Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bobcats and Mom

January 19, 2012 – Bobcats and Mom

“Kim and I decided you can go work with Mom when you’re in town,” my sister Michaela tells me before I go to Dallas for the holidays. She, Kim (my brother Noah’s fiancée) and my youngest brother Phinehas usually rotate the once a week work with Mom schedule depending on who is poorest at the given time. “We figure you’ll need the money.” It’s true, I will. Although I pay up on my December and January bills before I leave Peru I know that every little bit I can earn while I’m home will help keep my small wad of cash money from diminishing too alarmingly. But more than for the money, I’m looking forward to seeing the property of which my mom is the landscape manager.

She’s worked there for five years and when I’d call her from Colorado Springs to see what she was up to she’d usually say something like, “I was just blowing leaves” or “I was mowing” or “I was digging up shrub roots and trimming hedges,” or “I just rescued a snake,” or “I just put more sardines in the trap to catch the skunks.”

You know, just another day on the job.
I’m also excited to spend more time with her. I’m lucky to have the best mother in the entire universe. Not only that, but she takes the cake at being the best person on the earth too. Being in her company is being home. Spending a day walking in her footsteps will be fun, hard work, and adventurous. I know it.

The first Tuesday after I arrive I get up before six ante meridian and Mom and I bundle up and head off to Plano, a ritzy suburb of the Dallas Metroplex where the three acre property lies. It’s cold out. I’m in my third winter of the year so I pull my hat down over my ears, zip my jacket up over my fleece and work my fingers into gloves. We listen to Kidd Kraddick in the Morning on the radio as we make the half an hour drive. I used to listen to the Kidd Kraddick show during my early morning commute to college so when Mom talks about Big Al or Kelly Raspberry or JC or Psycho Shannon or Kidd I know exactly who she means. She talks about them the way I do about my fictional characters; as if they’re true friends-- because they are. She even met Big Al once which pretty much makes my mom a celebrity in her own right. If he’d had any sense he would have asked for a picture with her, or at least for her autograph.
When we get to work it’s still dark. Inside the garage where she’s made her office, she checks the lemon tree that resides there and turns on the little space heater sitting nearby. We situate our stuff on the countertop then Mom grabs a flashlight and we walk the path around the side of the house toward the expansive back lot checking to see how the weekend treated the land. A cottontail rabbit starts at our motion and disappears into the brush. Mom shows me the alley area that brings down rushing flood water during heavy rain. We pass by the long and empty trap for opossums, skunks and other small wildlife. “I’ve caught my peeps’ dogs a couple times,” she says. “They love the sardines.” We pass through a gate and she checks the pool’s water level, evaluates the leaves scattered on the patio outside the guest house, and scans the backyard with its tree lined expanse and the volleyball court. After the tour, we head back to the garage. “We’ll rake up the leaves first and then maybe get some mulch from Home Depot to finish mulching the front area,” she tells me. She equips me with a rake, some empty giant paper bags and a dustpan and sends me out.

Moving is better than standing still. It’s frigid. I get right to work. There’s about nine million leaves in the area on the side of the house; one for each person in Lima. I rake them into neat piles and shake my cold finger at the trees above me whose branches are still not bare.   

I’ve forgotten my music and I’m zoned out to the rhythm of the work and the synchronized melody of my thoughts when I hear my name called out sharply. I turn my head.

“Bobcat!” Mom says, pointing.
Less than fifteen feet from me, taking the path out to the backyard is a bobcat. It’s sleek, beautiful, dangerous in its quiet stealth and completely unaware of my existence. It’s the size of a medium weight dog. I hold my breath in awe and stand still--I don’t want it to be aware of my existence. I’m content just to watch it go by. To admire it’s muscular lines and to feel a part of a wildness that I seldom get to see.

When it’s gone, I look across the lot at my mom. We smile at each other. This is her world, this is the magic of her life, this is something we get to share and it’s special between us. The moment goes and we get back to work.
Several hours later we take a break for breakfast. She’s made us oatmeal with almonds, raisins, blueberries, and strawberries and it hits the spot. Afterwards we head over to Home Depot to pick up the first round of mulch. The bags are rain-soaked and heavy. “Usually this is really easy,” Mom tells me as she throws a bag down a level so I can grab it and throw it on the metal cart. “These are usually really light.” She’s not complaining, just stating facts. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her complain. What she does is not easy work, I feel like a lazy slob compared to her. I sit and stare out a window, mincing words and shifting sentences around while she works day in and out contending with 100+ degree weather or fending off the heavy hand of winter. I’m not sure I could do it month after month, year after year the way she does. She tosses down another bag and I remind myself to lift with my legs and not my back. I am grateful for the workouts I’d done the last two months that put me in a reasonable physical condition.

Back at her peeps’ house we unload the bags then spread out the chips and smooth them out. My jeans are stained red from the colored mulch and the wet has seeped through to touch my skin. When the sun comes out from behind some chilly clouds, I turn my face upwards and photosynthesize.

One more trip to the store, twelve mulch bags later, a few more hours of work and the day is done. We load our stuff back into the car. I get in the passenger seat and buckle my seatbelt. I’m tired. A full day of physical work leaves me both exhausted and satisfied. Mom pulls some cash out of an envelope and pays me.
“You don’t have to pay me,” I tell her. “You can keep it since I’m staying at your house and eating your food.”

“Don’t be silly,” she tells me.

So I obey.

The next week, strangely enough, it’s warmer. Texas is like that, predictable in the unpredictability of its weather. My third winter of the year is being delightfully mild and I’m enjoying the blue sky and sunshine we’re getting. Once we’re settled in with our stuff in the garage, Mom gets me set up with a lawn mower. “You start mowing,” she tells me. “I’ll blow all the leaves into the yard and then we’ll mulch it all up with the mowers.”

“Okay,” I say. Michaela had warned me about the mowers before. “Sometimes I forget to use the self-propel lever and wonder why it’s so hard to mow,” she’d said once when we talked by phone. “Or I forget to let go… not like I ever hit a tree or anything like that. I’d never do anything like that, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” From Michaela I know to ease off and on the self-propel lever, to let go of it when I’m heading at too a quick clip toward a tree, and to watch out for stumps. I’ve forgotten my music again, my thoughts run on repeat in harmony to the whir of the motor. I mow in straight lines, in long rectangles, in too-fast circles around trees, in small squares that work to make me dizzy. When the lawnmower runs out of gas I’m grateful. I feel a bit out of gas myself. How my mom does this every day I don’t know. Of course I’ll finish the job, but I’m embarrassed to think my mom has more staying power than me. Get it together, you lazy kid, I chide myself, you were a competitive athlete for years-- this is nothing. Sure. Right. With a sigh I keep from the overseer in my mind, I glance down at the clock on my phone. Four and a half hours have gone by. I don’t feel so bad now. Lay off, I tell myself. It’s no wonder I’m famished.

I leave the lawnmower where it choked out, go eat my breakfast then find Mom and have her help me fill the mower back up with gas. I feel better for fueling up my belly, but I’ve developed a slight blister on one of my big toes and my legs are telling me they’d like to sit for a while. I tell them too bad. Even as I do this, I look over the backyard with a feeling of dismay. “We have to mow all this?” I ask, sweeping a hand before me.

“Yes,” Mom says. She’s way too matter of fact.

My spirit sinks. There are miles of grass before me. Infinite rows yet to be trod and cut. Acres left to go. Hectares of leaves yet unmulched. Well, it won’t get done by standing still, I tell myself. So I push the self-propel lever in and get back to it.

A half hour goes by and I use a tree to set my lines straight. I’m giving myself small goals, little tracks to make a game of the work. Suddenly, in the midst of my run, I burst out laughing. What an idiot I am. I’d seen the backyards of the two properties past us and thought I’d have to mow the whole expanse which runs the length of the golf course that’s on the opposite side of the creek at the back of their land and is about the size of Vermont. I forgot about property lines. I may be a silly (and perhaps lazy) fool, but now at least, I’m a relieved one. Filled with renewed hope and vigor, a weight slips off my shoulders and I walk a bit faster, with a lighter step. My mom is a superhero. I’m just a mere mortal.
Finally done with the leaf blowing, Mom fires up a second mower and we finish the yard together. Once the equipment is stored in the garage, we pack our things and go home. For someone without a job, I think, I’m sure working an awful lot. But it’s satisfying work especially when it’s over with.

Dad picks us up dinner on his way home from work and the three of us watch some shows on prerecorded TV and drink a glass or two of wine. It’s the evening ritual. I like their routine. It’s comfortable, friendly, companionable, familiar. I almost feel like an only child, but more than that, I feel like a friend. Like a friend so close I’ve become family.
Christmas slips past us and then New Year’s does too. I spend a week away in Lockhart with my brother Ben, Marie (his wife and my friend), my niece Shea and Rien the dog.

Me and Marie
The Tuesday after I return from Lockhart I go one last time to work with Mom. She’s had two weeks of vacation and this is her first day back too. I wish she didn’t have to work. “If I didn’t like the money,” she says, “I’d just quit.” This makes me feel better. Happy. Choice is good. Fortunately, the landscaping isn’t too terribly out of control. “I’ll have to mow the leaves one more time this winter season,” she says, and I feel the miles of walked lawn in the memory of my feet. She blows the leaves into submission and I sweep them into piles and bag them up.

It’s even warmer weather than the week before and I, like a plant, make phototropic shifts towards the sun.

Done with the leaves, we walk the path past the volleyball court. It’s littered with weeds that have forged their way through the gravel. I admire their tenacity and tell them sorry when I pull them up by the roots and toss them away. Mom and I work in silence. She has on her earphones, listening to Kidd Kraddick, I’m sure. I finally remembered, this third time, to bring my own music with me. I mouth along to the songs as I sit back on my heels and weed. Mom disappears and I finish the work on the pathway alone.
When I’ve cleaned it up fairly well I stand up from my crouch and go looking. I find her weeding the volleyball court. The roots can’t take much firm hold in the loose sand and this weeding is easier to do. I take the opposite side and we work in companionable solitude together. But whoever knew a volleyball court would take all day to weed out?

I stand up to stretch and decide to go get some water from the garage. I pass by a paw print in the sand. It reminds me of all the animal prints my mammaw used to find and show us when we went to the country to visit her and my pappaw.
“Do you think this is the bobcat’s tracks?” I ask Mom.

“I think so,” she replies.

“Cool.” Near some of the tracks I find long tufts of hair; yellow, brown, tawny, feline. Who knows what happened here. Maybe something dramatic or maybe just a shedding of hair after a sun-warmed sandy nap. Here we are out in the wild--my mom and me--working in the open air, living our lives the way we want, choosing our paths and every so often crossing paths with something that is pure majesty in its cat-like grace and as wonderful as the sunshine on our faces.

I glance over at my mom. When I grow up I want to be just like her even if I don’t necessarily want to have the same job she does. To me she’s the prism that sends out flitting rainbows to decorate a blank wall, the sunflower that brightens a field with yellow warmth, the ray of sunshine that breaks up the depression of a cloudy day. It’s fitting then that her name—Elaine—means light. Because after all, what else could it mean?

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