Where I live in Colorado, many of us live far from our parents. We’ve come here for work and adventure, for love, to raise a family – often leaving parents and grandparents behind in another state. And as much as we move forward every day, confident that we are the authors of our own lives, another part of us looks back to where we have come from knowing that we are in equal measure, at least, defined by parents, family, the places we grew up in.
Over Mother’s Day weekend I travelled back east to accompany my mother on a trip to see her mother in New Hampshire. Since my father died three years ago, my mother has become reluctant to travel alone.
So we decided to meet in Boston, and from there drive north to my grandparents’ old farmhouse. It would be just a short drive from the house to the nursing home where my 103-year-old grandmother now lives.
“And I’m bringing my bathing suit,” my mom had announced from Florida, while packing to get ready for our trip. “Just in case.”
The temperature in New Hampshire was not likely to break 60 degrees. And my mother is now in her mid-70s and in remission from stage-four cancer. So the need for a bathing suit seemed unlikely. But my family has a history of enjoying swimming excursions: from the much-protested “early morning swim” organized by my dad every summer, to lazy days on bikes looking for undiscovered swimming holes, to the hike up from my grandparents’ farmhouse to their lovely secluded pond. “Let’s bring our bathing suits” was the happy suggestion that accompanied so many adventures.
The farmhouse sits on a hillside overlooking rolling fields, and woodlands where maple, birch, and hickory were beginning to leaf out, creating a soft green haze. In the distance was the gentle undulation of the White Mountains.
Once we were a big extended family coming here every summer: my European grandparents with their strong opinions; mild-mannered dad perpetually organizing activities for us kids while mom took the car and went of in search of secret mushrooming spots. As teenagers, my siblings and I would come back and forth from New York with friends; and, excitingly, at least once a summer my aunt, uncle and cousin would fly in from “out West.”
My mother and her sister have tried to keep this house just the way it was when my grandparents came here every summer. There is an uncanny sense of stepping back in time when you first arrive. During this visit, every morning before heading out to see my grandmother, my mom and I would walk down the dirt road as we often had in the past, discussing well-worn topics of family interest: how my grandfather had acquired each piece of property that made up the farm, gossip about the neighbors, and what we planned to have for lunch. We debated which bird songs we could hear in the woods, with mom quite definite in her identification of each tweet and warble, despite the fact that she now has hearing aids and often neglects to use them.
“I love this place – the cold air on my skin in the morning, and the way you can see so many stars at night,” my mother said. “I feel like I am from here, that this place defines me.” I felt that way too.
During our visits to the nursing home, my grandmother would light up when my mother and I arrived, taking our hands and saying “You look so nice!” “Mom, it’s Tina. Do you remember me?,” my mother would ask, encouraged by my grandmother’s smile. But then my grandmother’s eyes would close, and she’d drift off. On most days she seemed happiest in the company of the residents she’d become familiar with, often spending hours in companionable silence with an older gentleman named Irving.
One afternoon after we’d returned from the nursing home, the sun was out and it was warm enough to have our lunch on the porch. We sat facing the view, and for just an hour or so, it seemed entirely plausible that my dad might appear, back from a run along the dirt roads. Or that my grandparents would come puttering up the hill in their old Scout.
We did not end up going for a swim in the pond. For one thing, in the field that we would have had to cross to get to the pond, we noticed the daily appearance of two bears. Additionally, my mom was convinced that the field was “hopping with ticks!” The notion that it might also be too cold to paddle around the pond was brushed aside.
Not infrequently, mom will declare how much she dislikes Florida. Nonetheless, when it came time to leave New Hampshire I couldn’t help noticing her cheerful anticipation of getting home to her two cats, to her house that is set up just the way she likes it, and to her regular visits with my sister and brother.
And although I had also been missing the northeast before our trip, I could feel my spirits lift when I arrived back in Denver and headed towards the mountains. Coming out of the Eisenhower Tunnel, the majestic Ten Mile Range came into view over Lake Dillon and I thought: “I Live Here!”
When I reached our house, Alan was outside dragging the rafting trailer from behind the shed. He gave me a big sweaty hug and I helped him maneuver the trailer into place in the driveway. Later, after dinner, we sat and talked about summer plans. Luke, my big lab, jumped onto the couch and settled on top of my lap with a contented sigh. Though it is a long way from where I came from, I am happy and I am home.
This essay was published on May 17, 2016 in The Summit Daily