Virginia and I walk to the Indian place on the corner for our bi-monthly lunch date. They seat us at our favorite booth by the window, and I gaze across the table at her. She looks down, puts her napkin on her lap, and sneaks a glance up at me. She has made her eyeliner in a cat-eye style I remember doing, and the hair around her face is pulled up into a half ponytail. Matching her gold hoop earrings is a necklace that says “Milano.”
She’ll be off to college in 3 months. Only a few weeks ago, I felt crumpled by the task of raising a teenager. I’m not doing it right. I know nothing. I’m harming her instead of helping her. Now over Baighan Bharta and Aloo Palak, we talk about religions and the Enneagram, manifesting and desire, choosing college classes, and the time that I failed Physics for Poets.
What would the past 17 years have been like if I had been less fearful, and more loving? If I had not been ashamed of who I was? If pearls had formed around the grit of my regrets, and I had jewels to then press into her hands?
For Mother’s Day last week all I wanted was for everyone to go on a family picnic at the dairy farm. It was the first Mother’s Day that not all of my children were there. Sofia is in New Mexico working on a farm, and next year, Virginia will be gone too.
Standing on that pasture under the cold May sky, I felt smaller. Smaller in the way that you do when you take off a heavy wool parka that you don’t need anymore.
I tried to be who I was supposed to be — strong, sure, un-confusing. Then motherhood became a shield that helped me hide all of who I am.
The waiter with the shiny head and jovial eyes brings us a take-home box, and as we pack away the eggplant and tomatoes, the spinach and potatoes, Virginia tells me how every morning she goes over what she’s grateful for. “But if you don’t say why you’re grateful, it doesn’t work,” she tells me. “It just becomes a list.”
Who am I to her now, who is she to me? Once dancing in the roles that life had cast us in, we are now characters leaving the stage. I who made rules, monitored, and enforced. She who needed guidance, protecting, guard rails. What remains is something that cannot be categorized or explained. No teacher and no student — maybe we have always been both.
“You don’t realize what power the top bunk has,” I overhear Mark saying one night in his room while he and Virginia are trying to pull a fitted sheet around the hard-to-reach corners. “Monsters can’t get you up here.”
“You don’t think monsters can fly?” Virginia says, as she tickles him and tells the story about how she used to hang from the top bunk to make faces at Sofia, and one time she fell off, laughing and crying at the same time.
When she is away at work one night, I find her pine green fleece jacket inside out on the window seat, and intertwined in it, a strand of her golden hair.
There are only so many more vegan grain bowls she’ll prepare for us, only so many episodes of Master Chef we’ll watch together, only so many mornings her sweet-sad pop songs will billow through the house.
When she gets home, she’ll fix a snack and go down to watch The Sopranos until after I’ve gone to bed. In the morning I’ll coast by her as she cooks her oatmeal before logging into her Stats class. When she leaves for work, I will have already gone to pick up Diana. We go on with our lives.
A wave crests, and then it falls. The day unravels, night comes. Endings and beginnings, leavings and arrivals: they’re all bound into one unbreakable thing.
Mothers and children, grandmothers and grandchildren, ancestors and unborn babies, inextricably tied one to another. There is no end and no beginning. Yet in the heaving, tumbling middle, it feels like we are living through a million deaths and a million births.
The trees along the route are bare now. Air sparkles between their trunks like blue glitter as we fly by on the highway. Diana and I are driving to Ohio to pick up Sofia from college and see my parents and their new kittens.
The noon sun in November is mellow, lighting up the yellow anthers of the Indiangrass that grows by the roadside. The once green hills now look like a Parisian dress, mottled gray and olive. Red barns crouch in valleys. Silos are obelisks at the top of hills. Moss covers mountainsides.
I notice that the rural Maryland landscape looks pastoral and soft when Ohio is our destination. But the exact same terrain, when we are traveling back to D.C., looks Eastern and dramatic.
It seems impossible but true that I have viewed the entire world through the hue of my mind.
When we started out Friday at 8:30, Diana did her Morning Meeting from the car with the iPad balanced on her lap. “I’m going camping in my backyard tonight until 9 or 8,” one second grader in her class said about his weekend.
“I’m driving to my grandparents’ house,” Diana said, “and it’s going to take 7 hours to get there.”
“It takes 14 hours to get to my grandparents’ house,” another child said.
After a long morning of driving, we pull into the Panera parking lot in Clarksburg, West Virginia. In the grass median, I stretch my legs and Diana jogs limply saying, “I can’t run.” We find ourselves doing yoga poses — warrior 2, 1, then 3 — while people at the Jiffy Lube watch us from their cars, motors running. “Now I can run fast!” Diana says, and tears across the grass like a circular saw through a fresh slab of pine.
“Do you want my soup?” I ask Diana, after I have eaten all I can.
“If you don’t like it, that’s okay,” she says. “I don’t like it either, but…” she says while spooning it into her mouth, and I laugh in my voluminous way.
“Your laugh is so loud,” she says with a new self-consciousness. “Everyone can hear you.” I look around at a handful of customers sitting two-by-two in booths, and the store manager at a nearby table repairing what appear to be decorative bull horns, but no one even stirs.
When we finally exit the freeway at 4 in the afternoon, this is the Ohio I know. Undulating plains and little white houses. One-lane highways running through modest hamlets. Strip malls and chain stores. “There are so many farms here,” Diana says when we get close to my family’s place.
The corn is silver-gold, still standing in the fields. Rows of dried soybean plants harvested close to the ground have made the fields into oceans of beige corduroy.
When we pass the farm that used to belong to my great-great grandmother’s sister, we slow down. Then at the Dairy Hut where the Methodist Episcopal used to stand before they tore it down and broke my mother’s heart, we take a right. My parents and their three-month-old kittens await us in the house on the hill.
When we were visiting in July, this farm was in the flush of fertility. Wheat was being harvested and soybeans were being planted right after in a rare double crop year. Only a few fuzzy pods remain where the harvester couldn’t reach, at the very edge of the field or where a branch had fallen.
This is beautiful too. This is as alive as the time of color and heat.
In winter, you can see nature’s hidden structure — the order and the tangles, each embedded in the other.
The star-shaped crack in the cut circle of a log.
Thistle florets, dry and downy, stars in galaxy after galaxy.
Everything in the universe can be found within itself, patterns repeating according to eternal laws.
At the creek, the razzmatazz cicadas of summer are no more. Only a few crickets remain, trilling a lullaby. The waves of poison ivy that once forbade our entry have surrendered. Mud has been tamed with a layer of crackly leaves. There is no stifling humidity, no whine of mosquitoes. The biggest danger now is the dark and the cold. Night is falling.
In Japan, beauty is found in decline, in the weathered and the worn. I love the way the woven wire pasture fence rusts. How the rain has washed the white paint off the cow barn. The way the Hackwood trees lean over the sides of the creek until they slowly fall in.
“Be very careful on the roads today,” my mom tells me the next day before I leave to pick up Sofia at Kenyon. “It’s deer season,” she says. Rutting season is when male deers are so intent on finding a companion that they run across highways. Dying to mate.
The freeways the day before had been splattered with blood. Mangled deer were slumped on the shoulder. Raw necks exposed. Parts strewn across the lanes.
I write down my dad’s directions and look at the map and drive the two and a half hours without the car telling me what to do, because I want to pay attention. After Mom’s Bait Shop, you take a left onto Pleasant Valley Road and drive by the patch of rotting pumpkins. At the middle school, you take another left, past the prison and the golf course, and route 23 takes you north, by the Dollar Generals and Speedways and Bob Evanses along the feeder road.
I don’t see any rutting deer, but the rain has shined the highway into platinum gold. There is a truck ahead of me called Super Ego Holdings. What is the message for me in the morality play of my life? To me, everything is meaningful, although the daughter I am driving to pick up believes that nothing is.
A dad loading a minivan holds the door to the two-story sandstone building. This is the second and last time I’ll step foot in Sofia’s dorm. It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the rest of the year will be remote.
As I walk through the hall, I am reminded of my ‘50s era elementary school — the smell of pine cleaner, the memory of asbestos, the aging glazed brick.
I knock a rhythm on the door, and Sofia opens it. Her smile and her hug fills me with the kind of warmth that floods your body after a good run. She thinks that she hasn’t done enough packing, but I see a dorm room ready to be folded into a car and driven away. I start taking armloads down to the car while she packs up the last things, vacuums the floor, and slips her key into a little manila envelope.
We drive through the rain all afternoon, and talk about whether she’ll defer next semester or work on an organic farm or take classes from her laptop in the basement. We get lost and make the final way back to my parents’ farm through one-lane roads of mobile homes, chicken coops, and garden pedestals in front yards holding blue gazing balls.
Bringing Sofia to the farm and then home feels like retrieving an important part of a puzzle, a puzzle whose borders are not so straight anymore.
The next morning, we hug my parents good-bye with masks on. The kittens will be cats the next time we visit. Diana knows it was I who left four quarters and took the tooth under her pillow the night before.
Sofia drives the first half and I sit in the passenger seat. “Look how many people are dead!” Diana says when we pass the graveyard next to Tanya’s house. A herd of black cows grazes on a lopsided hill. Eastern white pines, with their straight arms, are many-limbed crosses.
Little by little the flat farmlands give way to the foothills of the Appalachians. As we climb the mountain range, we begin passing resorts, vacation homes, and camps: Jesus in the Hills Camp, Chief Logan Boy Scout Camp, Canter’s Cave 4-H Camp.
Beloved mountains. Shelter from the wind, the sun, and the rain, and perhaps most of all, from ourselves. In the mountains, there is always another ridge, another stand of trees to hide behind. To get lost and find yourself in.
In the late afternoon light of western Maryland, I get tired and Sofia takes the wheel again. Diana chants, “Skittles, Skittles, snake,” practicing her Ss with her two front teeth missing. Her new ‘S’ sounds like air being let out of a tire.
In the vast expanse of leafless brown woods that line the highways, I notice the evergreen trees. Insignificant in summer, their green now holds everything together. Bridging the worlds of activity and hibernation, fecundity and decay, they remind me that even though nothing in this world stays the same, there is something through it all that is eternal.
I had never been to the college our daughter had chosen. Sofia had visited Kenyon with my parents, and I knew that my grandfather and uncle had gone there, but my April visit was canceled due to the outbreak. So when it was time to go on August 26, I wasn’t sure where she was leading me.
The route we normally take to Ohio got us only halfway, then we had to turn north toward Uniontown. We climbed the jagged mountains of Pennsylvania past historic battlefields, pre-colonial stone houses, and painted images of young George Washington in his ruffles and blue velvet, and I felt the same rush of awe and drama that I did when I went to college in New England. The East, with its founding history, plaques and pedigree, felt majestic and weighty. I instead felt like any girl from the cornfields of flyover country.
Kenyon told kids to pack light in case they had to move to a quarantine dorm, so the car was only half-full: a full-length mirror, a fan and a lamp, an area rug and a duffle bag of clothes, plus some photos to decorate the double Sofia would occupy by herself on a campus populated with only freshmen and sophomores.
When I went away to college, the kids I met who grew up in cities along the coast were worldly and impressive. It was easy for me to go from a silent admiration of Manhattan, Boston, Exeter or Choate to a full summation of the associated person as intelligent, powerful, even heroic.
As Sofia and I drove over the National Turnpike, American flags flapped around historic inns and famous taverns and I pictured revolutionaries in ragtag uniforms 300 years ago mapping attacks against the British. On this day, much of the red, white, and blue was supplied by yard signs and flags emblazoned with “Trump-Pence 2020.”
The problem with sanctifying people is that everything else becomes profane. My idols shone so brightly there was no choice for me but to be dull. Destined to chase after them, waiting for benediction.
After Sofia and I crossed the Ohio River into my home state, I felt the let-down of the Shoe Carnival strip mall where we stopped to get coffee. The freeway we took, bland and monument-less, was wet from a storm, but I couldn’t help notice how the water streaming over the concrete shimmered like platinum in the late afternoon sun.
An hour later we would slow down at a college campus of Gothic Revival sandstone that tapered into a row of clapboard markets, Victorian houses converted into academic departments, and a post office with a weathervane cupola.
But before that — when we first bumped onto a 2-lane country road and I knew we were getting close — I rolled down the windows. The air smelled like watermelon and hay, wet fields and crickets. The road tossed us up then held us tight, like a swing at the elementary school playground. We drove past velvety blue soybean fields and tin roof silos, barns taken back into the earth by vines and houses with their paint all rained off, piles of wild honeysuckle and fences fashioned of hay rolls.
Here was the Ohio countryside I couldn’t wait to leave when I was 18. It was so beautiful, in the quiet way that home is. Something I wouldn’t have recognized back then, even if it were right in the mirror in front of me.
On a day that started with covid self-testing in an athletic center but had no departure deadline, I didn’t know how long to stay. Sofia didn’t seem to need me to leave — except for when I walked too slow or the time I said “micr-o-wave.” There were so many things to do: hang up mirrors and smooth on sheets, unwrap new duvets and take ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. I wanted to buy her everything that was missing — a phone charger, a box of tissues, the books she hadn’t ordered yet — as if currency would cease to exist when I left.
Then her Reebok’s came unglued, the only warm shoes she had brought, and there was still time after eating General Tso’s tofu from the dining hall on a secluded spot on the lawn to drive out to Lowe’s for contact cement (and another fan for her room).
When that too was assembled, and I could see that the new lightbulbs made her room a little cozier in the darkening evening, I said, “Well, I guess I’ll get going now.”
She gave me a long, long hug, and said, “Thank you so much for helping me get everything all set up.” She insisted on walking me to the car and, in that moment I became unsure of who was leaving who.
As I drove away toward the hotel, shirred clouds of peach and rose and amber glowed against a sea blue sky. It felt like traveling inside a conch shell. Was launching an 18-year-old like spiraling deeper into life or opening outward?
I thought about how delicate she seemed: her slight frame, her porcelain skin, her detailed and careful ways. I wanted to cradle her and deliver her to the next person who would take care of her. But as she had watched me drive away, she was calm, contained. She didn’t look like she was searching for idols.
It was a quiet freedom that she was getting, a sober one. Not the wild one of my college days when I expected a pinnacle, lashing out against life if it didn’t deliver. It was a freedom that we were aware could be taken away at any point. I had the feeling that she would take every day gently in her hands.
I tried to take pictures of the sunset outside the hotel, but the camera only captured the telephone poles and the taillights of a car driving away. The sun went down and the fountain kept tinkling and pickup trucks kept rumbling around the square as if nothing had happened that night.
On the drive home, sadness did not come in a flooded rush. It was more like a thread, a thread that had to stretch so far it would always be tight.
Like a spider’s silk, it is only visible in certain lights, when it shines like a sliver blade. You feel it when you’re trying to go somewhere and you get all tangled up. But even if no one else senses it or sees it, I know it is there. It is always there.