On the cusp of my forty-first year, after multiple miscarriages and as I watched my own mother slide into the sad, indecipherable world of Alzheimer’s, I was granted the gift of a daughter. I had grown to expect grief, to steel myself for it … and instead I received a miracle. A being of pure light. On the day of her birth, I told my husband she was “made for my eyes.” I still feel that way.
The twin towers of my childhood had fallen — my father’s heart had given out the year before and my mother’s mind was disintegrating — and our country had just experienced the horror of 9/11. A week later, Sydney entered our lives. Our hearts were more than full. I have told the story in my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, spent years editing the manuscript, trying to capture the nuances of this story. But words seem so small compared to this kind of Grace.
Every day with our daughter is a joy. A celebration of life! Yes, there are challenges. I have much to learn as a Mother. And we are a very human family. But underneath whatever happens, we know we have been deeply blessed. And we are so grateful!
The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; …the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Jeremiah 31:2-3
The clouds were gorgeous this morning as Sunny and I took off for our walk. I couldn’t help but marvel. There was a coolness to the air and a beauty that lifted my heart. Something about the blue moon last night reminded me that we live in the midst of a glorious story…despite the pain and suffering embedded in our lives. If we step out of our daily grind, look up, we might just capture some of the brilliance that surrounds us.
For three-quarters of a decade, I have kept these dried flowers on a bureau in the hall, in a place where I could see them from my office. For a period of time they gave me comfort. They reminded me of my mother, who loved nature and the outdoors. I would glance at them as I was working on my memoir and think of her. But a year or two year ago, I began to feel like it was time to clear out the old and replace it with something new. It suddenly started feeling a bit morbid to have dead flowers from my mother’s funeral still in the house. Every week or so, I wiped away another handful of disintegrating dry petals from the surface of the bureau. My mother died in 2007.
But I didn’t want to just throw them away. I knew the flowers were a representation of my mother, not her ashes. But still I wanted to “let go” of these dried bouquets in a way that would honor her. So, during one of the cold days of winter, I came upon an idea. I held it in my mind for a while, caressing it for any rough edges. My idea was this: On Mother’s Day I would take the dried flowers to the graveyard on our property. We have several animals buried there: a beloved kitten named Spunky that wandered into our barn when it was first being built, three horses — including my beloved Crimson — and various other pets (some owned by others). At the back of the graveyard is a magnolia tree that Joel and I planted. It was a gift from my dear friend Lyn after one of my miscarriages. I imagined sprinkling dried petals around the base of this sweet tree that blooms each spring.
As the days gradually warmed, my idea evolved. I would take some of the flowers and leaves and distribute them around our farm. After all, Mom was (and is) ubiquitous in my life. I remember her walking around the property, waving her arms and exclaiming at the beauty of the woods the same way she exclaimed over the beauty of her beloved Lake George. I spent 20 years writing a memoir about her. And, yet, there is so much more to say. Her kindness, her gentleness, her tender heart are all things that bring me to tears. I missed them after she had died and still do. Even though, over 10 years before her death, she had descended deeply into Alzheimer’s, her gentle spirit was always present. But, still, it took time before I remembered the mother who had been there before the illness.
Gradually, as the weight and exhaustion of care taking lifted, the layers of who she was began fluttering through my mind like loose leaf pages. She was disorganized, but spontaneous. Ready for an adventure at a moment’s notice. She continually expressed pure awe at God’s handiwork. She was at home on the water. She loved sailing and canoeing, watching the sun set over the glistening waves. She enjoyed the occasional mountain hike or a roadside overlook, encouraging her children to pause and take in the views, listen to the birds. She was a lover of words — writing weekly feature stories for her town’s newspaper for years. As I think about it, one reason I think her stories were so appreciated by the community was that she really and truly wanted to know her subject. She found people endlessly fascinating and complex. But she approached them with no judgment whatsoever.
That quality of “wanting to know” may be what I most miss about her. To have a parent truly “want to know” you is a gift. My mother listened intently, cared deeply. She did not always “get” me. I suppose that is not unusual, maybe even a necessary stage in the mother/daughter relationship. And I realize, all these years later, that I was not exactly someone who was easy to know. But she tried, and she was always present to whatever was going on between us. Is it any wonder that I tend to idealize my mom? Maybe it’s no wonder that I kept the dried bouquets from her funeral on my bureau for seven and a half years.
So, finally Mother’s Day arrived. I looked at the dried flowers half dreading, half thrilled to be getting rid of them. I had told Joel a few days earlier that I wanted to save the pink contoured vase holding one of the collections of dried flowers. Both the color of it and the curves delighted my eyes. I also loved knowing that caring friends or family members had bought this particular vase filled with flowers and given it to us during the time of my mother’s death.
Joel presented me with a beautiful bouquet on Mother’s Day morning, and the roses would look gorgeous inside the vase. Our family went to church that morning, then Joel and I spent a leisurely afternoon — napping and taking a walk. Sydney, who wasn’t feeling well, went to bed early. The sun was just beginning to go down when I remembered that this was the day I wanted to dispense with the dried flowers. I smiled to myself, thinking that my mom — who rarely followed a plan that was laid out — would understand. Still, I didn’t want to wait another year!
So, I quickly emptied the bouquets into two plastic grocery bags. Then I had to put the flowers Joel had given me into the pink vase. Voila! They looked as beautiful as I had imagined.
As I stepped out of the house, I wandered around the foliage in our yard, placing a dried bud here, some disintegrating leaves there. I walked down the driveway in the gradually fading light. I dropped a few flowers into the woods, knowing I’d forget where they were, but liking the idea that they were there…or at least the remnants of them would finish decaying on my well-worn path.
I paused at the creek and sent a few dried petals floating to wherever the creek empties, knowing my mother, although tied down with a military husband and four children, also enjoyed her freedom.
I stopped by the barn and placed a dried flower in the door of Foxie’s stall, thinking of how my mother had loved my pony Cochise and that she must be smiling down on Sydney and her horse. I continued on, stopping here and there, including at the big rock we jokingly call “Joshua’s Rock South” in honor of the place “up north” deeply connected to my mother’s family’s heritage.
Eventually, I got to the graveyard. I had forgotten that Joel had not yet mowed it this year. I was in shorts, and prickers and Poison Ivy were everywhere. Once again, I remembered how my mother would toss her head when coming to an obstacle and light-heartedly move in another direction. She would understand, I thought, as I left a small bouquet at the entrance of the graveyard.
On the way back to the house, I paused at the places I had been, smiling and sighing. It felt good to relieve myself of these dead flowers, to spread their husks into the world, allowing them to be remade over time into something new. As I was approaching the big creek, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a bird. Not just any bird. A robin.
The bird was dusky with a definite tint of orange on her breast. My mother loved all birds and would exclaim over every cardinal or blue jay or purple martin that she saw. But robins were what I considered “our birds.” My middle name is Robin. And each time she spotted one, she said it was “Little Robin Red Breast,” and mom would look at me tenderly, as if the bird and I were one. Over the years we spotted many robins during our spring, summer and fall walks, or my mother would call to me when she noticed one outside her kitchen window. There were many sightings.
This little robin on the driveway was a messenger, a gift, a reminder of my mother’s love and the fact that her spirit can not be contained in a few bouquets of dried flowers. I needn’t feel bad that I was letting this tangible reminder of her go. Reminders were everywhere. The woods were full of them. And somehow setting myself free from the burden of holding on, allows me to feel the joy of her life. In the darkening light, the robin stayed with me, never more than a few yards ahead, as I walked. I thanked God silently for this amazing little bird and for my mother, all that she was and always will be. When I reached the house, the robin flitted towards a tree (for safety or to build a nest?) as the dog came running up to greet me the same way life rushes in.
Two days ago we had a delivery of hay, and yesterday a truckload of shavings arrived. Today is the big day. Foxie and Smoky will arrive. The farm is ready for new life.
I can’t help but think about the day, over a decade ago, that I prepared to send Crimson away. I knew it was the closing of a chapter in my life.
In this excerpt from my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, I describe a very different time:
Crimson leaves tomorrow. I have already packed his brushes and tack in my Blazer. In the morning, I’ll load a bag of feed and two extra bales of hay in the trailer. Does he sense a change coming? I’ve told him I will miss him, that I’m not sure when I’ll be able to bring him home.
When I walk up to the big pasture I find him lying down. Instinct tells me to check for signs of colic. His stomach is normal, not bloated. He isn’t biting at his flank. Usually, if he is resting, he gets up as soon as he sees me and gives his body a shake. But this time he stays on the ground and watches me approach, with his front legs curled into himself.
He looks like a large dog or, with his chestnut coloring, a doe. It is a cool, clear day and he is on the lower part of a knoll, just out of the wind. His head slowly droops so that his muzzle rests on the grass and his eyes close. He appears to be enjoying the November sun.
As quietly as possible I sit down crosslegged beside him. His eyes open slightly and his head jerks as if he has fallen asleep and woken himself up. Gradually he lets it sag again. I’m not sure how long we stay here. The sun warms my knees and the earth’s dampness creeps through the denim of my jeans. I reach out my hand and feel warm puffs of air from Crimson’s nostrils. He extends his legs as if he is about to stand. I tense, preparing to move out of his way. But he rolls over on his side, stretching his neck against the cool grass. Instead of scratching his back and immediately getting up, he stays motionless.
Is he savoring his last full day on the farm? I watch the barrel of his stomach swell and recede. Slowly I lie down beside him, so that my head rests an inch or two from his half-closed eye and my body less than a foot away from his bent legs. I know the danger, how an unexpected noise could cause him to flinch, strike out with his hooves in an effort to quickly right himself, how his thousand pounds could crush my ribs. But I stay here, matching my breath to his, staring at the blue expanse of sky.
Crimson’s legs remain still, defenseless. A long sigh quivers through the length of his body.
painting of Crimson by my friend, Joanna Rissanen
I’m so thankful that today is a very different kind of day.
(For more information on Motherhood: Lost and Found, see http://www.anncampanella.com.)
My daughter and I, along with two dear friends, worked on cleaning out the barn this weekend. The girls cleared out two stalls on the right side of the barn that were filled with old hay and sawdust. One stall will be used to store new hay, and the other stall will be an extra, just-in-case stall. They worked for hours without a break. Do you think they’re excited about horses coming?
Sydney and her good friend, LK.
Last weekend, my husband, a young man from church and a friend’s barn worker installed rubber mats in the other two stalls. My husband, a golfer who does not particularly care for barn work, threw himself into this task and many others in a big effort to help get the barn ready for horses. He is awesome!
My dear friend Karen helped me tackle the tack room, a room that was filled with spiderwebs, dust, dead insects and who knows what else. We took everything out and wiped off shelving and storage bins, cleaned the walls, swept the floor and mopped. Then we gradually put things back in. Now that’s a good friend!
Thank you, Karen! I couldn’t have done it without you!!
The tack room — orderly and clean!
All of the above was done on Saturday. Karen and LK came back to help us late Sunday afternoon. The girls walked the pasture and cleared brambles from the fence line while Karen and I cleaned out the feed room. When the girls came back to the barn, I gave them a huge tub full of leather tack to clean. They worked until they were done. After Karen and LK left, and Sydney caught a ride up to the house with her dad, who was returning from playing nine holes, I had fun putting up nails and organizing all the barn implements.
Our barn has stood empty for the last 10 years. Anyone who knows me well or has read my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, knows that the years before that were filled with the grief of multiple miscarriages and the slow loss of my mother due to Alzheimer’s.
I used to teach riding lessons and, at one time, kept five horses and enjoyed a sweet community of riding friends and students. But I came to a point where the grief and exhaustion of caring for my mother took over my days and I had little energy for anything else. I had to send the horses away. Then my daughter was born and I became completely absorbed in both her care and in the miraculous blessing of her presence. Through toddlerhood and the wonderful, demanding years of homeschooling, I had little time and even less energy to contemplate the possibility of horses.
In 2013, when my daughter was 11 and turned 12, I first began to consider bringing horses back to the farm. But at the end of that year, in December, I had the first symptoms of a mysterious, debilitating illness that would last throughout much of the next year. Thankfully, my good health is returning.
Now it is early spring and the grass is greening. The sun rose at 7:10 a.m. On my walk, I took photos of the barn in the dawn and gradually the glow in the eastern sky brightened until it took over the morning. Birdsong surrounds me, red buds are blossoming in the woods, new life is all around. Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday and on Sunday we will celebrate Easter.
This week my daughter and I will go look at a sweet Quarter Horse mare. She seems to have all the characteristics of a good schooling horse, one on which I can teach my daughter the basics of riding and horse care. But time will tell. They will meet, and there will be a spark that flashes between them, a spark capable of igniting a heart – or not.
I have learned to be wary, to hesitate before celebrating. But these early spring days are calling me out, asking me to risk, dangling joy in front of me. It’s hard to imagine that I could have this second chance with horses, a return to my old life. But even as I write these words I know that nothing stays the same. Even old memories become layered with new experiences. What we think is set in our mind’s eye shifts and is recreated daily. I am fearful of being pulled back into recollections of days where barn chores were a heavy burden because of the emotional weight I carried as I grieved over my empty womb and cared for my declining mother. Am I willing to risk facing those griefs as I form a new layer of reminiscence with my daughter as we feed horses, clean stalls, scrub buckets and all the rest that comes with looking after and loving horses?
I don’t know what tomorrow’s sunrise will bring. But I am ready to move forward into a new day.