On this, the seventh Mother’s Day my mother has missed, I am thinking about animals.
Just a few days ago, my sister and I finally scattered some of her ashes out in the bottomland by the horse farm where we grew up, where our mother lived her dream for ten too-short years. One of the best things about bottomland—the land around a river, in this case the Sangamon, that floods a few times a year—is that no one builds on it. So down by the Sangamon, in this spot at least, there is wild land that often gets neglected, and a field (small by Illinois standards) that grows corn or soybeans when it can.
It was the perfect May day, warm enough for jeans and a t-shirt, sunny, the sweetness of wild phlox and fresh growing things in the air. We drove past our old house and barn to where the old iron bridge still stands, though cars can’t drive over it because it is blocked with a sign that says, “Road Ends.” We walked along the river, onto the bridge, which seemed just as sturdy as it was 35 years before when we lived there, when we rode horses across it. I am surely not the first to remark on this, but I was struck by the amount of ashes that fit into a small urn. We tried to be aware of the wind, but still I got ashes on my sandaled feet.
We did not cry. We said, “Mom, we miss you. We love you.” We talked about the place, about childhood, about memory. We smelled every flowering thing, looking for the definitive source of the sweetness in the air. We ran into a man asking if we were hunting morel mushrooms, and who was gone before I thought to ask if he were the boy from next door, from my elementary school class, now grown up. We were sorry to see no horses in our old pastures.
And then we drove home, to my sister’s horse farm 20 miles away, and we kissed our dogs, the ones our mother had known and the ones she hadn’t. We held the cute but dumb Cavalier King Charles Spaniel I had inherited from Mom and thought of her on Mom’s lap. We went out to the pastures and kissed the felt noses of the horses, including the two my sister had inherited from Mom, 27-year-old Morgans who had carried us on a trail ride just the day before.
Neither of us have human children of our own. But I have three dogs, and my sister has four. And she has eight horses, who I have been able to share for this past year of leave from my teaching job. We call each other’s animals “your nephew dog” and “your niece horse,” especially when they are naughty. Our brothers have children, lovely and smart boys and girls ranging from 5 to 24. All of us learned how to nurture and play from our mother.
That evening, we sat on the porch in the breezy perfection. Aslan, my sister’s Great Pyrenees who our mother had loved especially, played with a flock of sparrows, barking and chasing them from bush to bush, jumping as much as his old hips would allow, expressing our joy and gratitude for a life-filled world.