Walking Our Mothers
Something has switched between us, our roles are reversed, my hand is leading hers. A late summer sun sears our backs, shadows our faces. The meadow crests into nothingness, a clean sweep of hill emblazed by blue sky. Our feet seek the seam of hard packed clay between tall grasses going to seed. Our pace finds a rhythm in the rising heat, up the trail to a dusty summit.
My mother’s breath softens as a female marsh hawk skims over the abandoned orchard ahead of us. With deep chocolate and taupe feathers, the hawk pivots her head to the right, then to the left, searching for any scurrying vole, field mouse or exposed songbird. Our legs imitate her sweeping confidence, her owning of this place.
My mother used to be my link to the world beyond the door, my anchor, when I was so little and light, I felt like I could lift off in a slight breeze. She opened the door for my brother and me to a quiet pond in the northern Michigan woods. Throughout dramatic changes in her life — going back to school, divorce, single-motherhood — my mother kept our cabin as a place of refuge, a center point for all our wanderings. We spent summers playing in mucky pond sand and writing our own lore on the pink undersides of birch bark. The dark canopy of white pine and northern spruce hid our “bear dens” and secret places. The pond and the woods were the world where we moved beyond boundaries, from doorstep to cattails, from chores to our imagination. Unless it was raining or time for bed, we could not quiet the day that called to us with its insistent humming.
We followed our mother into meadows of knee-high blueberry bushes before the deer and bears could fill their bellies with the tart, wild fruit. We floated out to meet her on plastic rafts, the water cool to our fingers and toes, out to where she gleamed, oil-covered, in the sun. She showed us how to create rock animals, collages of driftwood, shells, and leaves with the pooling miracle of Elmer’s Glue. She wove macramé from a low branch at the water’s edge, the wind sifting both her hair and the rough ropes in pulses. She crafted owl-shaped wall hangings into shape, catching thick sticks with their knotted talons.
When did it change, when did we crossover? When did I begin to lead her out into fields, into the brightness of the larger world? Was she the mother, the child, or the friend guided out of grief by another? The boundaries of our roles suddenly blurred as we closed our eyes from the sun, relieved for the moment by a brief, total darkness.
My mother visits Portland in mid-August, deep within our “dog days”, which is the most deceptive time to visit. The thought of rain, the memory of it, is as parched as the glaciers graying on the mountains. Her visit is to be short — over the weekend we will attend a 60th wedding anniversary party for her best friend’s parents. Friends and family are flying in from all over the country, joy at reuniting lifting them above the reality of the bride’s ailing health, that this might be their last chance to be with her. In the cloudless sky, their planes approach from the east, brilliant white birds winging their way to land.
It is a necessary trip for my mother, whose own mother died suddenly in May. Since then, she has not stepped back from the daily chore of living, and this trip might give her a chance to catch her breath. As the only child of her parents, she makes weekly, four-hour trips to visit her father. Her job as a medical office manager and the taking care of her husband and their six dogs and cats have taken its visible toll. She is weary, heavy eyed, and close to tears, especially throughout the celebration.
At the party we sip wine, refold our linen napkins after the luncheon. We relax into the groom’s words of gratitude, how full his life has been because of his bride, their children, grandchildren and friends. We all become fragile and open in the heat, with the wine, and with his declarations. After the couple kisses for the crowd clanging on their crystal, my mother excuses herself and leaves the room. I don’t follow her.
Motherless, she is finally at a loss, she is lost. She cannot chill her sadness with dismissive busyness. On vacation, there is nothing to do, no one to manage. My mother has never been without her mother, and no one has ever trusted solely in me to figure out the next step.
In the late afternoon, my large, cool house welcomes us back with its thick mahogany doors, crown molding, and leaded windows. We wait out the afternoon as if waiting for a storm to break, the good clearing that comes from thunderclaps and a sharp, summer rain. I have washed and spread out new, striped sheets on the futon, tuckingin all the corners the way my nurse/mother taught me. Fluffed and stacked pillows promise her a dark and dreamless sleep.
My mother and I fall into an easy routine whenever she visits — the parading of new clothes, full photo albums, and gifts from her deep leather bag. We continue this way, unfolding, dropping the day around us like new, tight shoes. Open windows let the evening air sift in, heavy with the scent of blackberries ripening along the street. A moth invites itself in and heads for the lit candle in a brilliant death wish.
We sip tea and the night wraps around us like a thin shawl. She lets me break out my tarot deck (a Zen Buddhist deck, not very witchy for a conservative, Lutheran mother), and watches the cards deliver messages for us to decipher. The images are full of lone figures, many of children on cliffs, at gates, on shadowy paths. Each are about to leap off, embark on a strange journey. There is no longer any pretense. No one, not even me, can tether her and she comes loose. She sits on a pile of pillows, low to the ground, where she can finally be grounded, cry, and begin to grieve.
By morning, her face is sheet-stained and pink. I pour her a cup of strong coffee with cream and pull back the curtains. We sit on the porch rocking chairs like a couple of old ladies, watching the birds along the calm, blanched street. Later, I will take her to an appointment with my massage therapist and then to lunch with her best friend. But first, we decide to hike up to the summit of Powell Butte.
We arrive at the gravel parking lot and the dog leaps out of the car and begins her mouse-pouncing dance. All the mountains are visible with low, hazy clouds circling them like skirts. My mother’s midwestern trained eyes lift up as I scan the trees and air for any bird crossing or calling. We take a trail up to a wide and wild meadow — from here I have seen fox and kestrels, western meadowlarks and lazuli buntings. Today, purple vetch twines around the tall grasses. Barn swallows nip at the air, chatting with each other past our shoulders. A marsh hawk takes off from her silent fence post and the air suddenly clears, severed by her low soaring.
A rail-tie map at the summit radiates 360 degrees, pointing to the buttes and extinct and active volcanoes, etched below: Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Silverstar, Mt. Adams, Rocky Butte, The West Hills, Mt. Jefferson, and Jenne Butte. An old pear orchard leans silver, yet heavy with fruit in the nearly silent morning. The lightness that surrounds us contrasts with the night before, it lends a clarity about what is best to do for my mother, the flailing child. Beyond carefully mapped streets and their funneled traffic, the curve of the land is uncemented and alive. Our walking feels like a meditation into something fuller than this ordinary day. We can love ourselves, our situations and losses, and the land by following a thin vein of trails and accepting the given, imperfect views. Corridors to our buried hearts, we can learn to traverse our pain into another way of being, into a new identity. From child to mother to crone to crone. There is no promise of arrival, only an unending ramble.
We grow warm under our layers, and by the time we get back to the car we are thirsty and hungry. The day’s schedule waits. My mother will receive her first body massage, will walk down the crowded sidewalk like a woman floating. My hand will let go as she finds her own way past the bookstores, flower vendors and musicians. She will be suspended above her grief, even for such a small moment. Buoyed by her first solo flight, she will be confident that there is someone below waiting for her when she lands.