February 20, 2012
In 1924, when Alice was nine years old, she found herself in front of the jailhouse at the edge of a mob calling for a hanging.
July 14, 2011
May 8, 2011
A friend sent an e-mail to Alice asking her to describe her mother. Read the rest of this entry »
January 6, 2011
Alice wanted to eat lunch at the Red Lobster, the older Midwesterner’s idea of a great fish and seafood place. I mentioned the nearby ocean and rivers filled with fish that were not available to her in Iowa. “Fish places are everywhere out here.”
But no, she wanted the Red Lobster. The closest one was tucked away in a suburb, nearly an hour from The Place.
We sat in a booth and ate some fish who should not have died in order to be cooked in such a ho-hum manner. I told Alice that in the afterlife we’d have to face these fish and apologize. She reminded me that when she was eighty she had passed away while traveling to a family reunion and been CPR’d back to life (long story; later post), and she’s pretty sure we can expect no afterlife. She said she experienced “nothing, just absolutely nothing.”
“But,” she added wryly, “maybe something different will happen the next time I die.” Read the rest of this entry »
August 30, 2010
I asked my friends for ideas to celebrate Alice’s 95th birthday and they came back with wonderful suggestions: a train trip with scenic stops through the Columbia River Gorge, or a walk through Oregon vineyards, or the Arboretum, or the Audubon Society, or the Grotto (botanical gardens, giant fir trees). On the phone, Alice considered each possible outing with interest. When I came to pick her up she was sitting upright in her La-Z-Boy, smiling and eager, holding what appeared to be an empty, plastic Folger’s coffee jar. “Our urinal,” she explained.
Astonished, I took it from her hands. “And why do we need this?”
“Well, in case we’re out in a leafy wood somewhere and we have to go to the bathroom.”
I peered inside. The jar contained several travel-sized spools of thread, some needles, and a tiny scissors. What were we going to sew in a leafy wood, I wondered. She seemed confused. When I showed the contents to her she laughed so hard she had to go visit her very own bathroom, luckily close by.
Like any daughter with an elderly mother, I have my moments of concern. This was one of them. But when she returned, she was still laughing. “I bet you’re worried about me,” she said. “But that’s my eyesight. That’s how bad it’s gotten. I didn’t see those things in there.”
Okay, that was a relief. Sort of. In any case, I felt grateful that I have a mother who can laugh (at times anyway) about her failing eyesight. But I was still curious about the wisdom of walking down a trail, say, in the Arboretum, carrying an empty Folger’s coffee container in case one of us had to duck behind a blue spruce and pee. I asked if it wouldn’t be okay if we just peed on the ground, like the animals we are, and this struck her as an agreeable idea, and one with history. “Like we did when we were kids,” she said, thinking of her five sisters and her brother and their outdoor Dakota adventures. She asked me to return the jar to the top shelf of the cupboard where it lives with other jars containing small items: batteries and screws and teensy knobs to things that are either doing fine without their teensy knobs or are gone altogether.
Off we went to immerse ourselves in green I hoped, but as soon as we got in the car she decided she’d rather go shopping. Of course I said okay, but as I feared, it turned out to be pretty much a repetition of our last shopping experience, with the same complaints about the miserable selection of clothes and, since it was her birthday, she got even more testy. “How come nobody makes clothes for 95-year-old women?” When I pointed out that there aren’t that many 95-year-old women around to make clothes for, she brought her walker to a halt and looked up at me. A moment of enlightenment.
Later in the week I took her to the Audubon Society. She scooted her walker into the rescued birds sanctuary. Here, wild birds with deformities or who have met with accidents and cannot be released into the forest again live out well-fed and tended lives as an educational resource for the public. She met Aristophanes, a raven the size of a small dog, and whispered, “Well, aren’t you pretty?” But she didn’t seem at all charmed by the raven’s noisy squawks and moved on immediately when he hopped out of sight. She approached a peregrine falcon, two kestrels, and a Red Tail hawk with about the same level of interest, but she stayed for a long time at the cage of Hazel, the Northern Spotted Owl.
While she watched Hazel sleeping, my mother told me about a time when she was eight years old, dressed in a red cloth coat and on her way to school, when she spied a small owl on a neighbor’s fencepost. She remembered the day as cloudy; the town of only a few hundred people was quiet. The bird must have swooped in to rest from a prairie hunt. The back yards of all the houses on Second Avenue–one of three avenues, Railroad, First and Second–ran to Junegrass and bluestem that rolled on forever.
She walked slowly toward the owl. The owl didn’t move. She continued to step forward, creeping on tiptoe, eyes fastened on the owl’s eyes, expecting that at any moment the bird would startle, flap its wings, and fly away, as every bird in the short story of her life so far had done. But the owl dropped its guard for the red-coated, black-haired girl with brilliant blue eyes and a sense of excitement so keen it must have sprayed a vibrating halo of light around her. When they met, they stared into one another’s eyes up close. She couldn’t remember who moved first, but she didn’t think it was the owl.
“I’ve never forgotten that owl,” she said quietly.
Until that moment, the fact of my mother reaching the age of ninety-five hadn’t yet seemed real to me. But now it settled in and became unarguably true because I could so clearly imagine her, over eighty years ago, when she found herself under that immense Dakota sky, nose to beak with an owl, breathing the same pure air, caught in the same curious and profound business of living.