In Honor of Our Unconventional Mothers
I’m thirteen years old and I’m dragging a bulbous manzanita branch to a burn pile. Its sharp edges graze my forearms and draw blood as I throw it in. I watch its silvery leaves shoot crackling sparks from the fire, while its burgundy bark smoulders. It’s time to turn around and get another branch, but I stall. I’m bored and I wish I was anywhere but here.
“Good going, honey,” Mom says. She catches me in a scowl and I try to smile.
It’s Mother’s Day after all, and this is what Mom wanted. A work day. She has plans to clear a patch of land on the property for a cottage garden, or maybe the for the future site of the Wheelehan Christmas Tree Farm she’s been talking about for years.
“Isn’t it great to be out here, with our land?” she asks. I nod and shrug.
We live seven miles away from a small town–population 900–on a dirt road, in a forest of black oaks and ponderosa pines, and of course, the invasive manzanita shrub. Mom fell in love with these 12.8 cragged acres overlooking the American River canyon the moment she saw them. She left her beachy, fashion-forward life in Los Angeles to build a life here.
As a younger girl, I didn’t realize my life was different from anyone else’s. I wandered the land barefoot with my brother, climbing trees and stomping in creeks. I rode my bike to the nearby pond, where I hunted for frogs and caught goldfish with a butterfly net. But now that I’m a teeanger, I know that other girls my age shop at the mall and wear makeup. They don’t live an hour from a Target. And their Moms don’t want to spend Mother’s Day “with the land.”
The growl of Dad’s chainsaw invades my thoughts. Why can’t Mom be like the other moms who want to go to lunch on Mother’s Day? Why can’t we take her shopping or buy her some cut flowers? GROOOWWWLLL.
My brother, though younger than me, is dragging three times the amount of tree with each trip. I feel weak and useless and like I was born into the wrong family.
A few years later, I would move from the land and I would live in the suburbs. I would live in the city too. But after the novelty of being down the street from a Target wore off, I would miss my mountain childhood. I would think of my mother, beautiful, and in her 30s, making a huge and terrifying decision to leave her comfortable suburban life to homestead in the Sierra Nevadas before I was born.
Did she know, when she bought that land, that she was showing her unborn daughter what a strong woman looks like? Did she know that because of it, this daughter would know how to start a fire, survive a power outage, identify birds, grow vegetables, and know what native plants are edible? That this daughter would learn the power of hard work? That this unborn daughter would learn to imagine and create and tell stories about her world? That she would learn to see beauty around her, that it would take her breath away and she would never quite get it back?
All of our mothers made a strong or unconventional choice. Maybe it was something we hated as a child or teenager and maybe we haven’t thanked her since. What story did your mother choose to tell with her life that shaped yours? Thank her this weekend.
I am different from my mother. I live in a neighborhood and I like buying shoes. But this Sunday, I don’t want to go to lunch or to the mall. I want to be with the land. I’ll have the shovel and Joe will have the pick. Georgie will carry her Minnie Mouse gardening set and follow us around as we plant and dig and tend to the garden in our little plot of property in the Bay Area. I won’t be with my mother this year, but she will be with me, filling my heart with joy with each thrust of the shovel in the dirt. And I will whisper my gratitude to her once again.