Welcoming Woods

I learned what loneliness really meant when I was sent home to work in mid-March 2020. My youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Abby, less than thrilled with the arrangement, spent most of her day alone in her room, refusing to discuss the virus, or much of anything else. Her response to my good night greeting was barely a grunt. I lamented that I’d been forced into lockdown with the only one of my eight children who refused hugs. At least working at a spirituality center, I’d experienced a semblance of human contact that included daily handshakes, pats on the arm and the occasional hug.

It was sometime in July I read that people in Iceland were hugging trees to alleviate loneliness. Desperate for human contact, I snuck out of the house at dusk for a clandestine meeting with the big tree in front of the school across the street. My arms flung around the trunk of the massive oak, I leaned into the bark and closed my eyes. I felt nothing but embarrassment, looking around furtively before rushing back indoors.

As August approached, I looked forward to the day my newest book would arrive on my doorstep. Despite the challenges of a pandemic launch, it seemed fitting the inspirational book chronicling the legacy of a creative mother would be released ten years after her death. Her handwritten words would appear as epigraphs for each chapter. When the box arrived, I knew immediately where I would open it. Mom had loved her woods. She used to joke that if anyone ever wanted to put her in a nursing home, she’d escape to the woods and live out the rest of her life within the shadows of the trees. My son Michael had purchased the house and land and my children and I had started meeting in his yard for socially-distanced outdoor visits, so it wasn’t unusual to ask my children to meet me there in August.

I arrived first. Pushing a wheeled cart that held the unopened box, I headed directly to the woods area where Mom used to sit, noticing how neatly my son had kept it clear with a mower. He’d even left the metal chair she used to sit in, now rusty with seasons of rain and snow. I moved it in front of a tree, away from the direct sunlight. Then I pointed my phone camera towards my face to host my first ever Facebook Live video. Breathless with excitement, I announced the opening of the box and shared my first look at the pages.

opening the box in the woods

Replaying the video as I relaxed in Mom’s chair, I was surprised to see a look I hadn’t seen on my face since my husband’s death, one of pure, unadulterated joy. Basking in the warmth of the woods, listening to the birds, I sensed the quiet spirit of my mother.

Hearing the voices of my children in the distance, I stood, turning quickly to hug the tree that had served as my video backdrop, feeling a deep peace as I did so. This tree seemed to welcome the embrace. That day was a turning point for me in the pandemic. Wanting to immerse myself in more of the woods experience, I asked Abby to go hiking with me.

Broken trees fascinate me. When I captured this one, I also captured my daughter gazing at the sky.

Several times a month we’d drive to a nearby park and explore the trails. It was during those walks she began talking to me. By the time I returned to my office seven months into the pandemic, she couldn’t stop talking. Now, we end up on the couch every night, sipping tea and discussing our day. She still doesn’t hug, but I smile every time I open her bedroom door to say good night and get a verbal reply.

It seems I rediscovered both my joy and my daughter in the woods.


My Mother’s Eyes

I never expected her to be there. While I’d felt led by God, and knew she would have encouraged me to attend if she were still alive, I never thought I’d be sitting at a table in a workshop and look up to see my mother in a stranger’s eyes. The workshop presenter had already begun his presentation, and it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I wasn’t getting anything from it like I had in two of his sessions the previous day. My pad of paper was flipped open to an empty page, my pen ready, and I was starting to wonder why I was in this particular class. I glanced up to see a woman across the table looking straight at me with an unwavering gaze; her eyes full of love, kindness, and a sort of “knowing” wisdom.  I was mesmerized and could not look away. She steadily held my gaze. Recognition was swift and sudden, and pain cut through me like a knife.  I heard an anguished cry, and realized it had come from deep within myself.

“You have my mother’s eyes.” I started sobbing, and the woman gently said, “I’m sorry.”

I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder, and sensed some movement at the table, but I wasn’t aware of anyone else in the room. It was just me, the stranger, and my mother’s eyes.

“No. Don’t be sorry. You don’t understand. You have her eyes. My mother died a year ago, and now I find her here?”

“She still loves you,” she said gently, and I began crying in earnest; the wet and noisy sobs of a small child who has gotten lost, separated from her mother, and is frightened.

With supreme effort, I pulled my gaze away, gradually noticing the shocked and embarrassed silence at a table full of writers who had come to learn about the power of prayer, not witness a spectacle. A sound technician came through the door, laying a recorder on the table in front of the instructor who looked askance at me before turning it on. I nodded slightly, pulling off my glasses and dabbing at my eyes. For the next few minutes I studiously avoided looking across the table, taking deep breaths to compose myself. My hands shook as I drank sip after sip of ice water. I could feel the steady stream of silent tears coursing down my cheeks. I heard the instructor speaking and I tried desperately to pay attention, but to no avail; the memory of those eyes burnt into my very psyche. For a few
minutes, I would think I had control of myself and then the tears would resume. It was no use; I picked up my bag and notebook, excused myself, and left the table.

Outside the classroom, I frantically looked for the door I had seen marked “Prayer Room.” Hot tears blinded me as I gulped down sobs and stumbled through the hallway, until I saw the large “Prayer” sign. I rushed inside and closed the door behind me, dropping first onto the couch, and then onto my knees. I was drawn to a wailing wall, where I added my prayer of thanks for being able to experience this, despite the inherent pain. My mother was dead, but she’d been there.

What had just happened? How could it be that I had seen my mother’s eyes in a stranger? I shook my head to clear it. Only that morning, my friend Mary and I had held hands in prayer. I had asked God to make the meaning of my presence at this conference clearer to me.

The day before had been a whirlwind of workshops and meetings and a dawning realization that my expectations of what I had come for was not why God had brought me. And then to see my mother’s eyes! Unbridled joy coursed through me; my mother was somewhere that could happen!

I don’t know how long I cried before composing myself enough to call my daughter. Through choked sobs and fresh tears, I told her what had happened.

“There you go. Your answer to why you are there. Grandma wanted you to be,” she said, and I knew that was true.

I finally left that peaceful room and headed to the bathroom. I groaned out loud when I saw my red-rimmed eyes. My friend Mary met me in the hallway, alarmed at the sight of me. “Good crying, or bad?” she asked quickly, before heading to a meeting after I assured her it was good. Torn between the sight of a friend in distress and a pressing appointment, she could do little more than hug me and whisper a sweet blessing into my ear. How was I going to get through a day of workshops looking like this, I wondered?  I went outside and prayed for composure, the fresh chill of the air bracing me.

At lunch I felt compelled to find the woman who I’d likely scared with my reaction that morning. When I saw her with her back to me, I touched her shoulder. I steeled myself for fresh pain as she turned. Instead, I clearly saw the woman’s own eyes, nothing like my mother’s. I searched her kind face quizzically. Her hairstyle was similar, but otherwise this woman didn’t resemble my mother in the least.

“I’m sorry I scared you. You don’t have my mother’s eyes now, but you did this morning.”

“You didn’t scare me. Your mother wants me to give you a hug,” she responded, and she took me into her warm embrace.

Later I would see the instructor and call out to him, “I’m sorry I had to leave your class this morning.”

“That’s the way God works,” he replied kindly.

Before I left the conference, I searched for the woman I now knew as Judith. “Can I buy one of your books and have you autograph it?” I asked. As I paid for it, I saw her leaning over the table inscribing something inside. She handed it to me and pulled me into another hug. “Your mother wants me to hug you,” she repeated for the second time. “I am honored she used me to reach you.” When I came out of the awards ceremony with not one, but two first place writing contest wins, I spotted her leaving the dining room.  “I won two first-place prizes,” I excitedly told her. She hugged me for the third time, saying, “I know you did, and your mother is so proud.” Yet how did she know? She hadn’t been in the awards room. I clung to her, sobbing into her shoulder, certain of the truth.

I slept at my friend Mary’s house that evening, and woke up at 1:00, tears streaming down my face.  Then began the now familiar tossing and turning that signals I will not get to sleep until I follow God’s urging and write his words. “Ah, yes, is this what you will do with me now, Lord?” I whispered into the dark room. “Wake me up in the middle of the night and make me write?” And I heard his answer, “You can go back to sleep after you write this down.” I found myself slightly amused by my taskmaster, secure in the knowledge that I would have no trouble returning to slumber if I only followed his prompting.

So I wrote. Afterward, in the darkness of Mary’s house I fumbled for the gift book to read what Judith Robl had written inside the flyleaf of her book As Grandma Says.

For Mary, Many Blessings on your writing- 12 November 2011, Judith Robl, Proverbs 31:28-30.”

I searched my Bible for the verse and found this:

Proverbs 31:28-30:  28 “Her children rise up and call her blessed; Her husband also, and he praises her: 29 “Many daughters have done well, But you excel them all.” 30 Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. 31 Give her of the fruit of her hands, And let her own works praise her in the gates.