And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere there must be more of it.
C.S. Lewis, Til We Have Faces
Before our son’s wedding in July, I had never been to the Pacific Northwest, never seen British Columbia, never been in Seattle.
Well, okay, I had been in the Seattle airport. But views of tarmac and airport kiosk don’t count as actually seeing a place. Proximity isn’t presence: I had never set actual foot on actual Seattle soil.
Before taking the train to Vancouver for the wedding, we spent four days in Seattle. Our AirBnB had a view of the water and of the Space Needle. We went to the top of that Needle, we took a Duck Tour. We made our obligatory trek through the Public Market and spent an afternoon in the aquarium. We loved all of it.
Seattle is famous for rain. They say it rains all the time there. They say it rains nine months out of the year.
But in the four days of our visit, the skies were cloudless, and every day we were there was warmer than the day before.
My husband declared that it never rains in Seattle–a fair claim, based on our experience: We’ve been to Seattle. It didn’t rain.
Chilliwack, British Columbia is 63 miles and a hair southeast of Vancouver. Where Vancouver is all brittle glass and waterfront, Chilliwack is a broad basin ringed with mountains, an agricultural plain become, in many places, a sprawling suburbia. From any one of the mountainsides surrounding this verdant town, you imagine you are seeing all of Chilliwack from end-to-end: the roads that cross it coming together at right angles or not; the subdivisions and neighborhoods, the downtown area with its restaurants, businesses, and hotels.
This is its latest iteration. Even now, gorgeous townhomes and neighborhoods are claiming square blocks. New developments cling to the lower sides of the surrounding mountains. Chilliwack is become Vancouver’s bedroom community, where once upon a time it was all farms.
And before the farms, a long time ago, Chilliwack was an ice sheet hemmed by mountains. Then the glaciers receded and Chilliwack’s Fraser Valley was, for a time, a lake. Eventually, so say the geologists, the land under that lake pushed upwards, emerging into daylight and becoming the plain that encouraged farmers to dig in, plant a field and a farmhouse, make a life.
Chilliwack as we know it hasn’t always been Chilliwack, you see. There is no such thing as always.
What I noticed first was the cottonwood trees. I didn’t know their name; I didn’t know that’s what I was seeing. But driving through this vast basin, it was their height that compelled me, and their breadth, and the way they stood shoulder to shoulder to shoulder along stretches of what looked like prairie.
The trees border rivers but also stand elsewhere, brakes against the wind. They have thick trunks and a long reach and leaves that look thick and waxy but still turn onto silver backs in the breeze.
I am told these trees can be a nuisance: in the spring they release some gauzy, cotton-like filament that drifts through the air and embeds itself in the grass. My Alaskan nieces told me about the chore it is to pluck it in handfuls from the lawn. Apparently, a rake won’t do the trick, and to be sure, the task sounds like a tedium.
But the romantic in me imagines the cottonwood filament floating in the air like something out of a fairytale. And I love the way cottonwood leaves turn and catch the light. There is something in their rows reminding me of poplar trees that, once upon a time, I watched from a terrace in the south of France. They bent together in the wind just like the poplar trees did that marked the edge of my friend’s backyard in Pittsburgh.
Until two days before the wedding, we had never met any one of our son’s bride’s family. We got out of our car and began walking under the willow tree toward their front door, and out of the house they came, one after the other, the beautiful reality of the faces and voices we’d known on Facebook and over the phone.
We could hardly wait to meet them–this family from so far away and somehow also so like us: each on the edge of loss and gain in this strange arithmetic of marriage. And each of us doing this for the first time: sending a child out from the family to become a family of their own.
I will freely admit to weeping when I saw and hugged Shanna’s mother: each of us was grieving in this stricken and overjoyed way, and I knew she understood like no one else at the time.
It was the only time I cried publicly during that wedding weekend. I say “publicly” on purpose.
With a mental hand, I reach in and grab whichever of the teeming memories comes readily to mind. It is William, just two, at his sandbox.
The sandbox is red and shaped like a crab with a dome of a shell that we threw easily to the side for digging. William and I, without jackets in the warm autumn midday, are perched on the edge of the sandbox. I am quite pregnant with Everett and very tired, and we are approaching William’s nap.
We fill a bucket with sand, and I show him how to tamp it down. We fill it up and pack it in; we make a level place and overturn it. And then I tell him, “It’s the moment of truth,” and we pull the bucket gently away to see what we’ve made.
We do this again and again, and every time I say, “It’s the moment of truth,” because I somehow think this is funny. And then one time he finally tells me to stop saying that, and so I do.
We played together in that sandbox countless times, and these are the details I recall–these and the fact that I was ready for him to take a nap and therefore kept a wary eye on the time. I loved to be with him and also I needed these moments to not last forever, because I needed a nap just as much as he did.
I think we heard the wind in the tops of the loblolly pines that traced the edge of the yard. I think we felt the warm sun through our sleeves. I think I kissed, so many times, the top of his warm blond head.
Bill and I gave him that sandbox for his second birthday. We hadn’t known what to get him. He didn’t expect anything; he didn’t understand the sometimes overblown concept that is a birthday.
He needed nothing, but we wanted to give him everything.
On the morning of the wedding, Bill drives me across town to where I, along with bride and bridesmaids and Shanna’s mother and aunt, are getting ready for the day.
It is a Saturday, mid-morning, mid-summer. The landlord of our AirBnB stands on his deck shirtless and holding a yellow coffee mug, talking to his neighbor.
“What are you doing today?” his neighbor asks him.
“Nothing,” he says.
We pass a woman trimming a shrub at the end of her driveway. We pass three teenage girls in shorts walking down the sidewalk, and the one nearest the fence trails her fingers in the chain link.
July 8, 2017, was a normal day for some people. Maybe it was a normal day for you.
Ask me about permanence, and I will tell you that I know it to be impossible and that I also pretend it exists, and that above most things, maybe all of them, permanence is a thing I long for.
One of the beautiful things about cottonwoods, and poplars, and maybe all trees, is their receptivity. They’ll take on the sun and the cold, the light and the heat. I realize they have no choice. But it’s the way they respond to these things that is so lovely. The way cottonwoods, birches, and poplars take on the wind, for example. I like that.
Willa Cather was a student of trees, apparently, and of life, as writers will (must) be. She said, “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.”
I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again: one can learn a lot from trees.
(Will’s groomsmen stood shoulder to broad shoulder, handsome in their fitted gray suits. I worried that we hadn’t reminded them, during the rehearsal, not to lock their knees: if you stand still with your knees locked for too long, you can faint dead away–and no one wants that, especially in a wedding.
It wasn’t a problem in the end, but this thought was something that distracted me briefly while my firstborn son was getting married.)
It was a beautiful wedding. It was truly one of the happiest days of my life. So far.
The day after the wedding, a group of us hiked up to Lindeman Lake. It was a gorgeous hike that was all steep inclines and often a scramble over rocks. The view throughout was wooded and lushly green, with needle-shaped pines and thick ferns and waterfalls. It was what I had always thought the Pacific Northwest should be.
We climbed for more than half an hour, and it was arduous at times–a far cry from the hiking we’ve done in our more gentle Appalachians. When we finished, we emerged at the edge of trees to the rocky border of glacier-fed Lindeman Lake.
I had heard about this lake. I knew it was cold, and I knew what I had to do. There could be no hesitation. If I stood at the edge and thought about it for any time at all, if I allowed the air to cool me after that hike, I would lose all sense of necessity and nerve.
So I immediately stripped shoes, socks and shirt and clambered onto the sloping rock. And I jumped.
Lindeman Lake is turquoise, clear and stunningly cold. The shock of it is enough to knock your breath clean away. My brother-in-law, who lives year-round in Alaska, had himself a fine little back-stroking time on the lake, but not me. I got out of that lake as soon as humanly possible.
None of us went in a second time.
I think I want permanence, and then along comes a need for the opposite. Like my very brief swim in Lindeman. Like my need for a nap, all those many years ago, when I sat with my son at the sandbox.
But there was something about Will’s wedding–or maybe just the days leading up to it–that made part of me wish for the sandbox again: I wanted to sit in the sun one more time with my golden-haired boy just two years old. In my imagination, I would sit there again for hours.
It’s a longing for permanence that I didn’t at all desire at the time.
Before I became a mother, I found a song for my children. It was a Beatles song that was then covered by Alison Krauss, and while it might have been a song for an unknown and hoped for lover, it was to me a song of longing for my as-yet unborn children.
I sang it to Willliam before he was born and after. Of our three children, he was the one I sang it to the most. And when I danced with him at his wedding reception, it was the song we danced to.
Love you forever and forever, love you with all my heart. Love you whenever we’re together, love you when we’re apart.
Because I will always be his mother. Always.