A Geography of Grief by Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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toddler and father looking at rocks on maine coast

On July 21, 1923, my maternal grandfather was born in a small fishing village in the Bay of Fundy. White Head, so named because of the array of white quartz at the head of the island, is a diminutive, unpresuming place near the more popular and much larger Grand Manan. Just off the coast of Maine and New Brunswick, it is a place of cold waters and fog.

Ninety-one years later to the day, I am sitting in one of the upstairs bedrooms of the “new” house, built in the late nineteen-teens by the family’s best guess, and where my grandmother still lives six months of the year. I am here with my parents and my three-year-old daughter. For them it is a vacation; for me it is a necessity.

Tomorrow marks four months since my husband’s death after a long, debilitating battle with a brain tumor. We had a couple of good years post-diagnosis, but the cancer eventually left him bed-bound, unable to communicate, and in excruciating pain. After the longest winter of both of our lives, he died at home on the second day of spring.

This trip is an exercise in escape and relief. It is a reprieve from the size-13 work boots still next to the tool bench in the basement, from the piles of clothes to be sorted and donated, and from all of the baby stuff we held onto when there was still hope.

Though she helped me spread some of his ashes at the beach shortly after our arrival here, my daughter is too young to be much of a participant in my grief, something for which I am often grateful. And though everyone tells me how well I am handling things, I am often overwhelmed. I am thirty years old, and some days it feels like there is nothing right in the world.

White Head has always held a special place in my heart. In an era of families moving about, of a general lack of roots, White Head holds fast for my family. My grandmother has been coming here for sixty-two years straight. My mother, who spent her childhood summers here, has only missed a handful of annual returns in her life, and I hold the same claim. The first summer my husband and I were together, I brought him to White Head to see the island and meet my mother and grandmother for the first time.

White Head has a year-round population of fewer than two hundred souls, and I am related to a great number of them by marriage or blood. Walking through the island cemetery, I can find the headstone of my great-great-grandmother, for whom I am named. From the house, it is a short walk along the path through the woods to the rocky beach and the enormous tides for which the Bay of Fundy is famous.

The roads are lined with lupines, daisies, and evening primrose. The beaches are scattered with stones, shells, driftwood, and sea glass. Crab shells cooked orange in the sun, violet-hued mussels, and a multitude of seaweeds are strewn along the high tide line. Sometimes treasure is washed ashore: moon snail, glass float, seal skull.

On either side of the path to the beach are blue flag, fireweed, wild blueberries, and rugosa. Spruce and alder are ever encroaching on the path. Beach peas flourish at the sea’s edge. There is, of course, great evidence of modern times: bottles, assorted trash, shotgun shells, and brightly colored fishing gear and line, not to mention the pick-up truck someone got stuck (and subsequently abandoned) in the marshy area between Northern Pond and the beach.

There are jagged, rocky outcroppings, sandy inner coves, great expanses of round, tumbled stones. There is peace and quiet and salt in the air. There is a narrow road and sometimes-operational general store. It takes a border crossing and two ferries to get here, and there are no hotels.

For the last decade or so, I have worn a smooth loop of White Head periwinkle shell on a string around my neck. I finger it when I am nervous or uncertain; as a baby my daughter mouthed it for endless hours, and strangers often inquire as to its nature. It is a small but constant connection to the island.

During our visits to White Head, we disconnect. We walk the dogs on the beach, explore tide pools, and take afternoon naps. We eat my grandmother’s fish chowder, read voraciously, and look through old photographs.

This summer, at this moment in time, this is the place I need to be.

Sleeping in the uncomfortable bed with the terrible wood paneling on the walls and my wiggling toddler snuggled close, I fall asleep without reliving my husband’s death minute by minute like I do most nights at home. I take several walks a day. I spend time on the beach playing fetch with the dogs, playing hide and seek with my daughter, and being by myself. I listen to the waves, finger the smooth stones, and breathe in the salt. I read and knit and eat too many scones.

This afternoon, my grandmother and I will drive in to the get the mail and then will proceed to drive all over the island. She will note the inhabitants of each house we pass (which I, hopelessly, will not remember half of), and she will provide little bits of historical trivia and local news at every turn. We will pause at the memorial to those lost at sea, then off-road on the old dump road where my grandmother will giggle like a small girl. When we stop to turn the car around, I will find the most beautiful patch of ripe wild blueberries, when all the rest we have come across have still been hard and pale.

Together we will sigh at the beauty of the weirs and of the sea, and as I am still young in her eyes, she will sigh alone at how much has changed and how much is still the same. She will speak of my grandfather, dead these sixteen years. She will speak of how everyone here always asks how I am getting along, how this place feels like home to her, and how she is so, so sorry.

Later, my father, daughter, and I will drive to the sandy beach out past the wharf. We will leave our shoes in a pile and walk the beach through the warm sand, blustery wind, and occasional puffs of fog. We will sink our feet in the wet sand at the water’s edge and my daughter will run in and out of the waves squealing. We will be the only ones on the beach, and by the time we leave each of us will have found a special stone to carry home. On the way back to the house, we will get popsicles at the general store and eat them, melting deliciously, in the summer sun.

Next spring, we will plant a tree here in memory of my husband, in memory of my daughter’s father. No matter where either of us goes on to live or work or be, we will have White Head. No matter who lives or dies, we will have White Head. You cannot erase history or grief or love, but we will always have this place. We can come here to seek solitude and nourishment and peace. We can come here to seek quiet and family and the healing properties of salt water and salt air.

I will teach my daughter where to pick blueberries and vow to bring her here as often as I can. I will tell her the story of when she helped me spread her father’s ashes across the stones. I will remind her how the room she will eventually sleep in was once mine, and was her grandmother’s before that. I will show her love of a landscape, beauty even in the harshest elements, and how the land, how a place, how even a battered rock in the middle of the cold ocean, can help us through the deepest grief.

Sarah Kilch GaffneySarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury outreach coordinator, and homemade-caramel aficionado. She lives in central Maine with her daughter and you can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.



  3 comments for “A Geography of Grief by Sarah Kilch Gaffney

  1. I had to do some good, deep breathing to get through this piece. Grief shared is not necessarily grief made easier, but there is comfort in seeing another’s broken places, unhidden. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Heartbreakingly beautiful, Sarah. Deeply moving to anyone who has experienced a premature loss. Thank you for these honest, lovely, loving words.

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