Today is my mother’s birthday!
In honor of her birthday, I am sharing an essay I wrote while in Hollins that touched on our relationship. I do wish that I had a better throwback to share- ha! This was a period of growing pains for me and my family, as I struggled with what my independence would look like as a family-oriented person. In the edges hangs two relationships my mother didn’t necessarily approve of and looking back, I am grateful that things didn’t work out.
I am very similar to my mother and am fortunate that we are best friends. Often times you hear of a mother and daughter who are so much alike, they can do nothing but fight. Thank H-shem, that isn’t us. She knows me better than anyone else and I am grateful that she shares so much of herself with me. I admire her in the areas where we are not similar. While I can be a bit of a rule follower, she is a little rebellion– fearless, brazen and fun. A tough woman who never seems to stop working or having fun, she has been endlessly insightful for me and inspiring.
Women of Grass
Kylie Louise McCormick
She revealed herself slowly to me, pulling her image out of the layers of night until I saw her full frame. In the shadows she looked majestic. Her arms looked as though they were reaching out. Her leaves caught the light given off from the street lamp and transformed it into their own, making each pale green leaf float like a whisper. The dark hid her subtle frailties: the roots that were callused from being worked out from the hardened earth, the holes drilled into her trunk by eager birds, the tag nailed into her by the work crew that placed her. I approached her as I would an old friend. Stepping into her bubble, I let her surround me, her branches holding themselves outward as though if in the next moment, when I would step close, she would wrap her bark around me and squeeze me tight.
I always wanted to be the type of person who climbs trees. I would be the adventurous type who breaks into places where I don’t belong, and inserts myself in nature as though I were the champion of all I see. I am happy I am not that person. Instead I approach life in a much quieter manner, holding great fear inside my stomach. I will never conquer nature; the idea makes my stomach ache. Though, I do fantasize about living among it. I could learn to go barefoot—grow callouses where soft pads used to be. I could learn to move with awareness of every small inch of life. I could go feral and live amongst the trees and be happy.
It is a wonder I ever stepped foot near a tree with intent to climb given my mother’s fear. She isn’t afraid of heights herself, and letting my sister, Kelsey, wander too near an edge will only give her a minor heart attack. However, with me I am lucky to even get to the wandering stage. Her hands on my shoulders, guiding me safely away from any sort of height, were a constant reminder that I wasn’t alone. Her hands like my hands—weathered with wrinkles beyond our age, weathered with worry, weathered with hope. I never discovered if I was afraid of heights, I knew from a young age that I would never have to. The family visit to a hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, which I assume had a spiraling view down to the lobby’s large fountain smelling of chlorine and processed air, proved this fear to me. Those familiar hands held me back from the glass railing my cousins all pushed their noses against. Later my sister standing between the edge and me, explained, “Mommy told me not to let you near.” Why? “Because she is afraid.” It is a wonder I ever ended up in a tree.
The first time I saw her, her branches were bare. And they appeared to me as such, not as arms reaching out to hug me, or a mystic force drawing me near, just bare branches reflecting a street lamp’s light into the winter night air. If there wasn’t snow on the ground I would have flung myself onto her lower branch, like a child running full speed towards a swing set to feel the kick of the rubber against her gut as she swung hard and fast forward before the chain yanked her backwards, away from the sky. As I hurried past the tree I made a mental note to come back in warmer weather—that the branches invited climbing—that the slow upward curve of each arm would provide nice nooks to sit and read in.
My mother’s favorite tree is the maple. She doesn’t have a specific family member from the bunch, just the maple general. I believe it was on the check list for her ideal house to raise a family in: alleyway—check, on a corner—check, big front yard—check, red door—check, a lilac bush—check, a maple tree—attempted. When my mother moved to Wyoming with my father, none of her five siblings believed she would actually move away from Missouri for good. She received letters from her sisters asking when she would come home. She thought they would stop when she bought her dream home; they didn’t. The maple tree was somewhat of an idea she had brought with her from Missouri—land of trees from my childhood. Wyoming does not have many trees or many tree varieties unless you count the number of wooden plants with sharp green needles. They told her that a maple wouldn’t grow in such an arid climate. They said, like her, the maple tree needed humidity and the company of others, that it would not grow alone. The maple tree in my backyard grew defiant for most of my childhood, alone on a grassy hill.
When I was old enough to learn to be defiant, the grass on the hill stopped, and then one spring the maple stopped as well. My mother was in denial of our barren back yard and the now dead tree that hung over a small dirt hill. The tree stayed until the summer began to wane and the cold threatened its approach. My father and I stood together in the back yard watching it, him breathing out the sigh that says he is about to do something that my mother isn’t going to like. I convinced him first to allow me to do her one worse. That was the first tree I remember climbing.
The branches were like scattered y letters and climbing took more effort than I ever imagined it would. I situated myself: back against one branch, foot against the base, hands grasping smaller tangles around me, and my other foot slid sideways in the acute angle the spilt branches made. From this position I observed the neighborhood above my fence line. When I looked down my stomach jumped to my throat. I was hooked ever since. You see, I have this theory on stomachs.
There has always been poetry of the heart, lovers exclaiming how their hearts ache for one another, people believing that their heart skipped a beat, etcetera. I don’t believe any of this. If anything my heart just reacts by beating faster, but not before any of the rest of me reacts first. The first place I always feel anything? My stomach: the sweet digestive system, my little gastro organ, the acidic filled sac that always steers me right. Sure, we have some notation of it—gut feeling or feeling butterflies. But both of these are side notes to the dozens of heart phrases. I don’t feel with my heart; I feel with my stomach. Anything that forces me to feel—talking to strangers, turbulence in airplanes, and now climbing trees—I love.
When I was in high school I didn’t believe in long-term/serious/romantic relationships. No one I had met could make me have continual butterflies yet. When my friends, each tied down for several years at a time, would approach me about my continual failings at love they would say, “A relationship isn’t about butterflies, Kylie. It is about learning to love someone without butterflies.” No butterflies? Count me out. I was afraid at first that this would mean a life of solitary loneliness until the end of my days. Until, I asked my mother. What do a bunch of high school girls in two year relationships know compared to a woman married to the same man for thirty plus years? Nothing. I asked her if she still got butterflies and her cheeks reddened—every time she sees that it is him calling her from work, each time she watches him walk off of an airplane, home for another three weeks. Kelsey and I used to play this game where we would tease her to blushing. All it took was to repeat the things he said when she would wear shorts, “Your mother has the best looking pair of legs.” He once told my sister once that they were soul mates. If I believe in soul mates, at least I have the evidence.
Stomachs beyond the heart also warn you. Tell you that he is bad news; plead with you to get out of a situation. Was it her or my stomach that threw me from her limbs that night? That night, when I invited a stranger to her arms, the warm night air pushing around us while he broke into her branches and sat on her arm, asking me to follow. As I swung one half of me over, the other half pushed too hard and before I knew it, I was upside down, unable to hold on and then flat. Her roots bumped into my back and I could feel air rushing out of me. He laughed, “Graceful.” I just pushed my cheeks upward in pain. “I could have helped you, but then I was going to fall too, so I just let you go.” He told me this while laughing and I looked up at him with wonder. Later I would remember this scene as a bad case of foreshadowing that left me sitting on hard ground trying to catch my breath: the mystic realm of the tree trying to reach out to me and shake me awake, or maybe my stomach, just angry because I had been ignoring it.
The one person who believed my mother had found her new home in Wyoming, a real place to set her roots, was my Bubbe, her mother. Similar to my mother’s move and her sisters’ disbelief was a move of my own. A 26 hour drive away or 6 hours of time in an airplane crossing my fingers hoping for turbulence, I found the school of my dreams. Small, private, liberal arts university with a great English department: Hollins. Downsides included that it was half a country away in a landscape completely foreign to my own, and that I wasn’t sure about the all-women’s aspect of the university. My mother’s sisters continued whispering doubt and gossip through the grapevine: “Ronna is never going to let Kylie go to school in Virginia.” All the while my mother, as her mother before her, moved her hands from holding/guiding me on my shoulders to pushing me at my back. She knew in her gut that Hollins was right where I needed to be. We continue to grow defiant.
One of the key aspects of the stomach plunge is fear. I mentioned before talking to strangers, turbulence, climbing trees—these are things that scare me. I do not love them less for the fear because fear is a good thing that has been cast out in our society as a negative. If I am not slightly afraid of what I am doing with my life, then what am I doing? I don’t want to live my life comfortably bored. I want to live my life pushing myself outside of my comfortable box of habits and discover things. The best part about strangers is that they are unwritten stories, like blank pages waiting to be filled. The greatest part of turbulence is the drop that catches you off guard and suspends you for a moment between death and safety. The best part of climbing trees, besides the puzzle of it all, is jumping down from them. I jumped into Virginia—land of trees from my adulthood—despite the fears and misgivings. I ended up loving Hollins and Virginia for the exact reasons I was afraid.
I had gone home quickly after the tree threw me from her arms. And the next semester when I returned, I was afraid to go near her. I was scared of my past mistakes coming to haunt me, and ask for another go around. A fear that I was actually unwilling to meet head on was unusual for me. I had the fears that motivated me, forcing me to go to school far away from home, and then making me apply to study abroad. The fears that kept me awake at night, tossing and turning under the vastness of the universe and the smallness of me in my bed. The fears that connected me to people, the funny fears of cannibalism and trees that I could stand to be teased about because it meant that I was making friends. But a painful fear of my past? How unusual.
I couldn’t face it at night, so we met during the day. How strangely out of context she stood. The summer month made her seem content, her leaves green and spread wide. I approached her with my head hanging low, apologetic for the past. And she took me in as though I was a forgiven child who knew not the mistakes she had made and all of the mistakes she was yet to make. I did not push myself onto her branches, or swing from her arms. Instead, I stood staring at her canopy and the puzzle she had built with every new limb. Repairing my relationship with her would take time.
My mother and I never really fought. We don’t have your typically mother/daughter relationship until her fear kicks in and then perhaps we land somewhere in the overprotective spectrum. The spectrum where childhood wants of a bicycle go to die. Other than that we have managed to stay friends. I thank my older sister for most of this. When Kelsey went through her “parents are lame” phase, I was still two years behind. But I could see it coming. I could also see how sad it made my mother when Kelsey would shrug off a hug or not want to get out the car to have fun with the rest of us. I’d be lying if I said that Kelsey’s “parents are lame” phase didn’t include me. We went from spending our time listening to The Beach Boys and playing Barbie to her telling me that everything in her life was none of my bee’s wax. Having observed this phase from the other side, when I found myself with those emotions that made me want to shrug off a hug or lock myself away in my room—I just didn’t. I forced myself to be uncomfortable, unwilling to make my mother such.
However, while I was willing to compromise my teenage angst, I was not willing to compromise parts of my rebellion. When “shit” became my favorite obscenity, my mother knew because I was unwilling to hide who I was. If she got to hold on to me, then she would at least be holding on to the real me. I was unwilling to wear a mask of who I was, so she heard most everything. Kelsey and I are both very honest people, but in two very different extreme ways. Kelsey will not go out of her way to lie to you and she will share the core of the truth. Whereas I know how to hide nothing so what you get is everything, uncensored and free. And so my relationship with mother changed over the years from parent to friend who sometimes parents when I need it.
Suppressing my angst meant that I was unwilling to inspect my mother closely. Strangers in my house always make a pull at my gut. Their eyes become a microscope, and everything they see is under inspection. The mirror always shows a picture of myself and it is always unflattering. My mother is many things, and like any person, it is a mixed bag of bad and good. For her, it is mostly good. Strangers seem to highlight the bad. They question her unwillingness to let me go. They raise eyebrows and make faces. I am unwillingly to search in her for the cause. Their presence makes me feel uncomfortable and their watchful eye over someone I have decided will remain majestic in her motherhood makes me squirm. Part of me knows that these strangers in my home are my friends outside of it. I know that the pull at my gut, does not come from them, but from me. I am afraid of their presence because in reality, it is not their eyes that become a microscope—but my own. I fear the inspection, the careful and harsh judgment of her small tendencies. It has the ability to grow like a fire and wipe her out completely. I know that I will lose a piece of her if I look too close and that scares me. I am afraid of ruining the best relationship I have. It is a fear I adhere to.
Part of the process of building back my relationship with the tree, I brought a close friend to her branches: someone I could trust to prove that not everyone in my life wanted to hurt me. In fact, I brought a friend who had been hurt by him as well, by the simple fact that he was in the room when she shared intimate details of her life. That made me angrier than anything else. Emma was pleased to be meeting the tree I had been telling her about. I flung myself on the lower branch, swing set style, while Emma amused me by introducing herself. “She is very beautiful, I like her.” This made me happy, and I started the tour of her, showing off her best features but with every feature I came to I found another fault. Look at how she is posed to hug you—isn’t that strange the bark is that dark of a color in some spots but not in others, like a rash. Look at how full her leaves are—do you see those bugs attaching themselves to her bark? What of these holes? Do you think she has termites, chewing away at her core, her memories? Look, though, over here on the lower arm that cradles me the most, an eye from a failed limb, sent to watch over me. I smile proudly over her until my eyes work down her trunk to the spot near the ground underneath my favorite extremity. There she has a partially healed over scar, the bark rounding in upon itself like curtains being pulled closed that got stuck on the bottom and left a small triangular view of her soft and pale wood beneath. Starting with the tip and moving downwards the wood seems fragile and soft until the bottom, eaten out by some sort of animal. My stomach sank. What if she was sick, what would I do if she was sick?
I come from a stock of women who grow like the grass. Not the manicured green lawns, nor the grass you find in the meadow, soft and inviting. No, we grow like the hollow, yellow straws of grass wild in Wyoming, able to sustain the lack of water, tough against the wind. I grow from these strong women, trying to find my place among them. Mothers, as trees, have arms, but I have legs that need some stretching. I am not a maple tree placed to create some sort of forced landscape, nor am I my mother settled finally in her perfect home even though it meant living far away from a family she loved. I am not my Bubbe, the survivor not widow, who worked five jobs and still made home-cooked meals. I am not my grandma, the woman willing to take four kids and leave because she saw no other option. I am not my great grandma McCormick who worked the land and did chores alongside my great grandpa through the dust bowl. Nor am I my great grandma Staples, moving from home to home gaining a length of names that would stretch across the country. I come from a stock of women who grow like grass and disappear as easily. Their vibrant yellow fades with age, and the cracked skin of their protective sheath blows away leaving the core to forget. Facing her, staring sharply at the frailties the night had hidden from me, she became a real tree—not the existential idea I had tried to place on her.
When visiting my grandma last, we noticed she wasn’t remembering as she used to. I told her three times the pieces of the puzzles we were placing together were from two separate puzzles. I over-heard her calling her sister twice in a row, then mistaking the news of her brother and the dates of a hospital visit. These were small infractions on her everyday life and I was angry with myself for picking up on them. I was not ready to begin the analysis of the mental state of another strong woman in my life.
For five years of my childhood I watched my Bubbe disappear. Alzheimer’s is a disease like termites. It enters a loved one’s brain, and eats away the softest memories, before working down to the harder ones. I don’t remember the last time she said my name, it was just that one day she stopped talking to the family. A woman as tough as the grass, who took care of everyone around, brought to her knees by something so small. The stubbornness to take care of oneself was inherited by my mother, unwilling to admit her bad back, and then by me, unwilling to show my frailties to friends until I was forced to. The close inspection of my own mother can wait until she is senile and I am forced to recognize that she isn’t perfect. For now I idealize my mother in the bread she makes, the lessons learned from her mother—flour covering the wrinkled hands and making her skin soft. She lives in her fried chicken piled high, enough to feed the neighborhood, and the movies we watch when I am home. Her smile is the bowl of popcorn she makes. Until the day I am forced to move beyond my ideal, this is one area of my life I am okay with leaving in the shadows.
She was now pulled from the shadows and I had to face the hole in her side. I could not pretend as though she was the ideal tree. As fall came upon us, her leaves started changing with splashes of red to yellow. She beamed brilliantly on the warm fall days in Virginia. And in the rain I would stand underneath her umbrella of leaves and feel the few escaped raindrops on my face. They felt like tears, created by her and not the sky. A patter of music would click onto the leaves with each splash; it was like a language in foreign tongue. I did not understand the words she spoke with the rain, but I could sense the soothing tone. Finally, as she started to shed her leaves, I approached the campus botanist and told him that I was worried a tree might be sick.
He was tall man, with trustworthy features. The type you would feel safe bringing a family member in to be inspected by if he were a doctor. As it were, I treated him as her personal doctor. I met with him in his office asking important questions, before bringing him to her in the rain. The months had now grown cold and her leaves had lost their shimmer. He was as excited to meet her as I was to have him look at her. The heavy rain of the day made me wish I had the courage to go to him sooner, but I was happy he was willing to look at her now. I showed him around, asked questions of the small holes drilled into her base—not termites he said, but birds cleaning her. I asked about the bark’s coloring—he thought an answer would be better determined after her species was. And finally, I asked about the hole in her trunk. He told me she had probably had an injury when she was young, perhaps the men who planted her cutting too close with a shovel, or even the blades of a lawn mower grazing her. But he told me that she looked healthy, and the hole eaten out was nothing to worry about either, she housed several different species. I remembered my night time visits in the spring, walking along her low branch like a balance beam. She had slugs that night. Again I remembered earlier in the fall, when I had worked my way up to a night time visit. I sat at her base in the crook of her roots, watching a spider dance in and out of the hole next to me. She was more than a tree—she was a home.
Back inside we determined that she was a maple, or Acer. Stuck between the possibility of a black maple and sugar we looked at the back of a leaf through a microscope. He asked, “See that white hair in its arm pits?” I nodded, she was sugar maple. We had also collected a leftover of her fruit laid under some leaves in roots: she was a she. Her children grew like helicopters, spinning off away from her, vulnerable to the flow and drops of flight. Acer Saccharum: the name of the tree used to make your maple syrup and possibly some table sugar. The sap I had seen souping out of her pores in the spring, glistening under the light of the street lamp, now made sense, though the reason I never got sticky didn’t.
While we sorted out the finer scientific facts of who she was I told the botanist about my mother always wanting a maple tree, and her failed attempt. He told me that there was no reason a maple couldn’t grow in Wyoming. Then excited he suggested I plant the helicopter child we had collected and grow my own seed. Pushing the seed into the fresh soil of a flowerpot, I smiled at the hope that the tree would grow and inherit its mother’s stubbornness; hopefully learn the arid ways of Wyoming.
In a book that made me weep for all of womanhood, Anita Diamant once wrote, “If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully. Stories about food show a strong connection. Wistful silences demonstrate unfinished business. The more a daughter knows about the details of her mother’s life – without flinching or whining – the stronger the daughter.” One day I hope to grow wild like the grass in Wyoming plains; for now I am just running, stretching the legs of a daughter like the helicopter wings of a seed pod.