There is snow on the ground now. Autumn faded weeks ago. The last hike I took during the height of blazing color, I marveled at the colors and shapes of the leaves above me, leaves falling gently around me, leaves carpeting the trail under my feet. I bent and picked up a sugar maple. smiling at the golden color, still tinged with green at the tip. I picked up Japanese maple leaves, tiny, pointed and fiery red. There was yellow- green oak, maroon birch, until I finally had a handful of carefully stacked leaves. I cried silently as I walked to my car. I could still hear my mother’s voice, a hundred years ago it seems now, when I gave her one of my drawings for mother’s day.
“Oh, I love trees!” she had said. The drawing was a detailed study of three maple trees against some rocks. “I love anything with trees in it,” she said, looking at the drawing and smiling as genuinely as I had ever seen her smile.
I said, “You want some with color? Mama, I can draw any kind of trees you want.” I was suddenly sorry that I had not brought her something magnificent, an oil painting, something other than a pencil drawing.
“Oh, yes! I love fall leaves. Paint me something with trees in the fall! All those colors! I always wanted to go to the mountains in the fall and see those colors, trees as far as you can see, in orange and red and …well, you’re the artist, paint me something like that!”
My mother had never been to the mountains in the fall to see the leaves. We lived in a small North Carolina town; she had been raised less than 12 miles away. She had been to Aiken, SC, the coast (once or twice) and the small towns in between to visit relatives. That was the only reason anyone traveled, to visit relatives. You moved if you had to find work and you traveled to visit relatives. That was the world my mother was raised in.
She had seen pictures of the mountains in fall. I did paint a picture of fall trees at a lake, with the trees mirrored in the water. She gasped and hugged me and hung the picture near where she spent most of her last days, in a chair surrounded by reading material.
Now, as I gathered leaves, I remember how much she had loved them. I had been gathering leaves every fall since her death without really knowing why I had this compulsion. I had gathered leaves and made placemats, bookmarks, mounted them in small picture frames, pressed them in books to be useful later.
I thought about her as I stood there holding leaves of brilliant red, gold, green-bronze, and purple…and I remembered her saying once, “Oh, I don’t know what tree it is, but the leaves turn red-gold in the fall.” I laughed because I knew the same thing. I couldn’t remember the names of certain trees, but I knew how they looked in the fall.
Suddenly, I realized my mother had shown me a way into art. She had shown me how to love something I couldn’t name. I didn’t have to have a reason to make art; I just had to do it. The pictures didn’t have to mean anything; they just had to be worth looking at. They should be something you wanted near you.
I love the shape of trees, in all seasons, and I find myself looking for them everywhere I go. They are trimmed, trained, and pushed into line in the city, carefully placed in proximity to houses in the suburbs, planted in neat rows along the interstate…but in the mountains they are wild and messy and completely free. Aflame in the fall, boldly naked in winter, tender during spring and welcoming in the summer. They hold out their leafy branches like arms and whisper with the wind while I’m hiking. Birds live in them, calling to each other and me, when I’m there.
They live out loud here and my mother lives in them. I felt that realization like a hard thump on my back. She loved something she couldn’t even get to. She had been raised in the fields, a tenant farmer’s daughter. There were trees nearby, wild, scrubby pines, and dogwoods near the streams. She had probably always felt trees were a safe and welcoming symbol for a time gone forever. I had never realized that about her until she, too, was gone forever.
She was more complicated than I knew. She wasn’t a good mother; this isn’t an attempt to paint my mother into someone I think other people will like. She failed us, as a mother, and there is no way around that. She failed her children but not because she was selfish, an addict, or any of the most popular reasons for failing your children. She failed because she didn’t know what to do and the few things she tried didn’t work. I have lived long enough, and failed enough, that I am beginning to understand.
She was only 17 when she married my father, who took her away from the little she knew. That’s what abusive people do, they isolate their captives. I understand now that she was no older, emotionally, than her own children. She loved us when she was rocking us, breastfeeding us, changing our diapers, etc. But when Daddy walked into the room-or staggered-she knew only terror and as we grew older, she simply watched in frozen horror when he decided to whip us, bellow and terrorize us, etc. She did what most abused people do; she tried to make us understand that WE had to keep from making Daddy mad. I understood pretty early that it didn’t matter what the hell you did or didn’t do, when the demons got into him and you fell into his line of sight-you were a goner. Hell, we made jokes about it.
For years, I hated her, felt sadness for her, regretted her. Now I’m seeing that she gave me more than I realized. She helped me see with an artist’s eyes. She helped me learn to love the natural world, helped me appreciate it; see that there is a universe out there that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with me. She helped me see that everything is connected.
I finally realize she was a human being-complicated as human beings are. She wasn’t one thing. She was brilliant about many things and sadly child-like in other ways. She loved me as only she could and I held that against her. If she could have gone to the mountains in the fall, she would have. She couldn’t, but I could and now I live here. This is the first place I have found true meaning in my life, and I thank my mother for leading me here.