Last year was a real bitch. Just before I was disowned by my Mom, it was necessary for my well-being to end the relationship with my best friend. I tried to talk about it with Mama.. because it hurt a lot… I loved her. But all Mama said was. “I didn’t like her.” She said this about most of my friends. And she was right about most of them. But she never let on that she didn’t like me.
“Mama if I bring you a kitchen sink, would you have your carpenter friend install it,” I asked her on the phone when I was in the planning stages of visiting her last September.
“I don’t want a kitchen sink,” she replied.
I couldn’t comprehend why she prefers to do her dishes in a stainless steel bowl not large enough for a dinner plate so I asked why.
“I don’t want to have to deal with the plumbing.”
Ok. I can understand that. She does live alone and I agree, the less home maintenance, the better. And her dishwashing setup is kind of like a camping dishwashing setup, so no biggie.
Last year was the beginning of the reclaiming of little Carrie’s qualities of curiosity in everything, who asks questions to learn without judgement. I no longer want to find fault in my husband for cutting the potatoes to fry like potato chips instead of dicing them like I do. I long to see the world and experience every culture possible in my lifetime, so when Mama suggested I revisit the documentary on her homesteading lifestyle that I had abandoned years ago, I said yes. Mama’s a use-everything-leave-less-in-the-landfills kind of gal which is why she planned this trip with me, so I could use my photojournalism skills to share her knowledge. She even suggested when I should go… each seasonal solstice or equinox.
So I aimed to follow Mama around quietly with my iPhone and Nikon, watching and learning while trying to follow my own sticky note quote of “observe don’t absorb” at all Mama’s pokes about my technology “appendages”. I wanted to unlearn my habit of complaining, like stumping my toe a dozen times on her squatty potty because it seems very much in the way to me. So I returned to my roots with the intention of becoming less critical while learning valuable survival skills that could be useful on my bucket list backpacking trips or an apocalypse. Mama knows what flowers and weeds you can and can’t eat, she knows how to live off the land. I wish she knew how much I admire that. I went to connect with her on a deeper level, but instead, quite the opposite happened.
Mama’s house snuggles right into a little valley in the Ozarks, it’s dark gray siding and metal roof almost blends right in amongst the trees that provide cooling in the summer and windbreak in the winter. Every evening, Mama walks to the top of a hill just to the north of the house to watch the sun set behind Grandma’s mountain. Not far off the back porch is the chicken pen where Randy the Rooster very vocally rules the roost. Mama lets him and the laying hens out every evening to roam the yard and eat fleas and ticks and weeds from around an old station wagon, a trampoline, Mama’s half a dozen or so raised gardens and the A–frame tiny house that we lived in while the main house was being built.
The life I’ve created is quite different than the way Mama prefers to live. Her heart is in the mountains, in Arkansas where agriculture is more prominent than shopping centers, the opposite of where I live in Texas. Call me a contemporary flower child who wants a healthy balance of nature and commercialism. I’m someone who could happily live in a tiny house but would be grateful for a pizza delivery locale.
Day 1: Randy the Rooster crowed at 6 a.m. but I went back to sleep and dreamed someone said a pithy quote and I thought with delight, “That’s why I’m here!” But I forgot what they said.
After I had a little coffee in me, Mama grabbed a basket from her collection of a million baskets and we went into the backyard to gather greens to sauté and scramble in with our eggs; Clover leaf, Sour dock, Parsley, Lambs Quarters and Sweet Potato vine. I was so busy attempting to keep up with Mama while taking a photo of each plant, and labeling it I didn’t notice how many mosquitoes were biting me. I used some of Mama’s Eucalyptus oil mixture to take the painful itch out and vowed to not go outside again without a heavy dose of Off.
The greens tasted kind of like spinach in my eggs. Not bad. Eating healthy is one thing we agree on. We don’t agree on how to boil eggs. She likes the yolk runny and I tried to eat one, but I just couldn’t stomach it. Which is weird because I love over medium eggs with runny yolk. Anyway, I was grateful she had cooked the boiled eggs enough so that I could have some protein for our walk in the woods. I sliced two and put them on top of my share of tomato toast… a cuisine my Grandma often cooked and I still love. Especially with homegrown tomatoes, which we had, yellow and red ones, from my cousin’s garden up the road. I put some of Mama’s freshly picked oregano on top and YUM.
Mowley the cool cat that looks like he’s wearing a tux always joins us for a walk in the woods. And Jenny too, Mama’s Blue Heeler that had one eye scratched to opaqueness by getting a little too feisty with a cat. Mama lost the sprig of bee balm that she had picked somewhere along the way, intended for tea. I probably distracted her with my camera in her face. But the soft evening light was so beautiful, threading through the trees onto her.
Mama’s natural cooling system works pretty well. All windows are opened in hot weather and curtains are used for shading any sun coming through them. Cooler air came with the Autumnal Equinox. At nightfall, Mama lit a fire in her fire pit in the front yard and invited her friend join us. Shiner Bocks for them, Mangoritas for me. After some captivating conversation, I went to bed. The damp night air was so refreshing. I turned out the light and opened the curtain to let the light from the Harvest Moon spill over me and my bed. I stared at the moon and the stars as long as I could stay awake, wishing I had my cousin Jeana or my Grandma who love to stay up talking about the world to bathe in the dreamy moonlight as long as possible. But I quickly fell asleep.
Day 2: 5:41 a.m. Really Randy?! After a few choice cuss words, I went back to sleep until 10. Mama made me check my vitals before I even turned my Keurig on. It rides well in my Jeep. It goes camping with me too. Which reminds me, how am I going to deal with my coffee addiction on a backpacking trip? I grumbled at Mama and let her put the monitor on my finger.
“You need to breathe,” she said. “Your oxygen is low.” It wasn’t surprising… I hold my breath a lot. I took a deep breath and got up to turn my coffeepot on.
I wasn’t feeling well, so I perused her enormous tea collection and settled on Tension Tamer to calm my nerves which I suspect was the culprit of my head and stomach ache. I was looking forward to but had performance anxiety about the photo shoot scheduled with one of my cousin’s kiddos the next day. Mama thinks it was from me spraying the Off too close to the greens we ate the day before.
Was feeling much better when Mama and I went to reminisce at my Grandma’s old place that is really shitty since cows have taken over. Where Grandma and I used to pull a mattress out onto the porch and fall asleep looking at the stars and talking about anything and everything was now caked over with cow patties. Grandma’s Mountain is behind the house. My cousins and Mama and I used to climb it sometimes. We’d walk along the top in the clearing and talk about how it’s rumored that a bear lives up there (while scanning the woods for evidence of said bear) then we’d find a safe way down the other side and into town and have an ice cream and call someone to come pick us up. These were the times that I dearly loved but I also like to be near modern conveniences, like food trucks featuring foreign cuisine and well stocked grocery stores.
After scouting my cousin’s place for the photo shoot the next day, we went back to Mama’s and had dinner. But I was still hungry.
“You’re always hungry,” Mama said.
“I’m always hungry because you don’t have any meat!”
“I have some liver in the freezer,” she said.
“I’m going to town to get some meat tomorrow,” I replied after making a yucky face at the thought of liver.
After shaking out my bedclothes to give any spiders the boot and shutting the door with a prayer that it would drown out Randy, I went to sleep with the curtain open again so I could drink in the moonlight.
Day 3: Shutting the bedroom door helped big time. But Randy has a big ego. He has no time of day discrimination. I asked Mama if you have to have a rooster in order to get fresh eggs. “No,” she said. I decided I would not have a rooster if I ever get chickens.
After breakfast, Mama and Jenny and I walked the quarter mile down her drive to the mailbox.
“Let’s see what kind of junk mail I got,” Mama said.
As we’re walking back, Mama stops and offers me a tiny flower to eat from a Goldenrod plant along her driveway to help with my perpetual sinus issues. She then tells me about how she waits for such plants to go to seed to collect them and sprinkle them around her property where she might want some to grow. That’s what I’m doing, I thought, sprinkling seeds where I want to grow. I was proud of myself for letting go of all the I-should-be-doings and allowing myself to find joy in these moments with Mama.
I even thought I handled the Off situation well. Her mosquitos are so bad that after so many bites, it becomes painful. So I sprayed the Off outside, near my Jeep, away from plants. When I was next inside, Mama ran to her room saying the smell was giving her a headache so I got a wash rag and wiped down every body part where I had sprayed it. Nope, she still smelled it. So I took a shower and offered to go to my Aunt’s if that didn’t work. I guess it worked, because she didn’t say anything else about it. I had to minimize my time outdoors there, but I refused to complain. Not even about how I felt like she was choosing the mosquitoes over me with all her water collection containers surrounding the house. But now I realize that I was the trespasser, not the bugs.
Thank goodness the photo shoot of my cousin’s senior ballerina went really well. The evening light cooperated just as I’d hoped. Katie’s tutu was illuminated beautifully by the golden rays.
My cousin assisted me by holding flashes and reflectors while we talked nonstop to catch up. We hadn’t seen each other for more than a passing moment in years. Being only 9 days apart in age, we were close when I went to 4th, 5th and 6th grades there. We talked about how much of a culture shock it is to move there, as it was and still is for me and pretty much why I moved back to Texas. But Arkansas is SO beautiful and shinrin-yoku is very healing. As the sun dropped behind the mountains, I wrapped up the shoot and went back to Mama’s, Bonnie still in her racks on top of my Jeep. I smiled, thinking about my plans for the next day.
Day 4: I ended up sleeping too late and had to rush to get ready and loaded up for Wild Bill’s Outfitters. They would be hauling me and Bonnie up the Buffalo to Maumee and I would paddle her down 9 ½ miles to Dillard’s Ferry where my Jeep waited on us. There was hardly anyone on the river. It was so quiet and serene.
My addiction to picture taking and exploring however, led me to paddle like mad the final hour in order to get off the river before dark. Overcoming Fear of the Dark Challenge = fail. Future backpacking supply list… headlamp.
Which would’ve came in handy once I got back to Mama’s. Out of all of Mama’s 22 acres, her back porch is the only place where texts or calls can be made. So I went out onto the porch to send the hubs a goodnight text. The light wasn’t on, so I started to sit down in the rocker, until I felt a cat squirm. I stood up, apologized to Mowley while getting the flashlight on my phone to finally come on and stared right into the eyes of a tarantula inches from my foot. By the time I got the porch light on and went back out, Jenny had chased the tarantula away. As I started to sit down, I looked at my leg to where I felt something crawling. I slapped the walking stick off with a shiver and went back in my bedroom. Tolerance of Bugs Challenge Test #3 = Fail. Bugs – 2, Carrie – 1
No moonlight tonight. I promptly fell asleep. Goodnight Randy, Goodnight Mama. Go away Spiders.
Day 5: My Elementary bff knew I was coming to her neck of the woods, so we planned to have dinner together. It’s been 37 years (she’s an accountant, she just HAD to do the math!) since we’d seen each other.
No fair she doesn’t have as much gray hair! The hour and a half drive to where she has planted her roots was absolutely breathtaking. I can see why folks trade in Targets and Texas Roadhouse for the mountains. Maybe if we had a place on the Buffalo, I could do without choice restaurants and department stores. And bonus, we wouldn’t have to buy bottled water!
Mama and me had a great evening having wine and sitting on her porch just talking. With the porch light on, thank goodness. Scaredy lights Mama calls them. I suppose she humored me that night.
It was about bedtime when Jenny started alerting on something in the woods. “Coyotes,” Mama said and went into the woods trilling like an Indian to scare them off. I’d never heard her do that before and I found it very intriguing. It was a moment of insight into this strong woman who thrives here with just her cats and dogs and chickens and mosquitoes.
Tonight there was no moonlight, so I closed the curtain by my bed.
Day 6: I depended on Randy to wake me up but he didn’t so I slept too late again. But I still wanted to get in one more walk in the woods with Mama. That was one of the things I loved about living there… I tromped around in those woods for hours upon hours and never got lost once. I don’t know how I never got turned around because I have a terrible sense of direction but I never did. Maybe it’s a natural instinct that I’ve lost since adulthood. I want it back.
But I had overstayed my welcome. Me Snapchatting an old outhouse was the last straw for Mama. She yelled at me for not respecting her privacy and I accused her of being cut off from the real world.
“I made it 5 days, It’s time for me to go home.”
“Am I really that terrible,” she replied.
“NO! It’s not about you!”
Even though I was SO angry at her for snapping at me, I walked up to her to hug her goodbye. I never wanted to be home so bad.
“Thank you for inviting me into your World, but it’s time to go home to mine,” I said.
Still hugging her, I said “I love you.”
“You didn’t look me in the eye when you said it,” she said.
Sight crippled by tears, I quickly loaded up my Keurig and laptop and cameras and headed back to Texas faster then I’ve ever headed back to Texas. Upon arriving home, and realizing I left my Bose speaker on top of Mama’s refrigerator, I sent an apology letter with some return postage money to send my speaker back. I apologized for wearily blurting out the phrase that hurt her feelings. I tried to explain that it was a personal challenge to stay 5 days to become less critical of her lifestyle which is polar opposite of mine. I tried to tell her that I accept her for who she is, that I wish she would accept me for who I am. But it went on deaf ears. I returned the letter from her that followed in a new envelope, asking her to rethink the horrible things she said in it from a place of love. I was simply doing the best I could while honoring who I am. One sentence opened up a whole can of hate. And many many questions about the reality of my mother/child relationship before that trip.
It’s incomprehensible to me that 2 people can see the same situation 2 completely opposite ways. She thinks I filter seeing the real her through my lens. I see it as preserving a moment, making memories to relish at any moment I choose to relish that precious moment. I thought we had a precious moment in conversation at the kitchen table where I looked her in the eye for longer than I normally look anyone in the eye and I thought I saw her and she got me. I thought we were getting closer but turns out, I was exhausting her. It’s confounding that my love was misconstrued by someone I never ever imagined would treat me with such contempt. Why can’t my own Mom see our differences as a balance? How does she not see that I’m also a lot like her? Before that trip, we spoke on the phone at least once a week and could talk for hours. Why doesn’t she remember how much I love being in those woods with her and how I love to go pick greens for breakfast and cook them in her favorite iron skillet with vintage utensils and how I love getting my hands dirty while gardening and that I still use all she taught me to make herbal medicines and that I love going barefooted and jumping in puddles and recycling and upcycling? Why can she not remember the child who picked wildflowers for her? Who traveled 8 hours one way at least once a year to spend time with her since I was 18? 3 times last year!
My 1st 5k is tomorrow. It’s something I’ve always seen as honorable, but it was something everyone else did. I had no clue I could be athletic! That I could’ve been on the volleyball team in middle school! And in fact I was asked by the coach and I was stunned. But no, boys and parties were what I was taught to value more. And what? I never imagined I could see the World! Finally, I got to travel abroad in 2014. I got to touch the Colosseum that I had written my Senior term paper about. I cried happy tears when I saw my cousin who is a Swiss citizen picking me up at the airport.
Maybe I’m unbecoming who I was taught to be and becoming who I imagine myself to be. Maybe Mama is too. She says she plays the role that she thinks I want her to be when I’m there. So this raises the question… who is she? Maybe someday she’ll have the courage to show me.