Mothers are special creatures in all of nature, and if that’s true, then grandmothers fall right into the same category. That’s why it was always such a sweet privilege for me to share my thoughts about mothers and grandmothers in my weekly column for the last 27 years each Mothers’ Day. This week, I thought it would be fun to share a couple of those columns from many years ago. Of course my mother and my grandmothers are long gone from this mortal earth, but the gifts they gave and the spirit they shared with me and the rest of their progeny are with all of us every day.
My mother lives just down the street. We talk regularly. The other day I told her I was going fishing.
“Fishing? Haven’t you heard about the winter storm watch?”
“Yes mom, I know about the weather, but the trip is on.”
“You’re not going alone are you? There’s nothing more hare-brained than going off hunting or fishing by yourself, you know. They might not find your corpse for months.”
“No mom, I’m not going alone, I’m going with Erwin.”
“Well that’s reassuring. He has about as much common sense as you do. Neither one of you knows enough to come in out of the rain. Well I hope you have life jackets.”
“Of course we have life jackets.”
“And you wear them?”
“We’ll keep them handy Mom.”
“A lot of good that will do. You be careful!”
Such exchanges have been taking place between my mother and her children for upwards of forty years. My friend Erwin, who was full-grown when he met her, has been a target of her admonitions for nearly twenty of those years. I guess that’s because his mother lives in Minnesota and can’t get at him.
I never thought much about it before becoming a parent, but after a short career as a father, I marvel at human survival. How children manage to make it in one piece to adulthood, after plunging from near disaster to dangerous precipice to sure collision all along the way, is a matter of continual amazement. Here in Montana, the seductiveness and myriad dangers of the natural world make that survival all the more miraculous.
Admittedly our children here in Montana don’t face, at least to the same degree, the dark forces that confront children in an urban setting. No, but we do have steep cliffs, fast dark water, unpredictable weather, rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, guns and all sorts of wild and exotic things waiting just outside the nursery door. Thankfully, we also have mothers to guide the way.
For many who grow up here, this is all the stuff of dreams, but for mothers, mothers like mine anyway, these same ingredients have probably been responsible for many a nightmare. Mothers after all have been saddled with the glamorless part of steering the kids through the early stages of outdoor experience.
While the dads are concentrating on the how to’s of fishing, hunting, canoeing and skiing, the moms have more often than not ended up handling the hygiene, safety, first aid, common sense and tender loving care departments, often without getting to enjoy the outdoors themselves. For this usually thankless job, mothers clearly deserve most of the credit for survival of our species. In my case anyway it happens to be so.
It was mom, after all, who got me ready for my first camping trip. She inventoried my kit and made a few suggestions, like spare socks, a raincoat and some food besides candy. When I got cold feet, she buoyed me by telling me what a good time I would have. And when I came home, elated, tired and filthy, she hugged me, told me how she missed me, and then made me disrobe and sprayed me with a garden hose before letting me in the house.
It was mom who tended the blisters and sprains, poured salve on the sunburns and scrapes and mended and replaced the tattered clothing. She’s the one who tolerated the animal carcasses in the garage, and cooked the meat, despite a distaste stemming from a childhood with wild game to eat every day.
She was the one who waited and worried when an outing went too long. And she is the one who always, always, always reminded each of us to be careful with guns, to wear our lifejackets, to watch the weather, and to drive carefully.
When we returned from one outing or another it was mom who listened to the tales of beauty and adventure with a combination of delight and wistfulness. For even as she always encouraged our comings and goings, she must have yearned to see those places and things her children had seen and she had only dreamed about.
To be sure, there was a time when her wanderings were farther, wider and more adventurous. I have seen faded photographs of her in her youth, perched on rocky summits and lounging among the wildflowers of a high, windy pass. Somehow though, with the coming of family and the tenor of the times, she left that behind her, and did her adventuring vicariously through her children. It was expected in those days.
The only thing she saved for herself was huckleberry picking. She still attacks a huckleberry patch ruthlessly and recklessly, unmindful of the scratches and scrapes from tangled brush, ignoring the burning sun. She picks huckleberries like the future of western civilization is in the balance. Her children do not advise and do not interfere.
Her grandchildren are growing up in a different world. It is a world where it is easier, more often expected for mothers to participate in the main events instead of the support roles. Those children get to share the exhilaration of the wild with their mothers, and when their mom exhorts them to tie on that life jacket, she ties her own on too, then takes the oars.
So for the mountains they never got to climb, and for the bends in the river they have not seen, I want to thank my mom and all the others just like her out there. It was they, after all, who enabled us to love this place. Happy Mothers’ Day!
The other evening, son Sander and his Grandma Helen, my Mom, went off to a band concert together at the University Theater. As they walked away together like old pals, I found myself musing on grandmas. Sander is friends with his two grandmothers in a way that I never was with mine. I admit to being just a bit jealous of the opportunity he has had to get to know them.
But I did have a grandmother who exerted, unbeknownst to her, a powerful force on my life and, I am sure, on the lives of her other 14 grandchildren.
She had lived sixty jam-packed years before I became aware of her. Those years included the trip from Norway to a homestead shack in the United States as a young girl, with intermediate stops in Iowa and Minnesota before moving to the wild country of north central Montana and happening upon a teaching job over in the Blackfeet country. Then came a chance meeting with the handsome young homestead locator who had come from the same area of Norway she came from, Telemark Province, via the gold mines and trap lines of Canada. As they say, the rest is history.
I can’t pinpoint my first memory of my grandmother. It could be the image of her, apron-clad, leaning over the wood cook stove at the family cabin up at Swan Lake. She is forking doughnuts out of a grease-spitting, cast-iron frying pan, and dipping them in a bowl of powdered sugar. She is humming the good Lutheran hymns familiar to all of her grandchildren, but especially to my siblings, and me since our dad happened to be a Lutheran preacher.
Of all her many grandchildren, I may have been the most appreciative of her doughnut expertise, I still suffer from a strong, almost irresistible, attraction for doughnuts, but nothing today compares to the anticipation I felt in the thick, sweet atmosphere of that kitchen on a summer morning.
More likely though, my first image of her is probably the one where she is sitting cross-legged on the edge of a low cut-bank at a place we used to go on the Swan River. She has on a pair of hip boots, and she is wearing a fishing vest, pockets stuffed with hooks, flies, leaders and whatever else she may have kept in there. She is topped off with one of those red felt hats we call “crushers” now. Cradled in her hands is handsome split bamboo fly rod with a black metal automatic Perrine reel.
As I remember it, Grandma is surrounded by a pack of grandchildren in the same general age group as me. The older kids and the men have disappeared up and downstream in search of trout and solitude, but Grandma seems content to hang around with the little kids and do a little fishing.
My Grandma fished with worms. That was bad enough, considering the top-quality fly gear that she used. Even worse, she couldn’t stand to bait her own hook.
The eager gaggle of grandchildren vied for the opportunity to bait Grandma’s hook. And when she caught a fish, which was common on the Swan in those days, a wave of excitement swept through the entire entourage. It was not unusual for Grandma to catch the biggest fish of all on those expeditions. The returning purists would discount it due to the means employed, but we kids and Grandma would know the truth.
When the time came, Grandma and Grandpa took me out, as they did with each grandchild, to catch my first trout on the Swan River. Grandpa didn’t even complain about me using worms. When I landed the first trout, both grandparents emitted those distinctly Norwegian chortles of glee that you can still hear sometimes at potluck dinners in church basements. Both grandparents were there, but for me it was clearly a Grandma event.
There have been many rivers, much laughter and lots of wonderful hours afield since the days with my own Grandma. But she is still with me whenever I venture out into the wild world that I have come to cherish so. She is always there, tempting me with fresh nightcrawlers. Even now, forty-five years later, I can still find the exact spot where I caught that first trout and I can remember the sound of their laughter.
I thought about this the other night when Sander marched off to that concert with his Grandma Helen.
It won’t be memories of fishing that connects him with either of his grandmas. It probably won’t be doughnuts either. But there will be something that stays with him.
With grandma Helen, it could be huckleberries.
Sander has loitered in that same kitchen at Swan Lake that I knew as a child, waiting for the next batch of huckleberry pancakes from his grandmother, and he has scouted ahead for her as she commanded a battalion of berry pickers.
Or it could be a hundred other things that she has been for him. She has cheered him on through years of basketball and soccer games. She has dutifully attended the school programs and concerts and has glowed with pride when he could finally toot a tune on his saxophone. She has nursed him through homework and treated him like visiting royalty when she thought he needed it.
Whatever the case, his grandmothers will always be there as part of who he is and who he will become. He’s a lucky kid.
And I was a lucky kid before him.
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!