Hiking With My Mother In Grizzly Country

My mother stands by the front door of the house she and my father share in the heart of grizzly country.

North of her strong feet and enviable legs, a 30-06 Winchester rests comfortably over her shoulder. A fluorescent fanny pack sits high on her waist and from her gloved fingers, a canister of bear spray dangles insecurely beside her aforementioned adornments.

We however, are a tornado of wide-brimmed hats and handkerchiefs, of sun block and water and finding the right shoes. She will surely look us over when we muster from inside to embark on  a rare hike with one of the toughest, most kind-hearted women I know.

She had a grizzly bear come at her a few years ago. The way she tells it, he was big but she was ready. A few yards from her determining stare, the bear stopped, huffed and turned away. My mother never had to shoot, but anyone who knows her can pretty much count on the fact that her trigger finger was at the ready. Anyone who knows her, will also understand that she was happy not to be forced into taking his life that day. I have often thought that when my mother is ready to go, she will morph into Tristan from Legends of the Fall and find that bear one last time.

When we hike with my mother, I recall the barefoot Ecuadorian who led us over the serpentine rocks of the Galapagos Islands while on one of the most eye-opening journeys my parents took us during my teenage years. Walter was a sinewy, tanned athlete who moved like a lissome cat. I envied his lithe movements and territorial command from the soles of his feet. My mother in Grizzly Country, is much the same.

To our left, she points out a large depression in the ground where once she discovered a black bear burrowed for a nap. She steals up a heavily-wooded deer trail with her rifle at the ready because she knows the places they’ve shed their antlers in years’ past. My mother has called-in many a poacher, carried hundreds of pounds of meat during a winter’s storm; she’s nailed more than her share of No Trespassing signs and fixed many fences. She hefts the lids of cisterns like a woman unaware of 70. She drives her pickup like a Monster Truck Driver–it has a winch and a grill, and she uses them both.

But on this particular hike with three of her grandchildren and me, she has found her match, my mom. And it is no grizzly bear or poacher–no sheep hunt or political adversary. He is no wolf or any other predator of livestock, but he is my son. He has challenged her in hour-long duels of time outs, unblinkingly stared face-to face with her at bedtime and mealtime; he has set his brow to match the stubbornness of hers and put his foot down over her own fixed foot like I’ve seen no one else do. He is not yet three years old and refuses to be carried for any duration of our three-hour long excursion through the jarring terrain of some of the roughest and most wild country there is. Just like his grandmother, he is loving it.

So when he looks up from under the rim of his wide-brimmed hat–red-hot cheeks, lucidly blue irises, and into the eyes of my mother says, ” I follow you the whole way G-MA”…the toughest grandmother in Bear Country smiles as big as her face will allow, and knows so clearly through the sudden film of moisture over her own eyes, that her spirit is in no danger of extinction.

Thanks and Giving

On our most recent trip to Texas, I found myself in a car with my mother-in-law— twisting our way through the back roads of a hill country so vast and deep it seemed we should have been on the lookout for wild javelina and the shiny, keeled scales of snakes stretching their way across the road.  The low rise and twist of cedar scrubs and live oak gave way to the slump of creek beds where cattle gained respite standing and unmoving in the wind-shifting shade where we drove.

We were delivering meals. This is something my mother-in-law does often and thankfully; driving the remoteness of Texas back roads so frequently, I feel she could take on each curve of the road with her eyes shut.

Our first stop was a mobile home owned by a gleeful woman in her eighties named Grace. Grace welcomes her company with all the warmth of the South and has a smile on her face unaffected by her inability to care for things like she used to. She is surrounded by photographs and items of her youth and her face looks younger than her years. She hangs onto conversation like thirst to water, and the silence is concrete when we leave.

There is an old bull rider who lives in a cozy ranch house of stone lived in by generations of cowboys. Its yard is a scene right out of Eight Seconds where Luke Perry and his lady get married under the suspended white string of lights swinging from the oversized pergola in the Texas breeze. There is a cove of Live Oaks like genealogists surrounding the house—they cast tricky, moveable shadows with the darting sun.

Several miles downwind, there is another ranch made of stone and its inhabitant a bent and thoughtful octogenarian who chronicles every whitetail buck he can see from his kitchen window. And like Grace whose face has yet to catch up, Maurice’s neat, upright print mismatches his age. He is still sharp and feisty and proud and amused by the life around him. He accepts the meal delivery most likely because of what comes with it. He shares his delight at the wild turkeys roaming his yard and has fashioned a gun stand on his kitchen counter directed towards its only window. He also cares for his ailing wife who rests without sound in a back room. And like the others when we leave, there is a silence that is concrete.

Last but not least, my mother-in-law delivers meals to a man named Joe. He anticipates her arrival by pulling a trolley (with which to carry his delivered food) down to the front of his driveway and he sits peacefully in a chair to wait for her. His big dogs idle in the shade; their apathy suggesting familiarity with their visitor. Joe wears ironed overalls and tucks what I’ve heard to be his long, wispy hair under his baseball cap. He has lived a long life, yet there is a quality about him that suggests innocence and purity. There is not much of a house where he hangs his hat, and so I think he must love that chair at the end of his driveway looking out over the space of the road and the trees and the wild. When Joe talks of race cars, his eyes explode with weightlessness as if he is the one soaring around chicanes as the crowd cheers him on. The sound of Joe pulling that trolley slowly up the driveway and out of our sight as we leave, is a heavy loneliness.

This Holiday season, I will inspire my children with the service of their grandmother. Grace and the Bull Rider, Maurice and Joe, will all make their way from the desolate backroads of Texas and take their seat at our Holiday table. In their spirit, we will seek out that sound of stillness and need, and pay it forward where and when we can.

To those who put smiles on the faces of the elderly; to those who give purpose to anyone in need no matter the season: thank you for reminding us of what it means to be human.

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Just recently, as the Easter Bunnies in our household were getting ready for Easter, our own little Cadbury egg in the form of a sweet, unassuming,  five year-old daughter asked, “Is the Easter Bunny for real”?

“What do you think”?

“Mama! Of course the Easter Bunny is real!”

And so my heart fell and leaped within the same moment. Don’t parents prepare for the day their child comes home from school having heard an older kid ruin the surprise of Santa, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy? However, at the same time we want them to believe,  I’ll be the first to admit; the total and utter trust and belief my own children have in the existence of these magical, mythical beings has almost concerned me.

Come on, really. Can you picture the Easter Bunny laying pastel-colored jelly beans into hinged, plastic eggs and then hiding them not just in flower pots and patches of grass, but on top of the swingset? And the chocolate. Would you want to eat little, brown, chocolate pellets that have supposedly sprung  from the Easter Bunny herself? No matter the story parents have devised to paint a more believable picture for their child, you would think that there is a little bit more critical thinking involved when it comes to matters of Santa and the Easter Bunny and the little fairy that covets their teeth. But there isn’t.

Just this Easter, our neighbor across the way (in plain sight of our little egg-hunters), was tossing plastic eggs into the flower beds of her yard and exclaimed to us “I hope I’m not too late!” My husband and I did what we could to distract our sugar-seeking toddlers, but realized shortly afterward that they were so happily unaware, even me pulling the $2.99 price-tag off of my son’s basket presented no doubts or questions in the way their perfect Easter story played out.

To try and understand my kids’ belief in things that seem so obviously unbelievable, I am brought back to my own experiences as a child. The things that stick out the most were the stocking-stuffers on Christmas morning: I remember getting sensible socks and toothpaste, and other useful things that seemed mostly to be  in the taste in my mother and father. Did I put the pieces together back then, or did I just assume that Santa gave me the things my parents knew I needed and would want me to have?

And even with all of the presented clues, I am convinced that children fully exercise their right to suspend their disbelief in all things that are so magnificent and magical and beautiful. Besides, who wouldn’t want to believe in the existence of these Holiday icons when no matter how naughty or nice you have been (and let’s admit it), Santa delivers. Santa and the Easter Bunny seem to love us no matter our mistakes, intentional or not. Children seek to believe in the very things that define them, and we as adults, make a conscious choice for ourselves to hang onto the things that define our children: goodness, purity, and faith in the human spirit.

Even when presented with historical evidence that might discount Jesus Christ’s presence as he traveled from town to town making sermons in the marketplace and healing the wounded and sick; when  faced with the impossible notion that He was laid in a tomb and came  back to life, many of us still choose to believe in what seems realistically unworkable. We see the other side and yes, possess our doubts, but we have put our faith in what we cannot see. We choose to highlight the goodness and truth and beauty that Jesus represents. We are not all that different from our children whose belief in this same goodness and beauty surprises us sometimes.

There is no magic that matches a child’s belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny. At the same time, there is no magic that matches a grown-up child’s desire to hang onto that goodness. To strive for it and to emulate it, and to know that no matter our behavior and our expanded view of the world, Jesus will deliver.

We need Him to.