock wall that I had once stumbled over when I was 12.

He remembers our family. He remembers my brother, who had once been his son’s best friend. He knows my Dad passed away. We laugh about the party my brother once had when Dad was at work. The woods were littered with beer cans. My Dad got mad at our neighbor for not having noticed, for not having stopped it somehow.

It felt good to remember those times. It felt good to visit a place where my Dad was just my Dad and not somebody famous. It felt good to talk to someone who remembered I was his daughter.