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Two goodbyes in one week

Mildred Hundgen of Southampton with a grandson, Quinn

Mildred Hundgen of Southampton with a grandson, Quinn Hundgen of Shelter Island, in the 1990s. Mrs. Hundgen died Jan. 8, 2013. She was the mother-in-law of opinions writer JoAnn Kirkland of Shelter Island. Credit: Family Photo

My husband and I said goodbye to his mother and our son in the same week.

Tom’s mother, Mil Hundgen, died in January 2013, and the following July, we gathered at the ocean in Bridgehampton to scatter her ashes.

In a full-body wet suit, Jason Brunner, 39, one of her five grandsons, paddled his surfboard past the break at Ocean Road, a backpack strapped to his shoulders. Cold for a July afternoon, the fog surrounded him, making him blend in with the water, the sky.

He sat up, unzipped the backpack, took out the plain wooden box that held his grandma’s ashes and released them into the water as his board bobbed with the sea.

About 30 of us watched from the shore. The kids pranced barefoot at the edge of the water, surrounded by parents and grandparents. Four generations of her family had gathered to say goodbye. She’d taught every kid, and most of the adults, how to swim in her 93 years. She was always happiest surrounded by her family. She would’ve enjoyed this celebration at the beach, the place she loved the most.

A beach baby from the start, Mil was born in the Bronx, but that didn’t stop her family from taking the subway out to Rockaway beach every weekend. As an adult, she and her husband raised four children in the Bronx, but spent summers in Southampton. Eventually, they moved to Southampton to stay.

Into her 80s, she and her daughter spent every summer day at Sagg Main Beach in Sagaponack. They’d pack sandwiches and Tootsie Pops, boogie boards and beach chairs, and head for their spot at the far end of the beach, a colony of tanned grandkids and their friends. She was “Gram” to everyone. That included our son, Quinn Hundgen. When he was a month old in 1996, she placed him in a little tent on the beach. The sound of waves lulled him to sleep.

Two days after we said farewell to Gram, my husband and I drove Quinn, now 17, to Kennedy Airport so he could fly cross country, alone, for the first time. It was a 10-day trip he’d planned and paid for himself to see relatives in Seattle and San Francisco.

When we entered the Delta terminal, a wall of noise hit us: people speaking in different languages, security workers barking orders, travelers juggling heavy carry-ons and removing their shoes.

I searched for something familiar. Above the din, a Beatles song played from hidden speakers. Our son loved the Beatles, and even though he didn’t seem to notice the music, I did. A cosmic nod to a worried mother.

Quinn looked nervous and excited as he stood in the snaking security line. In his face, I could see both the baby on the beach and the man he would become.

We hugged him across the security rope and walked away, not looking back. We’d taught him to be independent; now we needed to let him go.

As we left, I looked up at the blue sky and imagined him on the plane, surrounded by strangers. I said a little prayer to Gram to watch over him and keep him safe.

Two goodbyes: one an ending, the other a beginning — two souls set free.

Reader JoAnn Kirkland lives on Shelter Island.


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