Spring

Spring is here to stay, it would appear. While I’m not complaining about the unusual warmth and the budding of the trees we are experiencing here in Virginia( at the end of February, no less) it’s strange and somehow makes me feel a little melancholy. The itch I feel in my fingers, to get into the garden and start digging in the dirt, planting a small, almost invisible seed, getting up every morning, almost as excited as my kids, to check on the progress, brings with it the nostalgia of watching my mother bring home some little start of something green and somehow miraculously, grow it into beautiful, flowering life.

I guess in short, Springtime makes me miss my mom.

It wasn’t a surprise to me, when one morning a few weeks back, while I was standing in my father’s kitchen, although a space my mother never worked in, I felt her presence so very strongly that the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I was preparing food for my nephew’s birthday party, and in a rare moment of quiet solitude, because it was just me and her, somewhere out there in the atmosphere- I told her how much I missed her and wish she could be with us to celebrate the day.

The moment passed as quickly as it had come, and along with it, the pang of emptiness heartache. I finished what I was doing, tugged on my rain boots, rounded up the kids, and headed out into the wide open spaces of cow pastures and fields ready to be planted. The three of us took deep cleansing breaths, all in our own time, it reminded me of a song, a song we all knew, but didn’t need to rehearse. We searched for funny shaped sticks and discussed as to whether they looked more like woodpeckers or a guns…Let’s go with woodpeckers, I urged. Mentally rolling my eyes.

Boys. Sigh…..

We tried to hang from old dead vines and kept up our pace in hopes that we would find the cows that usually pastured in a neighboring field. We walked slow, meandered about, stopped to check out rain puddles.

It was the perfect way to spend a Saturday morning.

We could see the cows further on down the road, and as luck would have it, their keeper was out, feeding them breakfast from bulging piles of delicious hay. We tried to walk faster- hoping to get a front row seat.

Farmer Green (Yes, this was his real name) was on the other side of the electric fence when we approached. Friendly and open, he invited my oldest in to the pasture to meet some of his beauties. They all had names, youngest to oldest;  they stopped munching and stared us as if we were aliens. Auggie, hand in hand with Farmer Green, cautiously walked around to meet these magnificent mamas, and their tiny babies-one was only two days old.

One by one he introduced us to his herd; I was only half listening, as I was chasing my two year old away from the electric fence. I had just noticed her trying to put a round ball of manure and mud into her coat pocket J when my ears perked up because Farmer Green stopped reverently in front of what he referred to as his friendliest and sweetest cow. I took a second to look into her deep brown eyes as I heard him say, ‘Now this one, this one here, her name is Marilyn.’ I stopped messing with Ebba and looked at him, a little bit shocked- what were the chances? He was smiling at her, in a way I couldn’t explain- reverence, pride. But all I could think was, “Marilyn? Her name is Marilyn?”

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. My mother’s name was Marilyn.

And what he said next, made me have to turn away in order to push down the tears that were inevitably to spill over. How do I explain crying in the middle of a pasture, over a cow I had just met? He put his hand out to a calf standing next to ‘Marilyn’- she came over and nuzzled him, and he just said, “And this here- well, this is Marilyn’s little girl.”

I stooped down, trying to make myself busy with whatever so I could brush away the tears.

Marilyn and her little girl- that was once me, and my mother.

While I realize that this story may not resonate with everyone, and lest you think I am comparing my mother to a cow, all I can say is that you would just have to have known my mother. This was a woman who once spent two entire months trying to find a home for a gold fish that she couldn’t keep anymore. She finally found a farm with a pond that passed her standard of humane care, and off they went, I think she may have cried on her way home from dropping them off. When an inherited bird finally reached the end of it’s life, you would have thought her best friend had died, not the bird that it had come from. And at her memorial service, a treasured friend got up to share her memories of how she had met my mother- they had been in the same grief support group. The friend had lost a family member, but my mother was there to figure out how to get over losing her dog. My mother took in every stray thing with at least one leg and a little bit of fur. We had tail-less cats, fish with no eyes, and if it had an ailment, it definitely had a home with us. We always called it, “Marilyn’s Mission of Mercy.” We teased her, but oh, how we loved her for it.

So of course, OF COURSE, she would connect with me in this way on a lazily perfect Saturday morning in the middle of a cow pasture. She knows me, and knows that I know her, and although it’s been 7 years and my life will have forever shifted because of it, I believe that if I just pay attention, just take the time to notice, she will continue to show me her presence in my life in such sweet and simple ways.

How lucky I am to have these things- these connections with her. How lucky I am to have learned this person, who for all her quirks and passions, in the living of being her truest self, has allowed me to find her time and time again- because of that.

Someday, when I’m gone, and hopefully Auggie and Ebba will be much older than I am today when that happens- but I hope that they will be out in their garden, and be in a time and space where they quietly notice and remember me for just being me- the good, the bad, the funny, and the weird. Just the way I remember my mother today.

One of the greatest things you can leave behind is the memory that you were wholly and completely yourself in this life, because those moments of connection are not only for you while you are living, but will continue to bring connection for others, long after we are gone.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. But the connection is possible, and in that, we carry on.

 

 

 

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The Gift in Our Struggle

 

It’s a few days before Christmas. It’s on the brink of getting dark- I’m parked in a grocery store parking lot, both my kids are asleep in the back seat. As we wait for Erik to come out of the store with the few things we still need for Christmas dinner, I am about to doze off enveloped in the warmth of the car, when a knock on the window lurches me quickly upright. I peer through the window and see a middle aged man standing by my car, with a wad of cash in his hand- although the light is dim, I can sense a cloud of worry and stress surrounding him. I don’t know why, maybe so that we are more equal this way, I open my entire door, instead of just rolling down the window, and ask if I can help him. He’s embarrassed. A little bit desperate. He explains that his car keeps dying at every stop light. He thinks it’s the battery. He has $76 dollars and he’s pretty sure a new one will cost him $100- can I spare anything to help him?

He says he’s just trying to get home.

I have a bird’s eye view of myself sitting in another car, almost 30 years earlier- same sort of deal. Two children sleeping in the backseat, I’m manning the front- only this time, the kids are my younger sister and baby brother. It’s Christmastime, I know that- and it’s cold, I feel like it’s raining. Something has happened to the car we are in, it won’t run anymore, and we are not even remotely close to home, but there is an urgency to get there as quickly as possible, I am conscious of that, but I don’t know why.

My awareness comes back to the man standing in front of me. I remember that I have $20 in my wallet and I dig it out of my bag and hand it to him. There are tears of relief in his eyes, furthering his embarrassment. I wish there was more I could do, I say to him. He thanks me for the help and wishes me a Merry Christmas- I see him drive by a few moments later in a late model car that appears to back up his claim.

My youngest begins to stir, Erik comes out of the grocery store, and my time is not for investigating the past right now, and so I forget about it all until I have one of those rare pockets of time alone with my dad. We go for a short ride and then a walk along the Piney River; in the winter, it’s my favorite. I run a bit and then fall into pace beside him. Bundled up, we point out the woodpeckers and chat about the level of the river. We sweet talk the coon dog that has come to trot alongside us and watch him meander along, back to his home. As we lean against his truck, I relay to him the story of the man in the parking lot, and how it brought back this memory-but it’s so spotty. What happened? Where were we? Help me fill in the blanks-

It’s was New Year’s Eve, actually, he says. My mother was so very sick- she had spent Christmas in the hospital. Without going into too much detail, the culmination of losing her family as a young child, combined with the demands of her own young children, had sent her down into an indescribably deep, dark place- one of which I am still afraid to think about too much, for too long. Her brother’s family had offered to help out by keeping us kids over the Christmas vacation so my dad could have a break, but they quickly realized how overwhelming we were and called my dad a few days later asking him to come and get us.  Without a question, my dad climbs into the car, drives non-stop for five hours, loads us up in minutes, without even turning the car off, and gets us the hell out of there.

He was trying to outrun a few things right then, I suspect, but the most pressing of them was a huge ice storm that was taking over the Midwest. In my mind’s memory, I can see us kids, giddy to be back with someone who loved us, singing along to Christmas carols gleefully, completely naïve to the struggle that had become my father’s life.

That’s the beauty of childhood- or what every child should be allowed to have.

And what a beautiful man to absorb it all, in order to let us have that.

My dad goes on to recount that, as if it weren’t enough, as we raced down icy highways cutting through Indiana corn fields, he can remember watching the dash lights of the car grow dimmer and dimmer as the odometer hit 100,000 miles. He knew what was happening. The alternator was going out. We coasted to a stop some 30 miles down the road, ending up on the edge of an industrial town along the Ohio River.

He says he just couldn’t believe it, and all he could think was: “What am I going to do?” These were the days before mobiles and GPS- there was no location app to help him find the nearest auto repair shop, or cell phone to call AAA for help. He got out of the car, to keep breathing instead of freaking out. He looked around. Off in the distance he could see what he thought was an auto parts store and so putting me, the eldest, in charge, ordered us to lock all the doors and under no circumstances were we to talk to strangers (these were the days when you could do such things) and took off running, with a prayer on his lips and an ache in his heart, for an alternator.

It’s 5:50pm on New Year’s Eve, 1991. A stressed and worried, middle aged man walks through the door- the bell, attached to signal customer entry, rings hollow.  The man stands at the counter with a hand full of cash and explains his car has just died. He knows it’s the alternator, and can even replace it himself, if they have one. He’s in luck, they do. It’ll cost him $120. Problem is, he’s only got $80. What’s he going to do?

He’s got a check! It’s good, he promises. Sales clerk looks at it, shakes his head- no out of town checks accepted. His boss would kill him. The man frantically explains that he’s got three little kids waiting back in the car and the ice is coming. The clerk is sorry- but there’s not really much he can do. The man rifles through his wallet- looking nervously out the window in the direction of the car that has his life in it. He’s got an ATM card for a Cincinnati bank- would it work here, even though he’s still in Indiana? The sale’s clerk looks at his watch, then stares at the man who is peering out at him from wire rimmed glasses, nervously waiting for an answer. He lets out his breath. He thinks there’s a 5/3 Bank on the other side of town.

The clerk makes a split decision that will impact someone else stranded in a parking lot, 30 years later.

And he decides to help.

Pulling the alternator off the shelf, he closes up shop, drives my dad across town to the ATM where he’s able to get the rest of the cash, then drops him off, where, thank God, we were still locked in the stranded car, moderately happy. He manages to replace the part and get us home without any more drama worth retelling, but the details of that day were obviously etched in his memory forever.

We both came back to the Piney River, after time traveling to a place and a time, that was difficult then, and somehow, even harder now. On opposite sides of the truck, and with the sound of the running river muffling out the sound of our sniffles and tears, I was able to thank my father for his struggle that day. Had it not been for that moment- that wretched and stressful day so many years ago, I might have been more suspicious, might not have connected, might not have made the decision to help the man standing there in the grocery store parking lot those few days before Christmas.

Hearing him retell this story, and thinking of it from his perspective now as an adult, as a parent, just as a human being, makes my heart ache for the many more stories of struggle he has yet to retell. But I look at him now and see a strong and capable man who has quietly maneuvered his way through life, and taught me so much, just in the living of it all.

He has modeled the truth for me: I will struggle, day in and day out, from the moment my feet hit the floor in those early morning hours- but it’s not ever all about me. I may see it as mine, but I am understanding that the reason we struggle is also so that others may gain strength, so that those around us can become better versions of themselves, better versions of us.

We will most likely not witness the impact of our dealings on others, but it is there- it has to be, because we are all one giant web of interconnectedness- we are humanity. We are each other. And when we beg for the burden to be lifted, are we then keeping someone else for whom the effects of the struggle were meant for, from actually getting what they need?

If we view the struggle as being more than just what it seems in that moment for a solitary self, then it seems insurmountable, exhausting, and unnecessary. But if we allow the purpose of all of the life stuff to sink in, and surrender to it-because life WILL have it’s way-then I wonder how much less striving we will have to do in the first place. Maybe there will be acceptance, and while challenging and painful, hectic and heart numbing, it will be just like all the other worthy things in life- work, learning, and in the end, triumph.

Today is my dad’s 65th birthday. It’s hard to verbalize what this man, who is partly responsible for bringing me into the world, and sustaining me with his presence, perseverance and character, means to me. All I can say is thank you- Thank you, Dad, for surrendering to the struggle. I know you don’t feel like you had much choice, but your decisions made me who I am today, and for that, I am truly grateful.

If there is one thing I have learned in my short, yet struggle filled years, it’s that life doesn’t ask us for our permission about anything, however, it will always require a response.

Surrender to the struggle, my friend, because it’s more than just about you- if you let it, it will change not only your life, but could impact someone else’s. Someone standing in a grocery store parking lot, 30 years from now.