Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows. Rainer Maria Rilke
Nature gives unabashedly, unto life and unto death. Stephen Farmer
Up through the dark ground, the green seed rises; nothing can stop its ascent to the sun. Katya Sabaroff Taylor
It was always there in the air we breathed, the freshness of sea and pines mingling with the smell of fish washed into shore. We inhaled it deeply, mudflats and salt air, ocean spray and rot. It was a thrumming thriving life on the edge of Casco Bay in Maine, and our parents, by example, taught us to welcome it all. When we hopped into the red boat with our father, our bare feet dipped into the briny warm water that swished side to side on the boat’s slatted bottom. Mackerel scales stuck to our toes and we smelled of salt and fish bait and the cold clear Atlantic. And, back on shore, after a boat-ride and a swim in the cove, we entered the world of our mother. She loved her seaside garden. Her world was a sensual one, organic and lush, flowering peonies and iris, green beans and pea shoots poking out of the ground. And, like our father, she didn’t shy away from the rotting aspects of life.
Our mother knew that the sun-baked seaweed was a goldmine of nutrients for her coastal garden and she often sent us down to the beach with buckets to scoop up what the sea had left behind. We then would watch as she carefully tilled the rotting weeds and crushed shells into the soil that would later grow our summer vegetables. And, after we ate these vegetables, the bounty of beans and peas and chard and tomatoes and basil and carrots that grew with gusto, we dumped our scraps into the cut-off milk carton that sat on our kitchen countertop. Our scraps were not throw-away. Our mother taught us that. And it was not always pleasant, to be the one in charge of carrying this milk carton of egg shells and onion skins and juicy rotting vegetables out to the heap. The compost heap. It was both gross and exciting to my little girl senses, to look down into this pile of garbage that really wasn’t garbage at all. Underneath the recently dumped rot was a mound of rich dark soil, soil that my mother stirred and stirred as if this was her cauldron and she was creating magic out of what had seemed like trash. And, this magic soil, she then shoveled it back into her garden.
Our mother has never shied away from the old, the discarded, the decayed. And now, our mother, the composter, is wasting away, or that is how it seemed to me this past weekend when I visited her in Maine. The broken hip has done her in; her ninety-three year old body is tired and she says that she is ready to die. Two weeks ago, she was transferred to a nursing home and she is lying in a bed by a window that looks out at berry bushes and a field and tall trees beyond. Except, that she is no longer wearing her glasses and she is no longer looking out the window and she is only taking tiny sips of her juice and water and her body has grown tiny and she is using it up.
I always thought that our mother would die in her old worn chair in the cottage looking out at the cove, that she would just slip away one day, in the chair or maybe in her bed asleep. I always thought that she would die the way that her mother died and her mother’s sisters. The three of them lived into their eighties and they all just died, easy and quick. Our grandmother was living with us at the time and I was in the sixth grade and it was autumn and she sent us all off to church, told us that she would be fine. And later, after her body, which our mother had found sitting peacefully on the couch, had been taken away, my father told us that Grandma had been lit up that morning, that they had spoken together of angels. And three years later, our grandmother’s little sister, our Great Aunt Florence, who was also living with us, worked on her jewelry art while we were at school, washed out her silk slips, then just lay down on my sister’s bed and died. Simple and easy. I expected the same for our mother.
I’m now realizing that our mother, the sensual lover of land and sea, of food and drink, of body and breath, is indeed using it all up. And, this past weekend, sitting in a chair, leaning against her bed and her bones and her breath, I, her daughter, also am learning to be a lover of all that is natural. As I rub our mother’s forehead, run my fingers through her hair, as I lean in close, I am learning to not shy away from breath that is raspy, watery like the sea, and bones that are brittle, that soon will crumble into sand. I am learning that my tears taste like salt and our mother’s eyes when they lock into mine, are as blue as the ocean on a September day. And while our mother sleeps which is what she spends most of her time doing, I look out the window. And I see the birds. I see the flock of juncos that land on the fresh snow in front of the bushes. And the purple finches on the branches, and the chickadees zipping about. I see the shock of red as a male cardinal lands on a tree. I see seagulls flying overhead. I know the names of the birds because our mother has taught them to us. And, as I breathe along with our mother’s watery breath, I feel the lift of the wind and the wings. And although it’s winter and our mother is dying, it is she that has taught us that out of the old, the discarded, comes something new and fresh and good.