When we encounter the sand path from the wooded trail, we immediately decide to take it. This despite the fact that it seems a nearly vertical climb. This despite the fact that my feet and knees hurt and I’m positive this ascent, the possibility of which makes me dubious, will do my joints no favors. But, there it is and so we shall climb it. We know Pyramid Point, one of our favorite spots in northern Michigan, lies upward, and this sudden strip of sand seems as promising as one of the sugary shortcuts on a Candy Land board.
We start to climb and both of my daughters, Frances and Sylvia, quickly outpace me. We finally reach a crest and I see that there are now choices: continue up the razor backbone of sand or cut right, climbing down a bit at first but then ascending by means of much more reasonable switchbacks. The girls choose the former and I the latter. I walk downhill, immediately dropping from their sights but they had not been throwing glances over their shoulders at me anyway because they learned long ago to count on the fact that I would be at their backs. We would rejoin one another at the crest. I moved slowly, enjoying the wind and sound of water, lost in my thoughts.
“Mom? Mom?!” My handle is called out a first and then second time. The second time in a much more urgent voice, filled with disbelief, concern, panic, irritation. It is as though Frances is on Everest and turned to see nothing but rope trailing behind her where once a hiking partner trudged. Oh shit, Mom’s fallen off the edge of the world.
“I’m here.” I assure her, “I just took a different path.” She is placated, though laughing nervously at her moment of wondering what had become of me. In the slow minutes it takes me to join her at the crest I imagine the thoughts that raced through her 16-year-old mind. She is likely equally enthused and terrified. Eager to be the responsible caretaker and terrified to do it without me. Oh shit, Mom’s fallen off the edge of the world and the car keys are in her pocket.
Fortunately, I brought my tall wooden cane, the one I bought when my feet were swollen everyday and I was teaching full time. It is actually not a cane but a staff. I considered those canes that the pharmacy sells. There were some exceptionally tacky ones: neon pink with leopard spots or purple paisley. Some had not simply a foot but a solid, four-pronged base. I may one day need one of those canes. It is in fact quite likely that I will but I’m just not ready. They feel like a permanent decision whereas my staff feels like an as-needed accessory. It is the reading glasses of my sometimes not so sure feet. The stalk of wood is an excellent climbing tool as I plant it and then pull myself up, step by step. When I reach the crest I can stand atop this dune like Prospero, gazing out over the lake and perhaps conjuring a storm. Don’t worry about me children, I’m just controlling nature.
When I reach the girls they ask if I am okay. I offer confidence and even mention that the dense, cold, October sand feels really good on my swollen and sore feet. This is true. It is numbing, massaging, invigorating. My sandals have been tucked into the back pocket of my jeans and my toes are quite happily lodged into the packed powder. They even feel a bit wiggly, something they rarely feel anymore. I feel good, happy, relaxed. I am also in a lot of pain and simply weak and tired. My daughters are smart and they know me. They know me well. Still, we all choose to together participate in a fiction we are willing to truth. Mom is fine.
They know me well because I have always been their keeper. Before I remarried and our family suddenly grew from three to five, it was, well, three. Their father moved to another state when they were only four and seven and most of their life experiences have been in the company of the other two-thirds of our trio. Our home was small, doors never closed, beds shared, and, due to lack of childcare funds, just about everything done together . My daughters knew my intensity, my seemingly endless energy, my creativity and productivity, and my fierce love. They never doubted my strength or abilities. I once stitched Frances a small felt tube on a sturdy neck cord so she could carry her lip balm during the winter months. She came home from school asking me to make about 25 more because her friends all wanted them. She had a list of names. Time and energy were of no concern to her. She seemed genuinely surprised at any limitation I showed. Of course Mom can do that. I did not do that but I did stay up until the middle of the night doing many other things. I paid the bills, baked the muffins, mowed the lawn, wielded the power tools, sewed the Halloween costumes and doll clothes, dipped the cat litter, hid the Easter eggs, and in every other way assured those girls that I had it taken care of, that I was up to the task, whatever it was. And I was.
These pilgrimages to northern Michigan were something we did annually when they were little. Our trips are now more sporadic and we all love the sense of coming home they bring us. We visit a friend, a farm, my home state, and the lake that I love. There are hikes and dairy bars. Each summer of their younger years we piled into my old Volvo with no air conditioning, packing a cooler full of snacks and books on CD and drove north. The drive took us about 11 hours because there were many bathroom and popsicle breaks along the way, but we all relaxed into it as we moved farther and farther north, away from schedules and school and our tiny home and daily life. When we crossed the border into Michigan we all cried out, “Woo-hoo Michigan!” It never occurred to the girls how bone tired those drives made me because we were having too much fun. I didn’t spend much time allowing it to occur to me either because I simply surrendered to the drive and the time with my children. I caffeinated steadily, leaning forward in my seat and slapping my own face when I felt myself fading. This trip, this October trip, is a chance to have another northern excursion before Frances grows up. She is a high school junior; Sylvia in middle school. Their stepdad and stepsister are visiting colleges during the fall break and this dividing of our blended family is not unusual. We take these moments to exist in what was. We all had these lives before we came together and we come together so easily and with so much love that the parting ways is easy and reuniting is celebrated.
The trees were beautiful driving up. It had not occurred to me that we would have such a colorful passage north. We are not intentional leaf peepers and for us these rich fall colors are a bonus rather than a purpose. No longer do we listen to children’s chapter books on CD but podcasts and shared music, which the girls tune in and out of with earbuds and their own musical choices. On this trip, we listen to Tom Petty songs, over and over, because he died only a few days earlier and took with him one of the voices of my eighties radio years. Conversation is balanced with silence and sometimes we share the music, all three of us singing along. I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’. Gonna leave this world for awhile.
It rained heavily as we arrived during the dark evening and we picked up food at the market and then headed to our friend’s tiny farmhouse. She is away, farther north herself, in the leap of land that is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We slept with the windows open and woke to farm smells and sounds. There were cows outside the bathroom window and horses in the sunshine at the pasture fence across from the porch. The girls slipped their feet into boots and stepped across the muddy drive to talk with the horses. I learned that it was chicken-slaughtering day on the farm and knew that I had to get us, my vegetarian daughter in particular, elsewhere for the day.
On the open dune I walk behind the girls, still feeling the bulk of my rubber Birkenstock sandals in my back pocket. They are the only shoes I wear these days and I have yet to make footwear plans for the winter. The girls are so very different yet so alike and they love each other as much as they irritate each other. I try to not manage their relationship. I hear the bickering but I see and feel the love. I watch them descend toward the water. The waves slap rocks at the dune’s base and create a ripple of cold color and foam. The water’s edge looks perilous but the girls carefully pick their way downhill, around patches of dunegrass, toward the rocky edge. Please don’t fall because I can’t catch you. I think from my high and solitary perch. But I can or we wouldn’t be here. Despite my physical weakness and loss of self, despite my swollen hands and slow feet, I drove here with you and I climbed this dune with you, and I am watching over you as you sit close to the water’s edge and share this moment as sisters. I will climb down with you if need be. I will drive you out of these woods and feed you dinner and love you because I am the keeper of you; you are not yet the keeper of me.
The previous spring, after a year of confusing and debilitating migrating pain and inflammation, I was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis. I promptly contracted shingles and later in the summer was diagnosed with degenerative spine disease. In short, my body was quitting its primary jobs. Some days my hands hindered me from simple use: holding a mug, pressing garlic, opening a jar. Some days my feet swelled like potatoes and each step was painful. My shoulders sometimes did not allow me to raise my arms above my head and when my elbow was also inflamed, I had to manually lift my arm to a tabletop for eating or keyboarding. Simple tasks like brushing my teeth or hooking my bra became challenges. Sometimes driving a car was a really bad idea because my hands gripped the wheel about as effectively as the mitten hand of a gingerbread man. Candyland again. (Honestly, I hate that interminable game with no room for strategy or skill.) I was slow, far away, and in pain all the time. Inflammation squeezed my nerves and radiating pain that felt like fire ants crawling up and down my limbs kept me up at night. I spent the wee hours pacing out the pain or on our sofa, crying and watching old episodes of Law and Order. Oh, McCoy, you loveable fascist. Please lull me to sleep. Connective tissue hurt; big swollen lumps appeared on the top of my hands and feet. They hurt and then went away. There seemed no discernible causality between food, activity, inactivity, rest, medicine and symptoms. My body was a broken machine with electrical parts that glowed and buzzed at unexpected times. I was the sick animal in our herd and my tangible weakness spoke of an uncomfortable instability. The girls wanted to help me as much as they wanted to ostracize me from the fold.
They weren’t ready for me to go careening off a dune, however, landing on the tree branches and forest floor behind us or the water and rocks before us. I was the driver, navigator, and banker of our travels. Frances drove part-way but it was highway practice for the relatively new driver. Heck, we weren’t even at the well-signed and heavily hiked Pyramid Point trail. Instead of driving to the trailhead parking lot and hiking the heavily trodden climb to the popular lookout, we drove into the wooded area and picked up a part of the long loop there, immediately finding ourselves in the beautiful beech and maple laden piney northern woods and headed for an open dune area less pristine than the lookout but just as inviting. On this cool and windy fall day the patches of scrubby dune grass and the wind-carved lumps and spines of sand created an interesting landscape. My car waited in the woods on the side of the road where we left it when we abruptly joined the trail until we came across the steep sand shortcut and now here we are, on top of a dune, in the cold wind.
Each of us has those things that make us, well, us and locomotion has always been one of mine. Since I took my first steps I have felt a strong wind at my back. I love the motion and rumination of walking often and for long distances. Also integral to my sense of self is motherhood. Neither can be cleaved from me though how I employ both is ever-changing. Pain and limitations have not hindered the most important parts of parenting. I can love unconditionally, communicate effectively, listen, teach, care, pay bills, help with algebra, wrap gifts, make pancakes, make phone calls, and otherwise function in a parenting role. There is something else though that we three have built together, it exists among us and is part of each of us. We are makers and adventurers. We are producers more than consumers, and our small family was always a family project. We once drove west, following in the footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder. We made rubbings of leaves, one from every tree variety we could find in the Big Woods. We waded in Plum Creek, and camped in a brutal storm in Walnut Grove. We once ventured to Washington, D.C., leaving on a Tuesday morning and coming back on a late Thursday night. I drove the whole way, straight through on either end. We ate peanut butter and crackers and walked miles every day. The girls were raised to be adventurers and were comfortable carrying their own luggage, sleeping in tents and cheap hotels, and riding long hours in the car from young ages. I was the foreperson of this great project and now I am weak- limbed and low energy. I feel vulnerable, low ebb, old, and no longer up to the task. I continue walking across the sand.
On our return to the trail we find a fairy crown. Intertwined vines adorned with a few sprigs of greenery sprouting delicate white flowers. The full circle imagery is not lost on me. Here we are, girls, right where we started when you were little people: In nature, in wonder and beauty. Despite age, time, illness, and family changes we still find each other in this place and it is still as lovely, simple, and natural as this forgotten fairy crown.
Sylvia and I sit for awhile, scooping sand around our feet and being quiet with one another. Now is still their time to be children: and I refuse to fall down on the mom job – literally or figuratively. I am still their tether and my feet, swollen and slow as they are, are still firmly planted. I am helping them dig their holes deep and plant healthy roots and if at these still tender ages they think I have become unmoored then so might they. This is the job. It has been the job from the moment I met Frances and her helmet of heavy hair. The job requirements change everyday but the first and foremost of them is simple: be there. This presence takes many different forms and may be literal or figurative. The time will come for the burden to shift and the roles to change but that time is not now. I am not ready to be kept by my children and they are not ready to keep me. Because I am the keeper of you; you are not the keeper of me.