EVERY YEAR AT ABOUT THIS TIME, when the air turns sharp and the sun begins its slow ascent into higher skies, I think about my mother, about the way she was always the first to point out the early signs of autumn: the evening sky marbled with streaks of smoke from a neighbor's fireplace; the sudden urgency of the sparrow's song; the pale, thinned-out morning light that foreshadows winter.
My mother's birthday was in October -- as mine is -- and when I was a child she liked to say that the fates had smiled on us, that we were exceptionally lucky to be born in a month so full of change but at the same time so temperate and predictable.
"You can go almost anywhere in the world in October," she would say, "and the weather will be near perfect." Then she'd go on to say there were lessons to be learned from nature in the fall. And she'd make up a fable in which a talking fox would give voice to the idea that change is not just an ending but a beginning as well.
"You must remember," the wise fox would always say at the end, "that the leaves which die in the fall are born again in the spring."
Balance and counter-balance; harmony and disharmony; loss and renewal; they seemed to be the themes that ran through my mother's lifelong search for order and meaning in the world. And in herself.
A memory: When I was 7, on the night of my mother's 40th birthday, she took me outside to stand beneath a moon so bright it lit up every corner of the garden. "Look at the moon through these," my mother said, handing me the binoculars given to her as a birthday gift. "You see that reddish area? That's the Sea of Tranquility. And the blue shadow to the side of it? That's called the Ocean of Storms." Then she said something about how in life it was necessary to learn to navigate both.
But to be honest, standing in the garden with my mother on the night of her 40th birthday, I didn't see either the Sea of Tranquility or the Ocean of Storms. Staring through the binoculars at the moon, dizzy with contentment, I saw only my mother's face swimming above me through pale stars in a dark blue sky.
I thought about all this last week as I stood drinking coffee in my own garden in the cool, hickory-scented evening air. I watched the moon appear and disappear as it worked its way through the delicate tracery of trees outlined on the horizon. And suddenly I found myself thinking that my mother would have fashioned a fable from such material. The thought of what the fox might say made me smile.
And before I knew it I was zipping down a road into the past, traveling through happy, funny, sometimes zany memories that had to do with my mother. Like the time she let me drive the family Plymouth a mile or so down the backroads from my stepfather's farmhouse to the combination gas station-grocery store. I was 11 at the time and we wound up -- my mother, brother, the family dog and me -- unhurt in a neighbor's cornfield.
The memory of that day made me laugh out loud. And it was then I realized that this was the first time in the five years since her death that I had thought of my mother without deep feelings of sadness and loss. Frankly, I had begun to think I would never make my peace with her death. And even though I realize the experience of grief has no set timetable for everyone, the length and depth of my feelings had become somewhat embar-rassing to me. Mainly, I kept them to myself.
So it was with great relief that I welcomed back from exile these happy memories of my mother. Their return emboldened me to open other closed doors.
And so I sat the other night on the floor of my room holding my mother's handbag. I had brought it home with me from the hospital on the day of her death, but in the five intervening years had not been able to open it. It reminded me too much of the profound truth I wanted to forget: I was never going to see my mother again. Never.
So now here is what I found along with the lipstick and wallet and photos of her grandchildren. A folded piece of paper upon which my mother had written down in her elegant penmanship these lines from Wendell Berry, one of her favorite nature writers:
Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.
My mother. Still teaching after all these years.