Coulda fooled us. Didn’t every mother teach her hatchlings to hush when an oriole was in the yard? To rush out and scatter halves of oranges, the winged things’ sweet reward for populating her old oaks? Doesn’t everyone get daily, heck, hourly if warranted, phone calls with up-to-the-minute news of the baby screech owls whose mama pirated the wood duck house, high up in the trees, and taught her babies to fly, right over my mama’s head?
When you grew up with my mama, you took these things for granted. You had no clue how much you’d learned, how much she’d taught you about creation while other children were merely trying to memorize the capitals of Algeria and Bolivia, and, perhaps, the Republic of Congo.
It came slowly to my attention one day sitting in the newsroom when an extremely intelligent friend of mine, a friend who grew up in Queens, was wondering what the red bird was, not the one with the orange belly, she said, but the one that was red all over.
You mean the cardinal? I asked, as if she’d asked which letter followed C.
But you didn’t even look that up in a book, she cried, unnecessarily impressed.
Well, no. But my mama is the original Mother Nature. Or at least my original Mother Nature, my very own earth mama. And some things, you just absorb.
Indeed, I and my four fraternal nestlings, each of us has tales to tell about growing up assuming dinner conversations, even tense ones, would regularly be interrupted for the latest sighting of a flash of scarlet or orange or indigo. Or making the fifteenth round trip to the nature preserve, far enough away, little chipmunk bumping along in the back in some towel-cushioned box, because my mother didn’t like what the chipmunks were doing to her poppies, so she moved them —the chipmunks, not the poppies — one by one.
My brother David remembers the parish priest pointing to my mother and calling her a pantheist, one who finds God everywhere. Hmm. My brother, then and even now, couldn’t tell if the old priest meant that as damnation or salvation. Sometimes you just can’t tell with these people of the cloth.
But far as I could tell, the padre could only mean it kindly. For my mother’s reverence for the divine in every romping squirrel, unfurling maiden fern, hopping jenny wren is, well, the very definition of divine.
Her whole life, or all the parts I know, is a narrative with nature snapshots glued on every crucial page. the who-what-where is often faded, but the 3-by-5s of heaven here on earth are bright and clear and lasting.
I still remember the hush in her voice, the goosebumps on my spine, when she called, in the aching hollow days just after my father died, to tell me she now knew, because of a hawk, that my father was safe and well, and very much at peace.
Seems she’d been out walking Dickens, our beloved golden retriever, near a woods, and the hawk, out of nowhere, came swooping from the clouds, nearly brushed her head, circled tightly, and then went on. As my mother told it, serenely, other-worldly, it was word from my father: She needn’t worry, needn’t be afraid. He was safe, the hawk was saying; she could carry on.
And so, of course, she did.
Just days before my first was born, a days-old fawn somehow made it to my mother’s garden and curled up inside a window well, where all day long it waited, as its mama was off chomping leaves and grasses (most likely someone’s garden).
The mama deer, smart lady, knew in that way that nature does that my mama was safe harbor, and the little fawn would be duly watched all day.
Again, my mama took it as a sign that all would be well in my delivery room. And it was.
I will admit that when I was young (a long, long time ago), I didn’t always love that I had Mother Nature for a mama. All the other girls, I swear, had moms who took them out to lunch in malls and shopped for clothes in pink. I had a mother wearing mud-splotched wellies and knee-worn jeans. Her accessory of choice was the binoculars roped around her neck. She was panning the heavens for shockingly painted feathers, while the mothers of my friends were poring over racks of what was new for spring.
But now I am old enough to remember how she took me in the woods as a little, little girl, and taught me sacred awe for the trillium, a rare, endangered, three-petaled woodland beauty that returns each spring to those who tiptoe deep enough into the underbrush to discover it once again.
And i am old enough to ask her every question i can think of, knowing, always knowing, there will be an answer. and probably a follow-up phone call, after she has gone to the library or the 1966 World Book that leans beside the binoculars or the Webster’s Unabridged, and looked it up.
I am old enough to know that I must ask it now, before it’s too late. Before I’ll be left to go alone to the library or the World Book or the Webster’s, aching for the answer lady who has taught me most of what I know about the world.
This post is a modified reprint from Pull Up a Chair.
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