His beloved mom loved and cared for all of God’s creatures.
Posted in , Dec 24, 2020
It’s been three years, Mom, and your old neighbors still don’t understand your garden in Greenville: lush southern magnolia; evergreen gordonia; dirt brimming with native pollinators, snakes and bees. You made it an Eden. I’ve done my best to care for the plants and animals you left behind, but folks here think it’s overgrown, too wild. Then again, I’ve always felt safe in wild places.
When I was a boy growing up in the house Dad built in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we’d hike through the deep woods together. You’d say, “Look, a robin’s nest,” or “Robert, up there! That’s a Carolina wren.” You knew everything about the outdoors—which birds called to one another through the trees, how to turn creeping vines into baskets. You were a country girl, through and through.
Your family—Swedish immigrants who’d learned to coax wheat stalks from the earth—learned everything they could about South Carolina, but even to them, you were peculiar. Maybe because you always believed that nature didn’t just serve us, but was part of us.
From you, I learned to never take more than I needed. You’d take an umbrella and hang ornaments on it before you’d cut down a healthy pine in December. I like to think that at four foot eleven, closer to the earth than most of us, you felt things that we didn’t.
Remember that New York transplant, the former college athlete who bought the house next door? I still laugh about how you caught him clinging to the lowest branch of a tree, pointing in horror at a snake. You pulled white opera gloves over your elbows—your thick gardening gloves had gone missing—and carried the snake to your yard. “This snake is welcome in my garden,” you said to our new neighbor. He clearly didn’t know the difference between a venomous cottonmouth and a harmless kingsnake. “He’ll be useful in recycling my moles and voles.”
Animals knew they could trust you, like the injured chipmunk you rescued and all the stray and feral cats that would follow you out of the woods and into our home. I shouldn’t have been surprised when you saved Crisco the groundhog from a pack of dogs in our yard, back when we lived in the mountains, clanging pots until they dispersed. He knew you were on his side—even when he gobbled up all the lettuce you’d grown to make Swedish soup.
You tended to everyone, Mom, but especially Dad and me. When Dad lost his mobility and had trouble moving around the house in the mountains, you convinced him to move to Greenville. Were you heartbroken to leave those woods? You didn’t show it. You woke up every morning at five to tend to your new garden. Your faith held you steady, wherever you were, God always present as you watered your plants. “He talks to me,” you’d say.
You know I’ve led a winding life. Boarding school to college to graduate school in Massachusetts. I was a banker, a Methodist minister and now a university professor. You never made me feel as if I had to know exactly what I wanted to do. You wanted me to be free, to explore what was out there—much like your animal companions.
Then Dad died, my marriage ended and my dog died, all within six months. You didn’t tell me to move on but let me grieve, remaining close in case I needed you. Just like Josie, our rescue mix, did for you when your dementia took over.
You were ninety-nine and three months when you passed into the next world. Perhaps the earth held onto you for so long because you understood each other.
I couldn’t bring myself to sell the Greenville house and have made it my job to care for the property, throwing myself into the cycle of nature. Every autumn, I’m reminded of how you’d delight in the changing colors and all the birds that come and go. I sit and watch them build their nests and smile to myself thinking about how you’d look out for the mama birds returning to their babies.
I miss you, Mom. But in a way, you return to me through the moles and voles, snakes and groundhogs. I’ve been caring for them all, observing and celebrating the beauty and purpose of all God’s creatures. And, of course, tending your misunderstood garden.
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