A few weeks ago, I had a business meeting in Stillwater, Minnesota. I don’t ever mind too terribly traveling for work (with five kids, full nights of sleep in a hotel have become one of those perks you don’t think to ask about in the initial interview), and I was somewhat looking forward to going simply because—as has become a theme in my life, with places and things, since she passed—the location reminds me of my mother.
While I’m born and bred in Nebraska, during the fall that I started college, dad took a transfer to a town up there called Austin, and for a handful of years until they moved back, he and mom would do day trips around the state. Stillwater became a favorite stop. I went along as well a few times when I was there for summers and holidays; as memory serves, a drive to Stillwater was when my “our family doesn’t hop in the car for fun” future husband was first introduced to this form of weekend entertainment.
Now, my parents–and I say this with complete love and respect, believe me–were one of truest definitions of a “can’t live with ’em/can’t live without ’em” relationship I’ve ever encountered, but trips like that were something they did really well…to the point that, given their eventual divorce 30-odd years after marrying, I’ve actually spent time trying to dissect it, trying to figure out why they worked in that scenario but not in so many others. I suppose it’s the adult kid version of convincing yourself it wasn’t your fault.
For a long time afterward, I think mom’s mind hung onto those trips—and Stillwater in particular—as moments when things were as she wanted them to be. I guess I do the same.
I had a few hours between my flight landing and the meeting, so I decided to drive into downtown, find my hotel, and then maybe plop myself in a coffee shop and work for a while. As I drove, I looked at all of the buildings, working way too hard to conjure up detailed memories—“Did we eat there?” “That place looks kind of familiar” “Man, why am I having so much trouble remembering details?” “Maybe I’m imagining her connection to this place…” —and finally, tired of questioning myself and wanting to check my phone, pulled into the nearest parking lot.
After sitting in the car replying to and deleting emails, then getting my Facebook and Instagram fix (full-blown, unapologetic addict, right here), I noticed there was a bookstore directly behind me with a “Coffee” sign in the window. I gathered my laptop and my wallet (and my phone…because, you know, Facebook and Instagram) and walked across the gravel, up the single stair and through the door.
I’ve written before that my mother has a way of continuing to make her presence known to me through situations that could easily be written off as odd coincidences; stuff that, in many cases, only she and I would recognize as significant. And while these moments don’t surprise me anymore, I’m always sure to take notice, to smile and say—out loud—“Hi, mom.” Because, if it is real, forgetting heaven and spirits and all the powers I’m guessing come along with that, it’s pretty impressive. If I expect my kids to thank me for macaroni and cheese suppers, I think I owe her an air high-five for these “signs.” I mean, come on.
So, when one of the first books I saw, in full display on top of a shelf, was an illustrated version of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”–a book that she bought me over a decade ago and inscribed on the inside cover; that I memorized to recite to our oldest when she was a baby and that I put out every Christmas and that I’ve never, ever seen anywhere else—I (no pun intended) stopped. And I looked. And I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of being in a place that cannot be separated from her in my mind while looking at a “seriously, it’s summer in Minnesota, why on Earth is this on the shelves” book that cannot be separated from her in my mind.
I took it as confirmation that I was right to feel her, that my memory hadn’t failed me. Given how much I’d latched onto being there as a way to, in some strange fashion, keep her alive (the same thinking applies to white Gap t-shirts and Lancome lip gloss), it was exactly what I needed in the moment.
Which is, I suppose, how moms work. Forever.