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Archive for May 2010

Memorial Day: Decorated with Love and Respect

May 26, 2008

Love and respect are memories to cherish

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags: home planet

Growing up in the house where I lived with my grandparents, this day was called “Decoration Day.”

Each year,  with my grandfather behind the wheel, they would drive my grandmother’s mother to a small cemetery in the little community where my family once lived.

My great-grandmother was a tiny woman, stooped and soft-spoken. She had white, tightly-permed hair and wore thick glasses to correct her poor vision.

When she could no longer live alone in her tiny apartment, with a Bible, the stack of afghans she crocheted, an album of faded photographs, three or four practical dresses and one “Sunday” dress for funerals and weddings hanging in her closet, she moved into a place on a son’s property. When he died, she moved in with my grandmother – her last living child.

Her life could have rivaled any “Oprah” book club pick. Born poor in a mining village in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, she’d been courted and won by Doc McConnell, a coal miner who was older than she. Theirs was a famous love story in that little town.

They married and seven children came along before he succumbed to black lung disease. She survived two house fires in her lifetime, losing everything twice.

Her own strength and good health didn’t pass down to her children. When she died at the age of 102, she had outlived them all and many of her grandchildren.

Neither my grandmother nor my great-grandmother could drive. So one Decoration Day, in my grandfather’s absence, the chore fell to me.

I wasn’t thrilled about it. When you’re 18 years old, you don’t want to drive two old women around a country cemetery when you could be at the mall or at a friend’s house or anywhere but on a dirt road surrounded by weathered tombstones, some so old they were crooked and tilted toward the graves they marked.

I piloted my grandfather’s station wagon through the old graveyard until we reached the McConnell family plot and parked in the shade of a massive oak tree.

My grandmother and great-grandmother pulled out of the car a big box of glass vases they’d spent the day before filling with artificial roses and carnations. I carried the box for them as we moved from grave to grave.

“Who is this?” I would ask, looking at the name carved into the stone.

They would answer as they pulled weeds and placed the flowers, propping the vases with stones so they wouldn’t fall over.

There was the sister who’d succumbed to a “fever.” The uncle who had died in an accident. The babies, guarded by gray stone angels, who’d only lived a day or a month or a few years. One by one I was introduced to my ancestors.

We came to the last grave. My great-grandfather’s grave. My great-grandmother put the flowers on the green grass and swept away the leaves that had fallen in the autumn wind and blown against the mossy stone. She been only in her 30s when he died, leaving her with nothing but children.

“Mama ‘Connell,” I asked, “Why on earth didn’t you get married again to get some help with your family?”

“Because,” she replied, turning to give me a long look, “I never loved any man but Doc.”

Oh.

I looked at my great-grandmother, a true survivor who lived through more hard times than most of us will ever know; a woman who fell in love and stayed there for three-quarters of a century, as she dusted the red clay dirt off her hands and walked away.

Love. I hadn’t thought about that. It never occurred to me as we moved from grave to grave that it was love and respect and a sense of responsibility that had brought us there.

They’re all gone now. My mother, my grandparents and my great-grandparents – people my children never met but who are as real to me as the distant relatives we talked about that hot Memorial Day years ago – are all buried 2,500 miles away. All I can do on this Memorial Day is gather a bouquet of memories and bind it with love and respect.

And in that way, even those who are long gone, having lived and loved and finally faded away, are never forgotten.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Glacier National Park Centennial

     For a girl like the girl I was, a child of the deep South, born into a world of steel mills and tidy neighborhoods of bungalows on oak and maple and pecan tree-lined streets; for a child steeped in the heady Southern perfumes of feathery mimosa trees and delicate gardenia blossoms and the unlikely grape bubblegum scent of Kudzu vine in bloom, driving into Glacier National Park, under an endless sky and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, was like suddenly discovering I had wings. That my feet were no longer tied by gravity.     
    

     The world around me never again looked the same.
  

      I was fresh out of third-grade. My family packed up the station wagon, towing a tent trailer, and set out to see America. We set out for Glacier National Park.
    

     As we drove across Montana and through the park, I rode with my head at the open window, curls blowing in the wind, my fingers curled over the top of the car door, my chin resting on the back of my hands, trying to take it all in.
     

     I remember the feeling of being too small for the landscape, like an ant crossing the sidewalk. I listened to the cool, singing sound of clear mountain water rushing over beautiful green, red and lavender stones scattered like cabochon jewels on the river bed. I let the sandy soil of boulders, ground into dust by a millennium of massive glaciers, fall between my fingers. I held my breath as we made our way up a spectacular, winding, climbing, breathtaking road called “Going-to-the-Sun.”
    

     The place left its mark on me. By the time we got home, I wasn’t the same girl I’d been when we left. I never forgot what I had seen.
  

      Years later, when the chance to move my own family out west presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Leaving behind everything familiar, I knew I was going home.
    

     This was all running through my head on on May 11, when I made another trip to the park. This time on the occasion of its centennial. A celebration of 100 years. Exactly 100 years ago to the day, President William Howard Taft signed a bill that established Glacier as the 10th national park.
   

      I sat in a folding chair in a big white tent and listened to Park Superintendent, Chas Cartwright welcome the crowd. On the dais, in addition to representatives of local legislators and governmental entities, Native American leaders, in full headdress, were there to signify the complex and collaborative relationship between the National Park Service and first nation peoples.
    

     I studied the faces in the crowd wondering what, exactly, besides the opportunity to be a part of history, had drawn them. Common wisdom states that there is something within each of us that seeks a companion. A mate. A missing piece to complete the human puzzle. I wonder if the drive to find our place, our geographic perfect-match, is just as strong. Some of us give into the siren call and get behind the wheel, or board an airplane or train. We chase the dot on the map. Others of us settle for romance from the armchair. Some, like a little girl gazing up at tall mountains with wide eyes, just know it when we see it.
    

     After the centennial ceremony, I joined a tour of the park facilities. At each stop someone - a retired superintendent, a craftsman, a landscape specialist, an archivist - deepened our understanding of the history and structure of the park. I was proud to be a part of the unique history of the moment.

    At the end of the day, carrying my souvenirs - the commemorative centennial coin, lapel button and program - I boarded the Amtrak Empire Builder, the train that would take me back home to Spokane. As we rolled out of Whitefish, Montana, I could see tall peaks in the distance.Chin-in-hand, I gazed out the window until the light faded.

     The important thing to remember is that we are all as small as ants in the million-acre landscape of Glacier National Park. And it will stand long after we’re all gone. It will be there for others to discover, to fall in love with and to celebrate. Glacier National Park has, for 100 years, awed us and inspired us. I hope my children’s children will make the same pilgrimage to celebrate 100 more.
             
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

To see more photos of the Glacier National Park centennial celebration click Continue Reading

Sweet Dreams: The Garden Wall Inn

     In love and lodging, the little things always seem to matter the most.
      I was reminded of this in early May, when I traveled to Whitefish, Montana for the centennial celebration of Glacier National Park.  I was lucky enough to find a rare opening at The Garden Wall Inn.
    The beautiful bed and breakfast sits on a corner in a residential area just two blocks from downtown. Once the town’s finest home, thanks to the vision of owner Rhonda Fitzgerald, the lovely two-story house is now home to five of Whitefish’s most luxurious overnight guest rooms.
     Located just at the top of the quaint staircase, rose wallpaper and bedding, antique furnishings and artwork as well as lace curtains at the windows, all perfectly suited to the home’s provenance, gave my room a sweet vintage charm.
    Personal touches like paper-thin antique water glasses on the dresser, freshly ironed antique linen sheets and pillow cases on the bed and well-chosen accessories such as the delicate Wedgwood dish on the dresser, wrapped me in comfort and elegance.
    This, I learned, is a specialty of the house.
    Fitzgerald insists that whenever possible, vintage and antique items are used to decorate and accessorize the inn. This concept is carried through from the furniture, to the artwork on the walls, to the sterling silver bud vases on tea trays and bedside tables.
    The white-tiled en suite bathroom, complete with a massive vintage claw-foot bathtub, is stocked with a variety of Gilchrist and Soames soaps, lotions, bath beads and plenty of big, plush, monogrammed towels. After a long hike, I couldn’t wait to slip into a fragrant bubble bath and relax. There was plenty of stretching-out room in the big old tub. It was the perfect place to unwind and think about what I’d seen and done that day.
    It became clear that at Garden Wall Inn the luxury doesn’t stop with the accommodations. That’s just the beginning.
    Each afternoon a glass of sherry, or wine if you prefer, is served in the living room by the fireplace. When innkeeper Chris Schustrom discovered I like to have a cup of chamomile tea before bed, he delivered a silver tea tray complete with a vintage Blue Willow cup and saucer to my room at bedtime. Taken with the homemade truffle from Whitefish’s Copperleaf Chocolat Company left on my pillow at turndown, the combination was delicious and soothing.
    In the morning, half an hour before breakfast, a morning tea or coffee tray was delivered to my room, another specialty of the house. It is a most civilized way to ease into the day.
    The crowning touch is the signature Garden Wall Inn breakfast.
Owner Rhonda Fitzgerald is a trained chef. Her breakfasts are a culinary work of art.
    I sat down to a work-of-art fruit salad decorated with a slice of star fruit and livened by a spritz of fresh lime. Freshly squeezed orange juice and hot coffee were waiting on the table.
    The main dish was Montana smoked trout and served en croute, accompanied by slices of local artisanal bread and homemade huckleberry muffins.
    Everything about Garden Wall Inn is perfectly appointed. From the delicious gourmet breakfast, to the chance to unwind over a glass of sherry in the afternoon, to the delictable chocolate left on the pillow at turndown, guests are pampered by one little luxury after another. And, as any travel lover knows, the little things make a big impression. I can’t wait to spend another night in the beautiful white house on the corner.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons.”  Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

To see more photos of 
The Garden Wall Inn continue reading below.


Train lovers

The thing about going somewhere is that, if you’re lucky, you have someone to tell goodbye. Someone who is sad to see you go.

      It’s the same coming home. For the fortunate, there is someone there to welcome you. Someone who missed you and is happy to see you again.

      It used to be that when you sat at the gate in an airport, waiting to depart, you got to witness all kinds of goodbyes and hellos. You could see men and women rush into one another’s arms when a plane landed. You witnessed tender embraces, last kisses and that lingering brush of hands at departure, palm against palm then fingertip to fingertip, prolonging the separation until the last possible moment.

      Now, as any flier - frequent or not - knows, most hellos and goodbyes are said at the curb. A wave, a quick kiss and out of the no-parking lane as fast as possible. From that point on all passengers are the same. Stressed. Suspicious. Caught in the machine that air travel has become.

      But, if you travel by train, ah, well then, you see it all.

      Train stations are still places of hand-holding and long goodbyes. Of people running into embraces and the loud chatter of reunion.

      Sometimes, on the train, you see other stories, as well.

      Sitting in the observation car of the Empire Builder, watching the Columbia river roll past, I noticed a woman sitting across the car. She was on her cell phone, talking to someone. The connection was spotty so occasionally the call was lost and she would have to punch in the numbers again. What held my attention was the tone of her voice. It was so high and cheerful I assumed she must be talking to a child. But, then I realized I was wrong.

      “What did you do today,” she asked. The voice on the other end of the signal must have talked about a project of some kind.

      “Well, it was sweet of you to do that,” she said. “You are a sweet man, you know. That’s why you’re my husband.”

  Paying more attention, I could hear the brittle edge in her voice. She wasn’t quite as cheerful as she sounded.

      They talked a minute or two more and the signal was lost again. Finally she ended the call by making a kissing sound into the phone.

      I went back to my book and was immediately lost in the novel. The next time I looked up and glanced over at the woman, she was still sitting in the same place but was now snuggled up against a man. Her head rested on his chest, under the curve of his left arm and his right hand was on her knee. They were silent, staring out the window at the sunset.

      For a moment, I was confused. I’d heard her talking to her husband just a few minutes before. A man who was obviously far away. And now, suddenly, he was there beside her.

      But, of course, he wasn’t.

      I realized that the silent couple, lost in their own thoughts, must be lovers. At least one of them, the woman, had another life.  He wasn’t wearing a ring.

      There was a sadness to the way they sat so close together, touching, thinking. I tried not to watch them but I was captured by the tableau. The miles passed.

      After a while, when the sunlight disappeared and the only thing in the window was one’s own reflection, an uncomfortable image to stare into, they got up and walked back to their seats.

      I don’t know if they stayed on the train or got off at my stop.

      In the business of arrival, gathering bags and departing the train in the dark, I forgot to look for the couple. I don’t know where they went.

      I can only imagine her, carrying her bags, walking away from the man on the train, palms brushing, fingertips touching, into the arms of the man on the phone.

      On a plane, they wouldn’t have had the time to sit, holding one another. On a plane, I wouldn’t have noticed them at all.

         

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard each week on Spokane Public Radio and are frequently picked up by public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com 
 

The ties that bind

     Slipping into a parking spot across the street from the high school, I turned off the engine and waited for my daughter to come out the door.   
    

     Enjoying the quiet of the car, a welcome respite from the noise of a busy day, lulled by the warm sun made even warmer by the window, I relaxed as I watched the students as they gathered outside. Some were waiting for rides others were just socializing, happy to be released.
    

     I noticed a pair on the corner, a girl and a boy who couldn’t have been more than freshmen. They still had the fresh, slightly awkward look of of a pair of leggy, yearling colts.
   

     They were standing close together, and I could see that they were both focusing on something in the boy’s hands. Then, I noticed the cord dangling from their ears and I realized they were sharing the earphones for the boy’s iPod. His music was hers. While she studied the screen of the music player, the boy studied her. When she glanced up, he looked away, embarrassed to be caught. Occasionally she risked a peek at him, through her lashes, quick and surreptitious. It was a dance of glances.
    

     He kept looking out at the street, scanning the cars going by, watching for his ride. He must have seen it coming because he quickly said something to the girl and reclaimed the earphone, coiling it and stuffing it into his pocket.  Then, a bit stiffly, he leaned over and wrapped his arms around the girl. She returned the embrace.
    

     They looked like a couple stepping out onto the dance floor for a first slow dance. There was a bit of hesitation, a slight distance between their bodies that hinted of first kisses and sweaty palms. When his mother pulled up to the curb he hurried to the car and they drove away.
    

     The girl, clutching her books to her chest in the way of schoolgirls in the movies and romance novels, turned to walk down the hill. As she hurried toward her own ride, for a moment, she forgot herself and skipped one little skipping step, like the little girl she had been not so very long ago. She got into her mother’s car and away they went.
    

     Watching my own daughter make her way to me I thought about the scene I had just watched. About the way the pair had been tethered, sharing a single pulse of music, shoulder to shoulder sneaking peeks at one another, before joining their mothers.
    

     I thought about the women who were even at that moment asking “How was your day?” and “What did you do today?” and getting only shrugs and noncommittal grunts in return.
    I glanced over at my own child as she grunted and shrugged at my questions.
    

     I realized then that each of us, the three women in a crowd of parents driving home with our silent, precious, adolescent cargo, on some level, still believes that the cord that bound us to our offspring is still intact. A spider’s silk umbilicus of love and worry and pride.
    

     But what we haven’t thought about is who might be replacing us at the other end of that thread. A girl. A boy. A new love. A new song.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for the Spokesman-Review. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Dancing on Mother’s Day


Happy Mother’s Day. Another column from the archives…

June 5, 2006

Life’s tender moments dance into our hearts

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Staff writer
 

The dance starts before we are born.

Babies wait in the dark, moving in time to the beat of a mother’s heart and with the rhythm of her steps.

As newborns and infants, they curl, warm and safe in our arms. We hold them close and sway unconsciously from side to side, in the ancient, instinctive movement that soothes a child.

In a few months, when they find their feet, they jump and bounce, squealing with pleasure.

Of all the tender moments I have shared with my children, I think I’ll remember the dancing the most.

I loved it.

Supported by my hands around their sturdy bodies, they danced in my lap, pushing into the air. Their bright, round, full-moon faces smiled at me as they chewed on fat little fingers. Laughter bubbled up out of them.

Together, we took baby steps with lullabies and nursery rhymes.

As toddlers they reached up to me, stepped up on my toes and wrapped their arms around my knees or held tightly to my fingers as I waltzed around the room.

We giggled and wiggled with silly tunes from Sesame Street.

We boogied with pop music on the radio in the kitchen and danced jigs around the house listening to old bluegrass tunes and folk songs.

Some nights, they came to me quietly, slipped their arms around my waist, and we swayed to Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Etta James and Diana Krall, moving slowly around the living room. There was comfort – given and taken – in the embrace.

And love. Love set to music.

Occasionally, when we were feeling silly, we tangoed. Or we moved like Apache dancers across the room, dipping low at the finale.

We twirled and pirouetted to Tchaikovsky. We were the graceful Swans in Swan Lake.

Then, one by one, my children outgrew me.

One by one they let go of my fingers and my knees and my waist. Now my son towers over me. Even my daughters are taller than I am.

Now, only my youngest, almost 11 and almost eye-to-eye, will occasionally, absent-mindedly, step up on my feet and signal she wants to move.

I’ll twirl us around the room for a minute before she pulls away to go up to her room or outside to play.

I’m back to being a wallflower.

It’s OK. No one dances with their mother forever.

Or do they? When you think about it, it’s all a dance.

From the moment they’re conceived, we skip to the tune our children play. After they’re born, even when they’re standing on our feet, they’re really leading us.

Anyone who has raised a teenager knows how it feels to be outmatched; out of time with music you can’t even hear, trying to keep up with fancy footwork. As the years pass, as I grow old, the choreography will change but we’ll still be dancing.

Children grow up and away. That’s what life is all about. Making your way, holding on to others until you’re strong enough and steady enough, and the music comes through clear enough, to make it by yourself.

If you’re lucky, you find a partner. And it starts all over again.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

The Good Mother


Another Mother’s Day column from the past…
May 5, 2008

Home Planet: At times, it’s alright to get it wrong

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
The Spokesman-Review
 

I got my first taste of mother guilt just minutes after the birth of my first child.

After I delivered her – an all-day affair that in no way resembled the serene, choreographed breathing and point-of-focus births in Lamaze class films – I held her, counting fingers and toes, and nursed her and finally let them take her away for all the things they do to newborns. Exhausted and exhilarated, I chatted with the nurse who stayed with me to take care of all the immediate post partum chores and we quickly discovered we had mutual friends.

“Did you hear …?” she asked, dropping a gossipy bombshell. “No!” I said. “I always thought …”

And we were off and running, comparing notes on the bad behavior of a couple we knew. Just the kind of thing you do at a party or some other social occasion. But, I suddenly remembered, it wasn’t a party. I wasn’t just one of the girls. I was somebody’s mother.

Obviously not a very good mother, I thought, less than an hour on the new job and I’d already fallen short. What kind of mother, I asked myself, forgets for even a moment?

That was just the first time. I’ve wallowed in a lot of guilt since that afternoon.

Now, I could fill pages with my mistakes; with all the times I lost my focus or worse, my temper. I could write volumes on the little things I got wrong or just didn’t get at all. I could fill an encyclopedia with the times and places of situations that didn’t go as I’d hoped. Things I should have said and didn’t. Things I shouldn’t have said, and did. Steps I should have taken but missed. Promises I had to break and lessons I neglected to teach.

But I don’t have to record any of that. It isn’t necessary. All I have to do is look at my children, (most of whom can only be described as children in a proprietary way. Three of the four are grown and out of my grasp) and I am swept away by a tide of self-doubt and occasional deep regret.

What kind of mother, I still ask myself, gets it so wrong so often?

Fortunately, years of talking to other women – especially other mothers – have taught me one important thing: We all get it wrong some of the time.

From the moment any child comes into the world, he or she is placed in the hands of a rank amateur. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had one child or a dozen. Each new child puts you back at square one.

Mother’s Day is coming up. I’m hoping I’ll get my children together for at least an hour or so.

It doesn’t matter if there are flowers or chocolates or packages wrapped in pretty paper. It doesn’t matter where we are or what they bring me. All that matters is that I get a chance to see them all, intact, upright and reasonably well-adjusted in spite of me. And – this is the part I don’t remember often enough – because of me.

I’d like to think that on some level my children understand that even when I made my biggest blunders I was trying so very hard to get it right. I did the best I could but I was working without a script. Leaping without a safety net. Navigating without a map.

I suppose I could ask them, if I do get them all together, to tell me what I did right. But that would be fishing for compliments, wouldn’t it?

And goodness knows, I’d never want to be guilty of that.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

On Mother’s Day, it all adds up

Another Mother’s Day column from the past…



May 13, 2006

Weighty concerns easily forgotten on Mother’s Day

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
The Spokesman-Review
 

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

It doesn’t matter if it’s your first Mother’s Day or your 21st; you’ve probably already learned one very important lesson: Mothering is heavy-duty stuff. It’s definitely not for lightweights.

In fact, one of the hardest adjustments you have to make to a new baby, to every new baby, is dealing with the weight gain.

I don’t mean the extra pounds that creep up on you during pregnancy – the combined weight of baby, water and nine months of indulging in milkshakes, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and grilled cheese sandwiches. It isn’t uncomfortable swollen ankles that spill out over the tops of your shoes, or tender breasts.

It isn’t the stubborn little roll of fat around your middle that won’t go away. The spare tire that resists dieting, Pilates, Yoga and everything else you throw at it.

It isn’t the heavy diaper bag, packed with everything you could possibly – but probably won’t – need to care for the baby, or the backbreaking labor of tending to a family.

That’s the easy stuff.

What hits you hardest, what weighs you down and takes the longest time to adjust to, is the responsibility that lands on you once the baby arrives. That is forever.

I’m talking about the chest-crushing pressure to be a good mother and raise a healthy, well-rounded child; to leave behind a legacy of love and kindness; to make the right decisions and do the right thing. The oppressive worry about a child’s future; their success at school; their success in life.

For some, it’s the baggage from your own childhood, a burden you may not have even realized you were carrying, that has to be shifted before you can shoulder the new load.

And then there are all those expectations.

Raising a child is a weighty matter.

When you think about it, like the stones that filled the hold of sailing ships, the children we love and care for are the ballast that keeps us from tipping in the squalls or slipping under the waves. They weigh us down and balance us. They keep us from drifting away and they keep us afloat.

Children anchor us.

So tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

That means, if I’m lucky, the wicker tray, the tray that comes out only on special occasions, the one with a pocket on the side for a magazine or the newspaper and a special place for a glass of juice or a vase of fresh flowers, will be carried upstairs and placed on the bed beside me.

On it will be hot coffee, crisp bacon, scrambled eggs and maybe French toast. Or waffles with strawberries and whipped cream.

Queen for a day, I’ll lean back against my pillows and enjoy the luxury of breakfast in bed, and I won’t be counting calories. Why should I?

I’ve got children. That means I’ve put on a lot of weight over the last few years.

Tomorrow is my day to celebrate.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Appalachian tale

   


    Taking the red-eye morning flight, I watched the watery April sun rise in the sky as I left the Inland northwest and flew across the country.
    My work took me east, but there was another, stronger, pull. I needed to see the mountains again. Not the jagged, new mountains of the west. But the old, old mountains of the east.
     I spent two days driving though the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And in some ways, it was two days spent driving through my own head.
    Mile after mile, the familiar landmarks caught my eye. I haven’t been in the area for years but I was surprised by the instant recognition. I had no idea how deeply, and how permanently, the scenery - the mountains and rivers and coves, the tumbledown cabins and ruins of old farms and homesteads - had been etched into my mind. Passing the traditional National Park signs, reading the road signs, with their poetic names like Nantahala, Pisgah, Maggie Valley, Cades Cove and Cherokee, I was lost in the traces of other journeys.
    As a child, on family road trips, in the days before seat belts, I daydreamed in the back of the family station wagon, winding along the serpentine roads, following the curves of the ancient mountains covered with dense forests. My grandfather loved the Smoky Mountains and whenever possible he drove us there. Long weekend getaways meant a midnight departure so that we could reach the park just as the sun rose. In the summer, the car was packed with the big canvas tent, Coleman stove and cooler, folding aluminum lawn chairs and a big iron skillet; all the necessary equipment for a week or two of camping by Deep Creek.
    In my memory,  the mountains were deep and dark and mysterious.  Clouds rested in valleys between peaks and we often drove right through them as we climbed. Lush green undergrowth crowded the narrow roads and the air fell cool and moist through the open window onto my upturned face.
    Later, as a new bride, married to a man who’d spent his own time exploring the Appalachian forests, I returned.  Our honeymoon was a pilgrimage to the mountains and we spent the first week of our marriage hiking the trails and driving the scenic roads.
    Then, a few years later, when the children came along, we carried them to the mountaintops, as if to hold them up and show the Gods what we had created.
    And now, well into middle-age, with an almost empty nest and a marriage as weathered and tested as any granite face, I had to go back.  I wanted to meet the mountains on my own terms.
    So, I drove. And I looked out the windows at a landscape that changed has very little while I have changed so much. I leaned into familiar hairpin curves meeting my own history in the tight turns. I turned my face up to the gentle spring rain. I surrendered to the ghosts.
    Flying home at the end of the week, I looked out the airplane window and thought about the impact the Smoky Mountains have had on my life.  Tall and quiet and filled with tradition, they are the shadowy guardians of my sweetest memories.
    Now, a continent away, I live between two different mountain ranges. To the west, the Cascades throw up their snowy peaks and sleeping volcanoes. To the east, the Rockies, a great wall of razored stone, claim the horizon. They are signposts whenever I travel around the region I now call home.
    But deep inside me, in the secret place the little girl, the bride and the new mother still live, a range of rolling, hazy mountains own the landscape.
    As my plane approached and the patchwork of land beneath the wing grew closer and closer until we touched down, I was glad to be back. But I was equally grateful to have had another chance to go back to the old places, the old mountains, to follow my own Appalachian Trail.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com



   

Thank you for flying ‘Air Mom.’

Looking back on columns about mothers…


May 7, 2007

Motherhood really isn’t about smooth landings

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Staff writer
 

     Imagine we are at a party (let’s make it a cocktail party because I’ve got a new dress and I’d like a chance to wear it even if it’s only in my imagination) and we’re making small talk, chatting the way strangers do.

     And imagine that I told you that one day I decided I wanted to be a pilot.

     I’d never really thought about being a pilot before, but one day, I just knew that was what I should be.

     So I read a few books about flying, and a few more books about airplanes. I watched a couple of videos and began to notice airplanes everywhere I went, paying special attention to the pilots who were flying them.

     Lots of people are pilots. How hard could it be?

     Then, late one night, I rushed off to the air field, strapped myself into the cockpit, grabbed the stick and took to the air with no practical experience. I counted on instinct to guide me.

     If I were to say that to you, you’d think I was, at best, a liar. At worst, maybe a little crazy.

     But what if we were at that party and I popped a canapé in my mouth and told you I have a child. One day I decided I was ready to be a mother. I read a few books, watched a few videos and studied babies and mothers wherever I went.

     I asked myself, how hard could it be?

     Then, late one night I went to the hospital. With no practical experience and very little training, I came home with a child. Counting on instinct to guide me.

     What’s crazy about that? Isn’t that the way most of us become parents?

     I brought that first child home with me over 20 years ago.

    I’ve still never flown a plane, but now I’ve got four children. And I’m not convinced that trying to fly without a lesson wouldn’t have been the easier route

     Parenting is hard.

     Most of the time, it’s impossible to see just where you’re headed, the speed at which you travel is terrifying and there’s no good way to stop once you start. And if you crash and burn, it’s not just yourself you’ll be hurting. There’s that precious cargo.

     You take a plane down, you’re dead. You screw up your kids, you’re a bad parent.

     That’s a lot worse than being dead.

     Raising a child, you have to be the pilot, the copilot and the navigator.

     Oh, and you’re also the flight attendant. You spend a lot of time making everyone but yourself comfortable.

     The instinct to nurture and protect your young is a good start. It certainly helps. But nothing teaches like experience.

     Which brings me to my point.

     Mother’s Day is coming up. That’s a good time to think about who got you where you are today.

     Most of us have someone, a mother or a mother figure who kept us aloft. She was the calm voice that told us to buckle up and breathe deeply. She guided us around storms and didn’t bail when the going got rough.

     She brought us in safely. She gave us our wings. She put our feet on the ground.

     This Mother’s Day, buy a card. Pick a flower. Take your mother somewhere she can wear a pretty dress.

     And while you’re at it, by all means, tell her thanks for the ride.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons.”  Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

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About this blog

Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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