Saturday, May 30, 2009
The date was planned for a Saturday in late April. Mom was going to come out to her place without Dad so they could go scavenging for plants along the creek and through the woods. She had told her Mom about the big clumps of snowdrops along the stream, the horsetail ferns, oak leaf ferns, dutchman's breeches and the patches of trout lilies out in the woods where she hiked with her dog every day. It was prime time for collecting. She was excited at the prospect spending time with her mother, a rarity in their lives, a day alone together. She had had a tumultuous, over-long adolescence, and now at 22, their relationship had finally blossomed, and her love for her Mom filled her heart as it had when she was a little girl.
Mom arrived, carrying gloves and buckets and trowels along with bug spray and a small reference book on native plants and wildflowers. Always the teacher, always looking to learn, she wanted to know the names of what ever they came across that she could not readily identify. Off they went each of them carrying a bucket, Mom relentlessly spraying bug juice all over both of them despite her daughter's objections to the nasty chemical element. Both of her parents were chemists and a mantra in their home when she was young was ' life itself would be impossible without chemicals', a saying anathema in the newly environmentally conscious 70's. But regardless, Mom made sure that they were both chemically protected against any insect attack.
She carried a backpack with a cool water in a mason jar, a couple of shiny red apples, a bag of homemade granola, and as a surprise , some chocolate covered cherries that she had bought knowing they were Mom's favorite. They headed out on the path to the swimming hole to look for ferns first. Her Mother was delighted with the beauty of the woods, the graceful sweep of hemlock branches over the trail, the burbling sound of the water flowing over rocks in the creek. This was a treat beyond measure for her, a day with her daughter, a day outside in the woods. Living in a suburban development, raising four children, teaching at a private school and being married to a man who was not in the least interested in any outdoor activities other than mowing the lawn and puttering around the house, had deprived her of days like this for over 20 years.
They stopped at the swimming hole and she told her Mom about how lovely and cooling it was in the heat of the summer to slide down into the dark water, to sit under the small waterfall, hearing only the sound of the rushing water, leaving the world behind and seeing it only as a blur though a warped glass curtain. She tried to convey the magic of the place, this spot she came to for solitude. Her Mom seemed to get it , wishing it was warm enough to take a dip, wishing she had a place like this to escape to at the end of the day and vowing to come back in the summer when it was warmer.
They wandered on down the path, chatting casually, listening to the birds emerging song, enjoying the peace of the day. Somewhere along the way, the purpose of their walk in the woods was forgotten as they were captured by the spell of early Spring in the forest. They followed the path out into the pasture where the creek narrowed and deepened, and decided to take a rest at the fishing hole, a deep pool at the base of a huge Sycamore tree whose roots wound over the banks forming a natural bench. They sipped from the mason jar and crunched their apples in silence for a while, tossing small handfuls of granola into the water so the sunfish could have a picnic too.
Then her Mom started talking about her life when she was 22. She lived in an apartment in Queens with her parents and her sister who was 10 years younger. Her parents, especially her father were very strict and old fashioned. He did not want to see her dating, even though she had completed 4 years of college, and had been one of a handful of women graduating with a degree in chemistry, at the top of her class. He was overly protective and did not believe that any man could be good enough for his intelligent eldest daughter. Her mother sympathized with her plight, however, and would meet the prospective dates, who had to come into the kitchen via the fire escape. She would then meet her date downstairs with her father thinking she was going out with her girl friends. There was one of these young men who caught her fancy, and she fell in love. She told her mother who then talked her father into allowing her to date this fine young man. In time they felt that they wanted to marry and start a family. When they approached her father with their intentions, he said he needed to discus this with his daughter alone. When he questioned her about how long she had been seeing this fellow, wasn't it a little too soon, she admitted to him how she had been sneaking out to see him for quite a while, with out revealing her mother's complicity. He was furious and the answer to his next question sent him reeling. They were devout Catholics, and her boyfriend was Jewish. There was no way in the world that he would allow such a match. In that day and time, in his Italian culture, this was an unimpeachable impossibility. He was not to be moved from his stance. And so,with her heart broken, she ended the relationship. She later met a man who was just barely acceptable to her father and they married with his reluctant blessing.
Her Mom told this story while staring into the swirling water, lost in the memory of her ill-fated first love and the implicit fact that she had had to choose a different man, a man of whom her parents would approve, not the one she truly loved. Her eyes were glistening and filled with regret even then, more than 25 years later. This was a tale she had never told her children. How could she, when it would cast a shadow over her marriage to their Dad, how they would not even exist if she'd stood up to her father and married her first love? It was a story that she had told no one, up until that day sitting by the fishing hole with her daughter.
She put an arm around her Mom and gave her a long hug and then pulled the half-melted cherries out of her back pack and offered them to her. She accepted them with a smile of pleasure. Their mood lightened as they sat in silence eating their messy chocolates, then her Mom threw her apple core to the sunfish who had now gathered like beggars along the edge of the creek, got up and declared that it was time to get moving. They wandered back on the other bank of the creek and dug up some snowdrops along the way, more to have something to show for their expedition, and to give a reason for carrying the buckets the whole day. They made their way through the woods back to her home, tired, sticky with apple juice and melted chocolate, but with fuller hearts than when they started. Her Mom had shared a precious memory, had allowed her a glimpse into her most private self, and in the sharing brought them closer than ever before.
Mom insisted on planting the snowdrops by her daughter's door right away, then gathered up her buckets and gloves and trowels. They both agreed that this had been a wonderful day and that they should have many more of these days in the future. There were countless places to go, gardens to dig, weekends away ahead of them, and they parted with a promise to plan many such outings in the future. Little did they know then that this was never to be. Like the silent, hateful disease that it is, her Mom's breast cancer reoccurred and metastasized, sending her on a 15 year journey through chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries, alternative treatments, and painful procedures with a will to live that astounded her family. But it would not be beaten. In spite of her desire to fight, she finally had to say enough. Ultimately, final good byes were spoken and her Mom moved on, leaving her daughter bereft and brokenhearted.
Now in a home of her own many years later, with the memory of her Mom ever in her heart, she has snowdrops blooming by her door at the end of each winter. They bring with them the warm promise of Spring and the lovely memory of that day spent wandering in the woods with her beloved Mom. That day was a cherished gift that she has carried for 30 years and will carry with her until they meet again.