Afterward, except for brief accounts, I rarely talked of the trip and what it had meant to me. It seemed too close to the bone to express adequately. Even in my thoughts, I tended to skim the surface of the memory to avoid the ache that was a part of it. But now, years later, I needed at least to attempt it, partly as a tribute to my mother and partly to come to terms with it myself.
I left after school on a Friday in September, driving north to the Hi-Line and then east toward North Dakota. A friend had volunteered to ride along and certainly my husband would have, if I had requested it. But I felt a strong need to have the time to myself; I was turned inward and would have been alone in any case.
The call had come from my brother the week before. He farmed near the small town where our mother had lived alone since our father’s death three years before. Mom was a small woman, mentally alert, unafraid and strong in spirit. But physically she was failing to the point that recently she had fallen at night and had been unable to muster the strength to get up. My brother and his family had checked on her daily for years, but this was no longer enough. For her safety, and especially with winter approaching, it was time for her to give up independent living. It was agreed that it would be better if a sibling further away would suggest the idea to her, and that person was me.
The journey to North Dakota had always been made with anticipation and a quickening of the spirit as the miles rolled by. The sense of “home” was well-established to be in Great Falls, but there was another level at which “going home” would always mean the place I came from… the place of my parents. But this time, as I set out, what felt like a small stone developed in my upper chest, a lump that wouldn’t go away. I faced the journey with an unaccustomed and palpable apprehension.
I thought of the small trailer home where Mom lived and its place in her life. My parents had spent years on a series of rented farms and then at last had established a place of their own, with an older house moved from another location. At the age of eighty-five, they had purchased the trailer and moved it to a lot in the middle of Fordville, population 385—a major change for two people who had spent all of their lives in the country.
I remembered vividly the first time my husband and I visited them. Mom took us on a tour and was every bit a queen showing off her palace. We viewed all the storage space and closets, the bathroom, the kitchen appliances and counter tops, the carpets, the table and chairs, all NEW for the first time in her life. Then there was the tiny sewing machine, and a dresser and bed, and other keepsakes. Seeing it through Mom’s eyes, it really did look wonderful.
The trailer was both Mom’s home base and her window to the world around her. She was endlessly interested in the views from her windows: people on their way to the store or post office, people going to the laundromat across the street, neighbors in the trailer park, and cars driving by. It was a parade of humanity she never tired of observing. And because she was a cheerful and positive person with a sense of humor, many of the parade’s participants stopped in for a visit.
From these visits, and from the local paper, she composed a mental record of all of the births, deaths, marriages, triumphs and failures, and church and social activities of the community’s inhabitants. Everything from momentous events to the trivia of a small community was part of Mom’s amazing memory system. But she avoided what is commonly thought of as gossip; she would quietly change the subject or the emphasis if any “dirt” were being dished.
And the stone in my chest was partly from the thought of suggesting to Mom that she leave this small paradise that had been hers for seven years.
I arrived in Malta shortly before dusk and checked into a motel. I ordered a meal at a restaurant, but the stone made swallowing difficult so I returned to my room for a fitful sleep. Early Saturday morning I was again traveling east and the feeling apprehension grew stronger.
I thought of my trip home that past July. One day, my sister-in- law and I had taken Mom to a pick-your-own strawberry field. The expedition was a special treat and the berries were big and plentiful. Mom approached it as an unexpected adventure.
After we had picked for a while, we were walking toward the car with our buckets of fruit when Mom suddenly collapsed into the soft dirt. Immediately she said, as she was being helped to her feet, “I thought that was kind of fun!” The message, flying in the face of the fact, being, “Don’t see this as any kind of weakness now!” I remembered the incredible lightness of her body as I lifted her up, a fragile frame with a wisp of covering. I was aware for the first time of a fading away of my mother’s physical form.
I continued east on Highway 2 and thought of how to approach Mom about the move. I tried to imagine possible reactions but none seemed real. The only reality was my own part and the effect it would have on Mom’s life.
And I thought about Mom’s approach to child-rearing. Mom had the remarkable ability to provide unconditional love and safety without demanding in return the right to control. There were certain basic standards of honesty and kindness and responsible behavior, but for the most part even these were taught by example and not imposed. So I made my own decisions about friends and education and jobs with support, not intrusion, from home. And now I was about to tell this most non-interfering person how and where she should spend her days. That, too, accounted in part for the stone.
I drove into Fordville in the late afternoon and wondered if Mom thought it strange that I had come alone or if she had any sense of premonition at my arrival. We chatted a bit and had a light supper. And later, just before bedtime, I knew I must bring up the subject that had brought me here. The thought of spending another night knowing what must be said was intolerable.
“Mom, it’s probably time to think about going into a home. Glenn said there’s an opening in the one in Larimore now.”
A period of silence, then: “Oh, yes… I suppose so.” Another pause, then: “Will I be able to take some of my own things?”
We talked briefly of what personal possessions could be taken to the home and then Mom went to bed. In my imaginings, it had never gone just like that. Maybe Mom had been preparing herself for this eventuality, but even so the sweetness of the response and my own sense of relief left me feeling weak.
And yet, it shouldn’t really have been unexpected. It was an ingrained part of Mom’s nature to put the most positive light on any occurrence; hence the automatic response of what she could bring to the home, not of what she would be leaving behind. And at another level, it seemed that Mom was aware of what the message may have cost the messenger and was trying to make a difficult situation as easy as possible. That, too, would have been Mom’s nature.
Now I was left with a tangle of feelings, following the original relief. Mom had made it easy for me but I couldn’t do the same for myself. The very effortlessness of the encounter caused me to feel that I had taken advantage of her compliant nature. And for me, that guilt created a space between us where none had been before. On the positive side, there was an intense respect for this valiant woman and her attitude toward the trials of life. Mom had always had the ability to make the best of any situation, without self-pity, but this was surely an ultimate test of that characteristic.
There was a bittersweet quality to the next thirty-six hours that defied sorting out. In the Norwegian way, no more was discussed about the move though the fact of it hung heavy in the air.
I slept with Mom both nights. Monday morning I awoke early because I would be driving to Great Falls in one day. I heard stirrings in the bedroom as I prepared coffee for the trip, but for the first time Mom did not get up to see me off. We said our good-byes from the bedroom door.
It was a blessing in one sense, because I hadn’t known how to face the prospect of leaving Mom at the door of her trailer. But I always wondered about the strangeness of it. Was Mom, too, unable to make it a normal good-bye? Was there resentment? Or was it a final gift from someone who sensed the difficulty I would have in leaving.
As I left town, the stone began to dissolve into a seemingly endless well of tears. They flowed off and on for hundreds of miles. And as the stone dissolved, there was left in its place an emptiness, so that by the time I reached Great Falls I felt listless and drained. I stored my memories of the weekend in a far corner of my mind, from where fragments would surface when I least expected it.
But there was one scene from the second night in the trailer that touched me with such intensity that I rarely allowed it into my consciousness. I had awakened sometime during the night knowing that I had moved out from under the blankets. And then I was aware of Mom drawing the covers over me again. It was an act of such tenderness and gentle caring, especially coming at this time, that the poignancy of it overwhelmed me. The feeling I experienced was that of one of my earliest recollections, of being allowed to snuggle between my parents in bed, safe and secure and warm. Now in this unexpected time and place and circumstance, I was for one more time the daughter being cared for by her loving Mother.