Roots and Wings and the Story (for Mother’s Day)

I grew up on a farm in your quintessential middle-of-nowhere. While my dad cursed his cows and tractors and broken down trucks—“peckerhead” should have been my first word, my mom nursed a vast  vegetable garden, a flock of Thanksgiving turkeys that were notoriously too large for anyone’s oven, and us three kids.

It was an idyll and it wasn’t. My memories are steeped in the scent of boiling maple sap, river mint, and new hay. But anyone who knows anything about dairy farming in the 1980s knows how low we kept our heads during tax season when my father did his books. And anyone who knows anything about how one gets a dairy farmer’s attention can guess at the volume of two things: my mother’s tractor whistle, and the way she could slam a front door. On those latter nights I remember nesting down with my sister and brother in the chaff pile below the loft ladder, drifting off to the constant sound of chewing and the tsk-tsk of a milking machine.

But my mother let me know her in ways that made those stranded nights make sense. People didn’t speak about transparency in government then the way they do now, but my mother practiced it as a parent.

I knew she worked hard—chopping, shoveling, hoeing, canning, freezing, slaughtering, mothering. And I knew she was lonely living on the outskirts—and I don’t mean merely geographical—of a very small town. She made sure I knew, as an elementary school feminist-in-training, that undervaluing a homemaker was nothing short of sinful. When my father forgot himself, she took herself out to the movies. Forty miles away. Alone.

And it wasn’t just current events that my mother let me in on; she isn’t much for surprises or secrets. Like me, she errs on the side of too much information. So I knew her old flames by name and how each fizzled out, and I knew what it was she buried in the parking lot of the Bombay airport when she left India for the last time.

Indeed, my mother wasn’t raised on a farm herself; her childhood memories take place at the country club. And I don’t mean that figuratively. Weekends and summers, her mother dropped her off in the morning and picked her up in the evenings. Swimming lessons. Tennis lessons. Lunch at the clubhouse. Her childhood housekeeper still sends us all Christmas cookies.

My mother was just home from wandering around India and Afghanistan, looking for that great alternative her generation once sought, when she met my father. She says that near the end of her traveling days overpasses made her sad: below her she saw the headlights of people who were headed home, who would get there in time for dinner, who were not passing through. When she met a man applying a sweeping intellect to working a ramshackle farm, she exited the highway. It was the 1970s, late for some trends and early for others, when they went back-to-the-land, local, organic, free-range.

Farming was not an inheritance for either of my parents, but a lifestyle choice. It was idealistic, unrealistic, romantic, but my parents don’t fail at things they set out to do. Although they do sometimes switch-out the end goal. Cows gave way to crops and now they sell garden-fresh prepared food at farmers’ markets.

But this was their path. We kids were charged with finding our own. I know my way around a Ball Blue Book and a John Deere and I’m not half bad with a hammer and nails. But my mother didn’t raise me to be a farmer or even a farmer’s wife. Rather, she raised me to adapt to my circumstances. Hungry? Buy ten pounds each of potatoes, carrots, and onions: you won’t starve. Stuck in a blizzard? Shelter yourself in snow. At the Plaza? Order tea.

My mother expected us to run wild, to experiment, to take chances. We were allowed to do almost anything but “hang out.” Still, I admit, I resisted. When I was sixteen, my mother enrolled me in summer school in Madrid, Spain. I fought to stay home, hoping to ride some horses, help my dad with the haying. But I lost. Round two, she remained unfazed when I tossed my high school diploma in a box and went to work on a farm. My mother knows that some seeds planted have to winter over. After a year of farm work, I went to Italy for my first college semester and, once my travels gained momentum, I hardly looked back.

My siblings’ stories are different, but we are all facets of our mother writ large. My sister is a corporate climber, a little like a chainsaw in high heels. She can play polo, shoot up beer cans, and throw a smitten man out on his ass. My brother, a ship without a compass but blessed with favorable winds, longs to go to Africa, to do hard work in hard places, but keeps getting waylaid because he is too practical not to know that he accomplishes more engineering the Bigger Picture for government agencies and international organizations. Of us three, I am both the dreamer and the one who most knows what I want, a writer and a wanderer and a mother myself. Most of this is only possible because my mother sees my will-o-wisp path as viable.

“Do what you love, the money will follow,” she says, and sends me a check—not for material things, or even to get me by, she expects me to manage that, potatoes-carrots-and-onions style—but so I can do something decadent with my passport. So far, not much money follows, but my mother’s faith is unflagging.

Together, my siblings and I tootle around on bicycles in the Dutch countryside, eat steak on Capitol Hill, pickle ourselves in gin while we can dill beans, hitchhike through South America, sidestep rattlesnakes and bear in the backcountry. Together, we rake hay, throw it up in the loft, stack it tight, cut-end up. The way our parents want it.

From my perspective, it all comes down to this: my mother teaches me to write my own story, and to make it a doozy. This is something one does forward, making plans and choices, buying the ticket, as well as backwards, seeing the meaning in experiences had, however fleeting. Frankly, I hardly remember my mother’s oversized turkeys, and I never met her ex-flames, but the stories have stuck and I read in it a life that is well-lived. These days I write my own life in this vein. I know that my days are like anyone’s, dirty dishes and mundane frustrations—whether we curse cows or sip  tea at the Plaza—but if my story is going to be anywhere near as resonant to my children as my mother’s is to me, I must drive my life hard, mine deep, and tell it well.

FYI: Dia de la Madre is observed on May 10th in Mexico, so this is NOT late (really, Mom!).

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