Come early August, my mother will have been gone for 10 years. Sometimes, I feel like I just had a conversation with her yesterday. I still experience an occasional urge to pick up the phone and call to tell her about something funny or awful I have read or heard. And I regularly have the sensation that she is watching me with her critical but loving eye as I wrestle with some decision.
For the last 16 years of her life, my mother lived just down the street from me. Even on the days I didn’t stop by to see her, we generally talked on the phone. She had a bird’s-eye view to my daily life and didn’t hesitate to provide commentary and advice, whether wanted or not.
One day, I casually mentioned to her that I was planning a fishing trip.
“Fishing? Haven’t you heard about the winter storm watch?” she asked.
“Yes, Mom, I know about the forecast, but the trip is on.”
“You’re not going alone, are you? There’s nothing more harebrained than going off hunting or fishing by yourself, you know. They might not find your corpse for months.”
“No, Mom, I’m not going alone. I’m going with Erwin.”
“Well that’s reassuring. He has about as much common sense as you do. Neither one of you knows enough to come in out of the rain. Well, I hope you have life jackets.”
“Of course, we have life jackets.”
“And you wear them?”
“We’ll keep them handy, Mom.”
“A lot of good that will do! You be careful.”
Exchanges like this continued between my mother and all of her children until she was nearly 90 years old. My friend Erwin, who was a grown man when he met her, was a target of her admonitions for 40 years. Since his mother lived out her life in Minnesota, my mom probably just figured she was filling in.
I never thought much about this before becoming a parent myself, but I wasn’t far into fatherhood before I began marveling at human survival and how children manage to make it in one piece to adulthood. After all, kids seem to plunge from near disaster to dangerous precipice to sure collision all along the way. Here in Montana, the seductiveness and myriad perils of the natural world make that survival all the more miraculous.
Admittedly, our children face fewer of the dark forces that confront children in an urban setting. However, we have steep cliffs, fast dark water, unpredictable weather, rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, guns and all sorts of wildness waiting just outside the nursery door.
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Thankfully, we also have mothers to guide the way.
For many who grow up here, all the opportunities for wild adventure are the stuff of dreams, but for mothers – mothers like mine anyway – those same opportunities have probably been responsible for many a nightmare. Mothers have been saddled with the glamorless part of steering the kids through the early stages of outdoor experience.
While the dads are concentrating on the
how-tos of fishing, hunting, canoeing and skiing, the moms have more often than not ended up handling the hygiene, safety, first aid, common sense and tender loving care departments, often without getting to enjoy the outdoors themselves. For this usually thankless job, mothers clearly deserve most of the credit for survival of our species. In my case anyway it happens to be so.
It was mom, after all, who got me ready for my first Boy Scout camping trip. She inventoried my kit and made a few suggestions, like spare socks, a raincoat and some food besides candy. When I got cold feet, she buoyed me by telling me what a good time I would have. And when I came home, elated, tired and filthy, she hugged me, told me how much she had missed me, then made me disrobe and sprayed me with a garden hose before letting me in the house.
And it was Mom who tended the blisters and sprains, poured salve on the sunburns and scrapes, and mended and replaced the tattered clothing. She’s the one who tolerated the animal carcasses in the garage, and cooked the meat, despite a distaste stemming from a childhood with wild game as daily fare.
She was the one who waited and worried when an outing went too long. She was the one who always, always, always reminded each of us to be careful with guns, wear our lifejackets, watch the weather and drive carefully.
And when we returned from one outing or another it was Mom who listened to the tales of adventure with a combination of delight and wistfulness. For even as she always encouraged our comings and goings, she must have yearned to see those places and things her children had seen that she had only dreamed about.
To be sure, there was a time when her wanderings were farther, wider and more adventurous. I have faded photographs of her in her youth, perched on rocky summits, lounging among wildflowers on a high, windy pass, or standing knee-deep in a river, grinning broadly, fishing rod in hand. Somehow though, after the war, and with the coming of family, she left that behind her and did her adventuring vicariously through her children. It was expected in those days.
The only thing she saved for herself was huckleberries. To the end she attacked a huckleberry patch ruthlessly and recklessly, unmindful of scratches and scrapes from tangled brush and the burning sun. She picked huckleberries as if the future of Western civilization were in the balance. Her children did not advise or interfere.
Today, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren are growing up in a different world, a world where mothers participate fully in the main events. Today’s children get to share the exhilaration of the wild with their mothers. These days, when a mom exhorts her children to tie on their life jackets, as often as not, she ties her own on, too. Then she takes the oars.
So for the mountains she never got to climb, and for the bends in the river she may never have seen, I want to thank my mom and all the others just like her who enabled and encouraged us all to experience and love this place.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Greg Tollefson is a Missoula outdoorsman and writer whose column appears each Thursday in the Missoulian Outdoors section.