Thirty-five years is thirty four and three-quarter years too many to be away from home. That’s how long it’s been since I left the Rocky Mountains for good.
I was twelve when we moved to the city. I didn’t fit in, but I struggled to learn her ways and gain acceptance among the other twelve year olds. Tough row to hoe for someone without previous experience or practice. My mountain friends (which mostly consisted of six brothers and sisters) didn’t care if your jeans were dirty or had holes in them. The girls didn’t care if your hair was shiny, straight, or had a lovely style. In fact, we mostly left our hair alone since combing through unruly curls and knots proved way too painful and time consuming. Bath time between seven consisted of a large tin tub filled with creek water carried in by the boys and Dad, and boiled on a wood stove. I was the fourth of seven, so really, by the time I got into the tub, even though the water was dirty, it could have been much worse. Imagine if I’d been the seventh child! Poor baby sister, June!
I really did try to get the hang of socializing the way city kids are prone to do. I tried too hard. I failed miserably. Looking back now, I can’t say I ever really grasped the urgency of popularity, the humiliation of non-brand names, or the condemnation of hanging with the “undesirables.”
Up to this point my social life had consisted of playing “tag, you’re it” with rabbit droppings that were super hard and flew super fast toward their target. Dodging them among the trees proved exhausting, but exhilarating. Another favorite pastime included digging for days our underground two-room fort covered by sheets of old plywood. It was amazing, complete with steps carved out of the clay-like soil and smooth shelves for candles chiseled into the walls (we were sooo good!).
Adventure was the order of every day, not appearance, popularity, or company kept. Adventure on the railroad tracks, for miles and miles, searching for pretty rocks we called agates; adventure near the rivers while sucking sweet willow branches (even the ants enjoyed them- we knew we were onto something!); adventure in the meadows filling our bellies with any one of thousands of wild blueberries (try to get them before the bears arrive!); and doing perfect pushups down into the crystal clear water to quench our thirst. The adventures never stopped in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia- our home in all of her wild and untamed glory. I believe I was perfectly happy.
I was oblivious to the fact that we were dirt poor; oblivious to the term “gypsies.” I was at one with the Creator of this magnificent land. Flashes of lightning illuminating water drops on alpine flowers, and subsequent sudden panoramic brightness that set me back on my heels, were a way of life- a constant reminder of His Greatness. I accepted it for what it was. There was never any doubt.
Yes, I was oblivious, but now it was all coming sharply into focus.
My inadequacies gave way to fear. Fear that compelled me to become….
What I am today: refined, educated, accepted, “one of them.” But deep in my heart, I know that I still don’t belong. I suppose that’s why the recent camping trip to the Rockies had such a profound effect on me.
We camped along the way in some other pretty spots of BC before reaching the great Rockies, but heavy rains forced us to move on ever closer to the summit, almost like we were being beckoned. When we finally pulled up to Roger’s Pass Summit in Glacier National Park, I was instantly drawn back forty years. I got out of the truck mesmerized. I couldn’t take my eyes off the towering mountain peaks whose jutted crags were half covered by low, mystical clouds.
Smells can be powerful and this mountain air traveled deep into buried memories. My tears began to flow. My husband was talking to me, but I didn’t hear what he said.
Reluctantly, I followed him into the lonely mountain store/information center. We each filled our coffee cups and I started to look around at the souvenirs. On a book rack, Common Wildflowers of British Columbia by J. Duane Sept caught my eye. I picked it up and began gingerly, reverently leafing through her pages. Each photographed flower screaming memories of a long forgotten childhood. I couldn’t believe the effect each flower was having on my psyche.
The White Mountain Lady Slipper- discovering her with my Mother who told me not to pick her because she was endangered. How beautiful! How precious this flower had been to me then, on that first discovery! I remember a fallen tree and her growing along side in the shade. I remember Mommy holding my hand. Dear, wise Mommy.
Indian Paintbrush- The name alone was enough to cause us kids to shamelessly pluck her and wear her brilliant reds in our hair while “hooting like Banjees.” How endearing were my siblings and how much they were just like me. Today we are cemented together by these unique memories.
And then I saw the glorious: Purple Bleeding hearts, Red Columbines, Few Flowered Shooting Stars, Tall Blue Bells, Common Hair Bells, dainty Twin Flowers, and so many more.
I was transfixed. I was crying again. I raced to show my husband. With great emotion, I explained how every flower was a memory. I flipped through the pages for him. My tears fell on the flowers. He took the book to the register. He paid $12.95, and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day.” It wasn’t Valentine’s day (*see note). It was, however, the most cherished gift I’ve ever received.
Auntie Vi always wrote me back. After we moved to the city and I was a little sad, her letters would always pick me up. They lived in the Columbia Valley between the Rocky Mountains and the Bugaboos Mountains (otherwise known as the Rocky Mtn. Trench). She had married my Mother’s brother- our dearly loved Uncle Jacob- we called him Uncle Cub. I can still remember Mamma going through her mail and calling out that always musical, “Kathleen, letter for you,” as my brothers and sisters feigned disinterest, but I detected envy.
Just the envelope alone was a thing of beauty. Her elegant handwriting flawless in its delivery always had the same affect on me: wonder and awe. And inside the envelope was the wisdom and kindness of a knowing adult who always addressed me as a grown up. Answering every question I had about the mountains and asking just as many of her own about our life in the city. Her letters never stopped coming- ever. I’m the one who eventually lost touch and stopped writing.
As we left the summit and started toward her little valley, I almost thought not to stop. I’d tried her phone number the night before to no avail and told my husband she must be out of town, so we should just roll on through. But my husband, in his wisdom, knew better than to let me off the hook that easily. “Well we’re here now. You should try her again.” We were parked at the little General Store when I called her. She picked up after two rings.
As it turned out we were only blocks from her new place. (Uncle Cub had since passed and she had moved from the old homestead to be closer to her daughter and grandchild).
As I walked into her lovely yard, a peacefulness enveloped my heart. When we walked into her kitchen, I fairly fell into her open arms. I teared up yet again. It was good to be home!
She was brilliant. Seventy- five years now and looking not a day over fifty. Her eyes bright and alert. Her speech intelligent and coherent, she gave me a special gift that day: She filled in some gaps in my memory and upheld my Mother’s character. Things I needed to hear. Things I needed to know.
And then, glory. One by one my cousins trickled in- stopped working on their farms to come see us. Adjusted hectic schedules, and came to grace us with their presence.
The boys came in first. Mountain men for sure! Their big, burly arms embraced me as they gently kissed my cheek. I barely recognized them and got their names mixed up. It had been twenty five years since I had last seen them. It had been too long.
In contrast to her rough brothers, Sandy (Cub and Vi’s youngest), entered as a steady and wise fairy. Her eyes glistened like her Father’s before her, but her thirteen year old daughter was more like the Sandy I remembered. Gay, the eldest of my cousins, came the last half hour of our visit. It wasn’t enough time.
We visited, shared stories and memories, shared photos old and new, and took new pictures. After four hours, we departed.
They helped me to remember who I was. Who I am. Lest I should forget. And I had forgotten, considerably. With them, I was just “Kathy”, the middle of seven wild mountain kids. Nothing special. No airs. But loved just the same. And for that love, I am, and forever will be, grateful.
Our final days of camping were spent basking in the beauty of the Rockies (though we didn’t see near enough). But in these moments of untamed grandeur, I was reminded once again, and deeply affected by the little girl who used to dance in the meadows in the rain. The wild little mountain waif who chugged on- the middle box car in a train of seven- wherever the eldest would lead, over vale, under spruce bows, and down to the river.
They say you can’t go home, but I followed the tracks of my heart, and found my home was just as I left it. And she’s still there waiting- surprisingly untouched and beautiful. Maybe one day, I’ll go home for good. And I believe any old mountain will do.
Kathleen Morgan 2009
*Note: We don’t celebrate Valentines in the traditional way. We pick a day of the year and surprise our partner …telling them it is their Valentine’s Day, and we do special things for them. In this case, my husband also got me a hotel for the night so I could soak in a tub and get clean!