My mother died when I was nine, so I had to learn her lessons quickly. She was estranged from her family, full of secrets and in relationship with a woman. Together we navigated life in the early 1950s on the Mojave Desert, far from telephones or any kind of public transportation. Before my mother’s death, I learned about unconditional love. Her stories, told through the adventures of a magical dapple-gray horse, wrapped me in the security of the kind of love that sets a foundation for life. Love of self and others.
We lived in a canyon remote and desolate as the surface of the moon. Our cabin overlooked a ravine, home to amazing, adaptable creatures. The trapdoor spider, the tarantula and horned toad are only a few of our seldom-seen neighbors. She wove tales of danger and respect and the need for protection from the living, breathing desert. One day I found her dissecting a rattlesnake on the kitchen counter. Afraid I might step on the rattler, she had killed it out by the back step. She later fried the meat for dinner.
My mother shared her love of books and literature with me and taught me to read before I entered school. At night we’d sit by our kerosene stove with our books. I loved to pretend to read out loud, turning the pages of her books full of words I didn’t understand. She listened and encouraged me while I amused her with childish made-up stories.
She fought her cancer with food from an early health-food guru, Adele Davis, and left me a life-long legacy of healthy eating. To this day I still make bone soup and note it’s recent rise from the ashes as the new cure-all for what ails us.
After her death, too old for adoption and with no known family, I ended up in foster homes. For me as a child the ever-present threat of moving took a certain level of detachment. I learned this survival method from my mother, a woman who never mentioned the father of her child. She had me. We had each other. That was enough.
The Mojave conceals an inner life. Caves hide underground springs where watercress and other edible plants can be found. Wildflower seeds wait under the sand, sometimes for years, for the exact amount of raindrops needed to sprout.
My mother had to know her time to walk with me on this earth would be short. She and her partner mimicked the mystery of the land where they chose to live. It is with sadness that I imagine how difficult her choices must have been. It is with gratitude that I acknowledge I inherited the tenacity of a wildflower from my mother and overcame early adversity to thrive.
On this Mother’s Day I savor my mother’s memory and her lessons taught from the Mojave Desert.