Before his November 2012 death, Dad expressed the desire that some of his ashes be scattered in the Fox River which bordered our family’s 100-year-old cottage.
This treasured property in Johnsburg, a northeastern Illinois village along the Fox River near the Wisconsin border, was a gift to five generations from my great-grandparents, affectionately known as Little Grandpa and Little Grandma Henrikson. In 1919, Little Grandpa and four co-workers from the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad bought five adjoining riverfront lots with identical small square wooden cottages. The cottage served as a much-loved place for both boisterous family gatherings and solitary meditational times. On his final trip to the cottage in October 2012, Dad was still in awe: “It is so peaceful here. I love it.”
We could not afford to keep the cottage in the family. I felt a multitude of feelings when we sold the cottage in a quick cash sale just two weeks after Dad’s passing. Closing would take place on December 27, 2012. December 22 was the only date that we could make the hour’s drive from our childhood home in Des Plaines to Johnsburg to accomplish this solemn task. Two family members agreed to this challenge along with me: my sister Jan and our niece Amy. However, we needed to make a few stops before reaching our destination.
Our first stop was a local restaurant where we met two of my high school friends for breakfast. We packed ourselves into what felt like a small and cramped booth. We received some heartwarming news. My friends praised a big farewell story about my editorial cartoonist Dad that was published in The Daily Herald the day after his December 20 memorial service. We were so busy that we missed reading it, so my friend brought an extra newspaper from her car so that we could keep it. We were delighted that Dad’s former employer still thought so highly of him after his retirement 20 years earlier.
After breakfast, we had a delightful chat on our drive about Amy becoming a first-time aunt the following August. Jan and I emphasized how much we both enjoyed being aunts to Amy and her now-pregnant sister, Laura. Jan and I called ourselves “The Flying Aunts” because we flew in from other states to attend parties, graduations and other family activities often.
Our second stop was a branch of Dad’s bank. My goal was to open an estate checking account so I could transfer Dad’s remaining funds, deposit checks and pay estate expenses. I as trustee had sole authority to do this and was advised that the account needed to be opened in Illinois.
This was the Saturday before Christmas. There was a skeleton crew working both at this branch and in downtown Chicago. I provided some documents to open the account quickly and easily. Wrong, according to the downtown bankers! I needed the trust document to prove that I was the primary trustee. I left that important document back at the hotel, which was 45 minutes away in the wrong direction from our destination. I frantically searched through emails on the small screen on my iPhone after I remembered that I had emailed this paperwork to myself. Thank goodness for tech-savvy Amy: she was the only person who could figure out how to retrieve the trust document painstakingly, one attachment at a time, after I forwarded the original email to the bank. We were so relieved when the bank’s downtown Chicago reviewers finally approved it and I opened the account.
Our timetable was pushed back by the two hours that we spent at that bank. We took back roads to the cottage so we could spread Dad’s ashes next to the pier in front of the cottage before the sun would set at 4:23 pm. December 22 was the second shortest day of the year!
We heard snow crunch underneath the tires as we pulled into the familiar backyard where our family parked cars for 100 years. The “SOLD” sign near the street was a jarring reminder that time was running out. The cottage would no longer be ours in five days.
It was freezing outside and the cottage did not have a furnace, so we hurriedly carried many items from the cottage to the trunk. I was extremely grateful for Amy’s strength in removing an accordion peg rack which Mom solidly nailed into the front bedroom wall decades ago. It was small enough to fit inside my suitcase, so I planned to use it in my laundry room as a memento of our beloved cottage.
We removed Dad’s ashes from the car and felt sad as we headed toward the Fox River to scatter them. We did not bargain on the fact that the Fox River was frozen solid! Our mood changed quickly from sadness to determination. Amy came to the rescue again by using a large rock to create a crack in the ice large enough for us to spread Dad’s ashes next to the pier. It took her several tries. Immediately after we finished our solemn duty, we were awed by the peaceful scene of the sun setting over the Chapel Hill Bridge and the outline of two birds flying in tandem. We interpreted this as a sign from Dad that he approved.
We two “Flying Aunts” and our fledgling “Flying Aunt-To-Be” had another heartfelt conversation on that familiar and last ride from Johnsburg to Des Plaines. It felt good to carry out Dad’s wishes together.
Diane Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI catalog and for OLLI Connects.