Today is the 75th anniversary of my parents’ marriage. They only got 51 of those years together.
They met as co-workers at the Tennessee Valley Authority, where he was a college graduate at his first real job; she was secretary to management. He was a happily displaced Michigander; she grew up in the shadow of the Appalachians, the trails of which became their courting grounds.
They fell in love on the brink of World War II, she refusing through their letters to each other while he was in officer training at New York University to tell him she loved him, even as he poured out his heart to her. He nearly gave up. She never told him why she wouldn’t say the words in the letters she saved for nearly eight decades. But she told me. “I needed to be sure. We had never even spent time alone together. The mail was not a good foundation for a relationship.”
She moved to Spokane, Washington to work a Civil Service job. She hated Spokane. He finished his meteorologist training and moved to an air base in Texas. Thinking he would remain there for the duration, he made a rare phone call to her.
“Do you wanna get married?” he said. “Yes,” she said.
Two weeks later they were joined for life at the biggest church in Dallas, the only venue he could book on short notice, with his friend and her sister the only attendees.
Six weeks after that he got his orders and spent the next three years in Europe.
When he returned, after a brief re-employment with TVA, they moved to Washington.
The rest, as they say, is history.
After 23 years apart following his death in 1995, I want to believe they are celebrating this anniversary together again.
I’ve been thinking for some time it’s been too long since I saw my neighbor and one of these days I needed to go knock on his door with muffins or homemade soup. At 91, he has had some heart health issues this fall. I’ve been concerned, I check in with his daughter now and then, but I’ve not rung his doorbell for a while. You know how it is, best intentions.
I’ve been thinking for some time it’s been too long since I walked in the woods. How many times have I promised myself to get in there at least once a week? You know how it is, best intentions.
After Thanksgiving weekend with the Littles and their moms here at Three of Earth Farm, I didn’t go to Seattle for my weekly 30 hour gig away from home―including five hours driving time―and by Tuesday it already felt like I had an expanse of time not usually available. When the rain stopped and the sun unexpectedly came out, I went out in my orange rain boots to check on the supply of firewood left to lie in the woods near the house when the man I hired to cut and split a fallen tree just stopped working on it.
After seeing there is indeed still a lot of wood scattered about that’s small enough for burning if I pull it out from under branches and blackberry vines and wheelbarrow it down the trail to the rack where the supply is rapidly diminishing, I spontaneously head across the meadow to the trail by the barn to walk in my mother’s playground. She didn’t hike in the mountains like I do, but hour for hour, she spent far more time on the trail than I.
Reaching the main trail, I see Robert coming toward me. He has walked the trails most every day for years, but for the past several months I was thinking he wasn’t able to. I’m ecstatic to see him out and about again. His dog Gracie trots down the trail toward me. I’m not a dog lover, but I am very fond of Gracie. I put my arms around her broad neck and pull her in close; then give Robert a hug when he reaches us.
We stand on the trail and talk. I have no where else to be and nothing else I need to be doing that is more important than this. Robert had emailed me a month or two ago that he had discovered an apple tree on the trail he’d never noticed before; spotted it because it bore a single apple. I haven’t figured out where it is and I ask him now. Turns out we are standing under it. It’s spindly and unformed, imitating the miles of vine maple in these woods. No wonder no one noticed it. It’s near where there were remnants of a rotting ancient puncheon road when I was a child, the boards that kept the wagon wheels from sinking into mud on alleged cattle drives through here, returned to soil now.
Robert muses that a wagon driver—or maybe a child sitting on the back, legs dangling—threw an apple core out and a seed took hold. The single apple was good, he says, maybe a Gravenstein.
We go on to reminisce about our former neighbors. The Holits were a German couple, still with thick accents even after decades in the States. I told Robert I remembered making fudge with Margaret at Christmas, standing on a stool in front of her stove stirring the bubbling chocolate. When their house was cleaned out, after they moved to California to live near their son, I happened to be home and acquired the spoon we used to stir the fudge, it’s end worn down from years of scraping the bottom of the hot pot. He tells me, when the home sat empty for a time, he found a box of silverware overlooked on top of a beam in the basement; and later a box of sample awards ribbons from, presumably, Gene’s father’s family business in Germany before WWI in a dark corner, and something (I’ve forgotten what) with the Kaiser’s picture on it.
Robert remembers helping Gene cross the steeply sloping road to get his mail out of the box. Paying it forward, as it turns out, he says, as now the Holit’s niece, who raised her children in her aunt and uncle’s house, brings Robert his mail. (I really need to get my newly purchased mailbox painted and back in its rightful place between theirs.) We’re silent for a moment then, remembering times and people who are gone.
He tells me another maple tree fell recently behind his house. These damp woods that were my childhood playground are so old. The big leaf maples are nearing the end of their long lives, their grey crowns broken and leafless. They are host to mosses and licorice fern, adding to the rain forest feel of these woods. Lichen clings to everything, making the forest look like a host of hoary old men.
I go on to Staebler Point, and Robert and Gracie continue their trek home. I turn back toward the house as the clouds drop into the trees, rendering the forest mysterious and a little spooky in the mist. As I walk back through the now empty arching vine maples where we had stood talking, I realize that, like my mother and father and the Holits and Robert’s wife Sandy, someday Robert will no longer grace these woods with his presence. Like the maples, we all come to the end.
I’m hanging up my coat as the earlier rains return, pouring onto the roof I need to clean off again. Just a pocket of time, snatched for a rendezvous in the woods with a neighbor. I vow—again—to stop by more often, and hope I run into Robert and Gracie.
I found this poem when I Googled big leaf maple (acer macrophyllum). Overlooking the exclusive language, it seems a serendipitous find.
A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love. – Basil
As I stand in the window this Thanksgiving morning and watch the sky change minute by minute, tears slide down my cheeks. Missing my mother. Imagining her standing in this very spot through the years of her seasonal depression watching this same sky, while I was emotionally and physically far away. I know it lifted her spirits.
When I arrived back on the scene in 2012, her vision was gradually fading. I tried to describe the sunrise to her, hoping the thousands of photographs she took of it would flood her memory. But she could only say, “I can’t see it,” not understanding how to “see” it differently. I hope she sees it now.
I don’t have clarity about my grief. Do I miss her presence, or did I start missing that long before she died? And which am I grieving now? Or is it my distance from her for so many years that I grieve and regret? I stand here seeing the sun rise through her eyes. I stand here watching the sunrise through my eyes on her behalf.
Thank you, Universe. Thank you, One Who Is More. Thank you, Mama.
…i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth day of life and love and wings and of the gay great happening illimitably earth…
She’s been gone six months and eleven days. It seems like forever. It feels like she was never here, that I was never buried in caregiving, that she was never driving me to the brink. That I didn’t lie in my bed at night crying, promising myself that this was not my forever and not believing it.
But I’m revising my memoir again, attempting to reduce it by 40,000 words before I pay an editor to read the rest of them, and I remember. She was here. She was driving me to the brink. And I miss her.
Yesterday I finally cleaned out the rest of her dresser drawers in preparation for giving away the bedroom furniture she and my father got when I was in junior high or maybe before that. That’s when I got the dresser they bought used when they started living married, three years after the wedding when my father returned from the war; but maybe it had been stashed in the basement until I got my own bedroom. I still have that dresser and I want to use it again.
My mother was quite the collector of jewelry, very little of which I remember her wearing. Some pieces still have the price tag attached. Some that people, including me, made for her. Some of it may be her mother’s. Sometime, while she could still see and write, perhaps with the help of her favorite paid companion, she went through it all and wrote notes on many pieces, so my sisters and I would know its origins. She never got rid of any of it.
I didn’t know she had a “love” of horses (or what it means in quotation marks). I think there is much I didn’t know about her. And I wish I had known the questions to ask.
Along with dozens of scarves and piles of my father’s plain white handkerchiefs, it fills the four dresser drawers I crammed it in when I cleaned out the other seven drawers for my own use. I touch each piece, most still in original boxes, as I put them in bigger boxes.
This is what I miss: her being young and acquiring this jewelry. When she went to church and concerts and her favorite restaurants and traveled with my father. When she wore necklaces around her neck rather than her dark glasses to cover her regular glasses outside; instead of her hearing aid remote; rather than the pendant to call for an aide to help her in the bathroom.
This is what bring tears: when my father bought jewelry for his love and sent it across the ocean to her, longing to be there himself.
This piece of jewelry was in the box with this note, but since she is wearing it in the photo above–taken, I believe, before he went overseas–it does not go with the note. Unless the story I thought I knew is inaccurate. I wish I could clarify it with her. I wish she would have remembered if I had asked.
This is the mother I miss: the one who every year at Christmas wore the clip-on holly leaf earrings I made in fourth grade art until she lost one, or it broke. Insisting she loved them, until I finally understood one year that it was me she loved.
I put the two stuffed boxes in the basement, then go back and get out her multi-strand pearl necklace. I don’t know if the pearls are even real, and I can’t picture myself wearing them. I just need her close by.
“…To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.” —Mary Oliver