It was a bittersweet rite of pig passage.
Two and half years ago, my mom, Estelle Fried, died in Harrisburg at the age of 82. She left behind three sons, two daughters-in-law, a grandson, a brother, a brother-in-law, and sister-in-law, a gaggle of nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends — and enough pig tchotchkes to fill the Swine Room at the Farm Show.
Mom had a thing for toy pigs, and there were herds of them all over her condo. There were porcelain pig statues, elaborate pig wood carvings, a framed Miss Piggy Time magazine cover, and more heavy pig-shaped doorstops than there were doors in her residential community. There were pigs on wind vanes, pigs on wheels, pigs painted on footstools, pig salt and pig pepper shakers, coffee mugs, and every possible shape of piggy bank. Combining her obsessions, Mom even had Penn State-themed pig art depicting Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web and a web with “Go Blue” woven into it.
With support from family, friends, and clergy, my brothers and I worked our way through the strange grief of middle-age orphanhood. When our dad died from cancer over 20 years ago, the pain was searing. Mom’s death was different: more of a sustained ache over the loss of the last eyewitness to our childhood memories, the last person with guilting and convening cred to keep family traditions going, and the last creator of comfort foods.
It was rough cleaning out Mom’s house. We held a low-key estate sale for all the dishes and furniture nobody in the family could use. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to sell her pigs — and we couldn’t just toss them out, either.
So, we dutifully wrapped and stored four large containers of them. But we separated out a dozen pigs we hoped might someday find a special home: Uncle Will’s Pancake House in Beach Haven, our family’s go-to breakfast spot on Long Beach Island, where we have summered for decades. Its big square dining room is redolent with the smell of fresh pancakes and coffee and bustles with the sounds of fast waiters and slowly-waking kids, some dragged there in pajamas, still sleeping off the previous day in the sun.
My mom always loved Uncle Will’s, a historic shore restaurant that has had a pig theme since the 1970s. The sign out front has a big pig, the menus are full of piggy puns, the high chairs are pig-shaped (a little scary, but the kids seem to like them). And a high display shelf that runs all the way around the room has always been home to the restaurant’s porcine gallery.
No wonder it was my mom’s happy place, although she did covet some of those pigs for her collection.
In the months after my mom died, so did two other close family members, followed by my mother’s best friend. Then there was a fire at the Shore house, which had to be rebuilt. And then my mother-in-law died. By the time I came across the U-Haul box marked “Pigs for Uncle Will’s” in the closet where my brothers and I had “temporarily” stored it, more than two years had passed.
“OK,” I thought. “I have to do this.”
So, a couple of weeks ago, as Shore season was coming to its weather-beaten end, I finally took the box to Uncle Will’s. Co-owner Margie Stewart, a friendly middle-aged woman who has always been kind to us, had me set the box on a table near the front door — the same table where my mom sat the last time she ate there in 2016. As I took my mom’s treasures out of the box, Margie squealed with delight. One of the pigs had a busted ear, but the rest had survived in their packing paper.
Margie thanked the family effusively and promised to display the pigs. Since it was the middle of August, the peak of the season, I didn’t expect to see them until next year. But just in case, I stopped for breakfast at Uncle Will’s a few days later — just me, my New York Times and my BlackBerry. And when I looked at the shelf above my table, I saw four of Mom’s prized pigs, grinning from ear to ear.
I thought to myself that it probably wouldn’t be cool if I burst out crying in the middle of the breakfast service — although some cranky, hungry kids were already weeping, so it might have been OK. Instead, I took a couple of pictures with my phone to show my family, then scrolled through my archive to Labor Day weekend 2016, and the last shots I had of my mom, sitting right here. I took my time finishing my omelet, pancakes, turkey sausage, and way too much coffee. Then I went to the car and had a good cry.
My parents’ grave site may be in Central Pennsylvania, but I feel closest to them at the Shore, where they were always at their happiest. When we lost dad, I always imagined his spirit residing just past the last jetty wall on the southern tip of Long Beach Island, and I sometimes go there to talk to him. Now that my mom’s precious pigs are keeping watch at Uncle Will’s, I imagine her spirit is there, too. It makes me happy in a way I never could have anticipated.
Meanwhile, there are a few more pigs left to bequeath — Uncle Will’s could accept only so many. My brothers and I would love to find them equally appropriate homes. Any takers?
Stephen Fried, author of “RUSH,” lives and writes in Philadelphia and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at stephenfried.com.