I have thought a lot about mothers this week, and this spring. When Noah's dad visited last week he shared with us one day that it was the anniversary of Noah's mom's death, lost over 20 years ago to cancer. I so wish that I could have met her, and I wonder what insights she’d have into this stubborn, idealistic eldest son of hers. She was, from what I hear, really something. Knowing him, that doesn’t surprise me.
Noah met my mom just in time. The fall that we moved in together we shared a little above-garage apartment in Forest Grove Oregon, about an hour and a half from my parents' farm. The fall weekend that I took him to meet my family, we loaded a borrowed cider press, Noah’s camera, and three loaves of slowly rising sourdough bread into our car. He was so nervous about this first meeting that he insisted on the projects; sitting idle, as you can guess, is never a comfortable place for him.
But he needn't have worried; my family embraced him heartily even as he encouraged my niece and nephew to climb farther up the trees and bounce vigorously on the slender branches to bring down more ripe apples. In the midst of the wild, juicy, sticky project, I slipped into the kitchen to check on the bread that had been rising through the morning's apple gathering. My mom found me peeking under the towels, and leaned in conspiratorially. "He bakes sourdough bread. I think I love him too," she told me with a grin, and gave my hand three quick squeezes--an old signal from when I was a shy and quiet child, our secret code for "I love you."
At that time, my mom's hands still worked for most things, though a bothersome nerve condition had started to make it hard for her to sign checks or tie her shoes, and her once lighting-fast typing speed had slowed to just slightly below average. She had recently retired from her job as administrative assistant to the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Oregon State University, and was looking forward to more days of gardening, canning, and watching her grandchildren gleefully risk life and limb for home-made apple cider.
When it was time for us to go home my parents loaded us up with fruits of their garden: tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, cucumbers, and beets—the gifts kept coming and Noah's eyes grew wide at the riches. Our little raised beds in the yard of our rental were fun, but the yields were nothing of this scale. My mom just laughed at his thanks, and said something I had never heard her articulate before, but that I will never forget: "I think my real purpose in life is to feed people."
She had worked as a teacher's aide, a secretary, a mom, a farmer, and then in university offices when the farm income simply wasn't enough to cover the needs of a family with three kids entering middle school sports, orthodontia, and college prep. Feeding people wouldn't be the thing you’d pick out from her resume, had never been the focus of her working professional life, and yet of course, there it was, in the background, all along.
She was the core of the group that ran the kitchen for our elementary school's outdoor camp week, the one who brought both the recipe and the 10-gallon steel mixing bowl for baking a whole school's worth of oatmeal cookies in one batch. The daily milking of our family dairy cow was both her quiet meditative time and the source of our family’s milk, butter, and ice cream. She was the one who changed her department office tradition of Friday break room treats from sweets to soup and home-made bread. "Those poor graduate students need something more substantial than brownies" she would declare, tucking a crock pot of chili into the backseat of the car on her way to work. In summers, treasuring any extra hours of vacation time to be at home and garden, she'd return to work with a basket of vegetables, tucking an heirloom tomato, a fresh cucumber or zucchini into the professors' mailboxes in September.
Of course she fed people. And it fascinates me to think of how certainly she said that, and how it made sense, when I stopped to think. That statement of purpose is particularly bittersweet, given what has happened in the years since. That hand-brain connection issue, first diagnosed as benign and non-progressive, turned out to be the tip of a more serious iceberg. These days, my mom really doesn't feed anyone else, and often needs help from my dad for even the process of feeding herself. Over the last five years a degenerative brain condition, frontotemporal dementia, has eroded away so much of the mom that I knew.
With every visit home I find another bit of her missing, a conversation no longer possible, the ability to hug no more. The secret three-squeeze signal for “I love you” is too much now for the missing neural connections. The gardening is gone, the basket weaving is gone, the wool spinning is gone, and the ten-gallon mixing bowl has not made those oatmeal cookies in years, though my father learned to make the family granola recipe in it, ands sends us home with mason jars of perfectly toasted oats, seeds, and walnuts from their tree, so unlike anything from the store.
Noah has stories, too, of his mother and food. At holiday time she’d send him and his brother out through the New Hampshire snow, harnessed to a sled, to deliver fresh cranberry citrus relish to the neighbors. Their own home garden blends in his memory with the extended family garden of her parents, his grandparents, and with the family vegetable farm down the road, where he worked as a kid.
I thought of both those mothers when I read these lines in the book "Braiding Sweetgrass" this winter: "The land loves us back. She loves us with beans and tomatoes, with roasting ears and blackberries and birdsongs. By a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons. She provides for us and teaches us to provide for ourselves. That's what good mothers do." Though we miss them, we are grateful to have learned and been given so much by our mothers, and I like the idea of leaning into the land, too, for good mothering.