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Moonlit Memories: Taking one last journey with my grandmother

My Grandmother, Janet Keller was something of a domestic adventurer in her lifetime. While she did not traverse the continents and immerse herself in foreign lands, she spent time in nearly every single one of the United States; she even lived in Alaska for years and had a timeshare in Hawaii. I remember her telling me from a young age that she held a personal goal to visit all 50 states, and for most of my life, she was missing just one: North Dakota. To a kid growing up in South Carolina, North Dakota felt as foreign as France, and I spent a lot of time imagining what the state must be like, particularly because it seemed so out of reach to my adventurous grandmother. Later, I realized that the state was likely skipped over simply because it was not “on the way” to a major attraction. Gram always found a way to travel, even though she didn’t drive: she and my grandfather traveled together, of course, but she also regularly accompanied us on family vacations and made traveling buddies over the years, going on cruises and road trips as frequently as possible.

My grandmother was a unique person, wholly and completely herself and unlike any grandmother I’ve met since. While it may make a better story to imagine her as the quintessential Southern grandmother—warm, immensely comforting, completely devoted to her grandchildren—the reality was quite different. Gram loved us, to be sure, but it never felt like she needed us. She didn’t live for her grandchildren or her husband or anyone else; she lived for herself. I never once doubted if she loved me, my sisters, or my cousins, but I also never doubted that she was an independent woman. She was the first woman I knew who had a full-time job: I remember coming to her cubicle at the Social Security Administration as a kid, in awe of the hustle and bustle of the offices, thinking she was so cool to work in a place that felt important. For a large portion of my childhood, she spent her winters in a condo on Isle of Palms; a family member would drop her off at the beginning of the season, and she would live there for months, alone, save for visits from her family and friends. A few times, I was lucky enough to spend a weekend at the beach with her by myself, and I reveled in the experience of being part of her routine for a few days. I remember she had this little shopping cart that she’d take down to the Red and White: the mom and pop island grocery store. She would walk to the store with it folded up and rolling behind her, choose exactly what she needed to last her for the next week (while still fitting perfectly within her little cart), wheel it back to her condo, park it at the stairs, and take trips bringing the bags up to the third floor. Then she would pour herself a glass of wine, go out onto her balcony, and just stare at the ocean and the beach. I always wondered what she was looking at, thinking that the view had to become simply business as usual at some point, but it never did. She always appreciated it. She always seemed to be soaking it in.

A few years ago, I got a call from my aunt explaining that Gram was in the hospital and that she seemed very sick. Surprised and concerned, my husband and I raced to Augusta to visit her. Gram was in the intensive care unit with complications stemming from her COPD, but she was expected to make a fair recovery. As I sat with her, we talked about her lifelong goal of visiting all 50 states. She said that she was still missing North Dakota, and with a glance toward my husband, I knew what I should do: I promised to take her to North Dakota as soon as she was able. She laughed it off, but said that a trip together would be fun, and I resolved to make it happen. Over the years, we had drifted apart a bit, and I was excited at the opportunity to get to be close to her once again while helping her achieve a longstanding goal. I started tracking airfare prices and looking at hotels in North Dakota and I planned to take her as soon as she was completely well. A short time later, Gram was back in the hospital again, and this time, she passed away. She was just shy of 76 years old.

According to her wishes, there was no ceremony for Gram, no burial service, no casket. She was simply gone, her life ended abruptly by an undiscerning disease. When I found out she was to be cremated, I asked my aunt for a small parcel of her ashes, and the ashes sat in my possession for nearly a year before I had a solid plan. With the help of my husband, I decided that I would leave our two young children with him and travel to Colorado, rent a car, and drive the ashes to North Dakota, thereby fulfilling my promise to Gram. This past September, I carefully packed the ashes into a backpack, boarded a plane, and set off for my last journey with my grandmother.

Driving from Denver to North Dakota, a thousand thoughts flew through my mind. Where exactly would I scatter the ashes? What would I do, think, or say to pay homage to her? What time of day should I perform the event, and how could I make it special? With no real answer to any of my own questions, I set my sights on Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and headed to nearby Medora, North Dakota. It took a couple of days, but I eventually checked into the quaint “Amble Inn,” just a stone’s throw from the park. The town was practically boarded up during these off-season times, and in the quiet, I revisited my questions—when, where, and how should I pay homage to Gram? I decided I would take a driving tour of the park around sunset, and if the moment felt right, I would scatter the ashes. As I drove up the winding road, I was struck by the beauty of my surroundings. Large rock formations covered the vast landscape, sporting more colors and textures than the eye could comprehend. The sun began to set as I traveled the scenic route, and I watched the golden light turn an orange hue before the park descended into darkness. For miles, I drove in silence, my path lit only by my headlights, until the moment I turned a corner, and there it was. I slammed on the brakes and gasped audibly. There, just above the center of the road, framed by two giant rock formations, was an enormous harvest moon.

To my family members reading this, the significance of the moon that night would be immediately understandable, but to others, I owe an explanation. During her life, Gram used the full moon as way to connect with her family all over the country. She explained to her grandchildren that no matter where we were on earth, we would always see the same full moon that she would see, so if we blew kisses to the full moon, she could easily receive them, and vice versa. Her logic was infallible to us as children, and every full moon, we’d all blow kisses, knowing she was doing the same. Conversations after her death revealed that many of us still engage in the ritual upon seeing a full moon as a way to remember her, and some of Gram’s grandchildren have even passed the practice on to their own children.

When I came around the corner in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, previously in darkness, to see the brightest, fullest harvest moon I’ve ever seen, I could not contain my emotion, and immediately burst into tears. Sitting with the ashes of my grandmother on the seat next to me, I knew this was the moment I had been waiting for, and I slowly began to drive the scenic road yet again. As I drove, memories flooded my mind. I recalled the time she took me to the Isle of Palms VFW for an oyster roast, and how she made me feel like the coolest kid who ever lived when I found a pearl in one of my oysters. I remembered how she made boxed spaghetti taste like a Michelin star meal, and how my sisters and I would beg her to make it any time we saw her. I laughed as I thought back to how she had the largest collection of “unrated” teen comedy movies that I had ever seen, and how she almost never missed an episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno or an issue of the National Enquirer. I pictured Gram in her element: wearing some silly getup in celebration of a holiday, with light-up hats, jewelry, masks, and more. She loved holidays, and any reason to celebrate was an opportunity for her to break out her costume box. I cried as I recalled one of the more special moments with her: sneaking out together onto the beach in front of her Isle of Palms condo in the dead of night to watch a meteor shower, just us, the stars, and the sound of crashing waves. As I reflected on our memories together, turning corners along the road and in my mind, the full harvest moon bobbed in and out of sight, occasionally riding alongside me, perfectly framed within the passenger window. I never saw another car—it was just the two of us. For an hour or more, I drove, and each time the moon reappeared, so did another memory, Gram’s smiling face and distinctive laugh shining as clearly in my mind as the moon shone that night. Finally, I stopped. The park was silent. Ahead, there was a path framed by two small hills, and the full moon seemed like it took up the entire expanse of sky between them. This was the place. I walked until it felt right, ventured off of the path a little bit, and stared into the landscape like she used to stare at the Atlantic Ocean: soaking it in, appreciating it. After I felt I had imprinted the view into my mind, I scattered the ashes on the North Dakota earth as I said my own goodbyes. She finally made it to all fifty states.

I will always regret that I did not get to take Gram to North Dakota while she was alive. I would have loved to travel with her again like we did when I was a child and be able to ask her so many questions about herself and her life. My last journey with my grandmother did not go as planned, but for the adventure it turned out to be, it was as beautiful and inspiring as she was.

By Jana Riley