The Labyrinth

“I begin to see our connected lives like the intricate path of a labyrinth. My mother is spiraling inward toward the center,
the still point of the turning world. . . . I am following the outward way toward assuming the reins of care,
trying not to step over the bounds of the path in front of me.”

(Mother Lode, p. 65)

One of my first getaways in 2012, two months after my cross-country move to begin my care-partnering sojourn with my mother, was a one-day writing-in-nature workshop at the Whidbey Institute on Washington’s Whidbey Island. It was there I met Christina Baldwin, who would become my friend and writing mentor. Attending that workshop—discovered quite by chance and registered for on a whim—changed the trajectory of my life, ultimately leading to becoming a published author.

I walked the Institute’s Chartres labyrinth for the first time that autumn Saturday. As I made the eleven circuits to the center and back out, I didn’t yet see it as the metaphor for my life it would become. Returning over the years, both to Christina’s writing retreats and to the labyrinth, I began to recognize the increasingly familiar pattern my mother and I were in, she circling toward the center and her eventual death, I winding back out toward a resumption of my life that had felt on hold. The predictably unpredictable labyrinth path—as we passed near to each other and then more distanced—became a trope, or theme, winding through my memoir.

When I walked the labyrinth again last week, I realized the path is really a metaphor for all of life. It looks deceptively ordered from some points, chaotic from others, but it’s only when focusing only what is just ahead that way opens up. You can, of course, step over the dividers, taking a short-cut. When you do, however, it isn’t clear which direction leads to the center and which to the exit. You really just have to stay the path and move headlong into whatever presents itself.

I noticed (in retrospect) that on the hairpin turns, my mind and my body came back to attention to the path. I looked at my feet and shortened my stride, taking care not to step over or on a stone. In the gentle curves of the circuits, though, I returned to noticing the bee on the daisy, the smell of the air, the singing birds. It was then I could let my mind wander to what has been, what is, what might be. Both kinds of attention have always been present in my life, though it can seem—especially in times of crisis—it’s all one and never the other.

Leaving the labyrinth, I walked to the apple tree garden, remembering sitting in it at the workshop to do a writing assignment. The sprinkler was running this visit, so I didn’t go in, but I remembered—per the assignment—I had a conversation with the apple tree. My essay was focused on two trees, a young one and an old one. Now the young one is becoming the elder, just as I am in my mother’s absence.

I visited the big fenced garden next. It and the one at Aldermarsh—site of my first week-long writing retreat two months later—were the inspirations for my own meadow garden. I am quite sure in 2012 it was a working kitchen garden, with an eagle-protected chicken run around it. The run is gone now, and the garden has gone wild with meandering paths.Finding an old photograph of the front yard of my mother’s house, I remembered there used to be roses along the driveway curb, now there are azaleas. She was a pantser gardener like me. I don’t know why I didn’t realize that. Her gardens morphed from this to that, as happens when pantsers create. I’ve been feeling like I have let her down, unable to keep the grounds around the house looking as they did under her care. I’ve been thinking about starting over in the front of the house, sowing wildflowers and letting it do what it will. It may or may not happen. Also, I’m not sure how that will be different from now. Every year something comes up that wasn’t there before and something that was present is gone. This year it’s dotted loosestrife I’ve not seen before. Just one stalk. Last year the previously prolific campanula bellflower was gone, this year there’s one stalk. Wild field daisies have joined the planted Shasta daisies (not yet blooming).

As I wander through the former kitchen garden at the Institute, I wonder what discussions were had to let it be what it wanted to be. I wonder if I have the courage to let my meadow—the former horse pasture—return to nature, as one of my sisters suggested some time ago. The bees would love it, and so would my wallet. There is probably an art to letting a long-mowed meadow revert to natural, and without becoming the tangle of blackberry vines—both native and not—that it would want to be. Maybe I’ll begin with a test plot, taking a lesson from the labyrinth: don’t look too far ahead, start with what’s right in front of you.

Back at home, looking for a photo of the kitchen garden in 2012—which I did not find—I found the conversation with the apple tree on my old blog. The insight is remarkably similar to the one here about the labyrinth. There is nothing new, I guess, just a lot of rediscovery. You can read that post here.

We don’t always see where way will take us to get from here to there. I thought my married-with-children life was all set when I met my future husband fifty years ago. Instead, I have walked an eleven circuit labyrinth, one that brought me back to the place I started. Life is not a straight line, but takes unforeseen turns. One way or another, it always comes back to the beginning point. The 107th anniversary of my mother’s birth is today, my 71st is next week. I don’t know if I will have three decades left as she did, but I’m excited to see what is around the next curve. I think I won’t have expectations beyond that.

“You will take it as it comes, and figure it out as you go. That is what you have done all your life, and it has always worked out. . . .
It is what we all must do. It is the only way there is.”

—Writing workshop, 2012 

Climb Every Mountain

Sunday had all the appearances of being a socked-in miserable rainy day; the kind I longed for all the years I lived in the southeast but rarely got. Oh, it might start out looking hopeful, but then the sun would break through and ruin it. I would feel like I had to go for a walk or work in the garden or something, and there would go the day of self-indulgence.

On Sunday, I decided early on—before the day began—I was going to stay upstairs in Mama’s space all day. After I cooked us brunch, I would light candles in the fireplace and pretend it was a fire; and dress lightly enough that I could sit under an afghan in the too-warm house and read until time for figure skating. Then I would pop corn, knit, watch TV.  When that was over, I would resume reading and probably nap. I haven’t had this favorite kind of day in the 18 months since I moved here. I was about to find out why.

I made biscuits for brunch. Mama was excited. She couldn’t remember the last time she ate a biscuit. “There was a country store that your daddy and I used to stop at on our way to hike in the Smokies and get sausage biscuits for our lunch.” “Did you like them?” I asked. I can’t quite picture my mother eating sausage biscuits for some reason. “They made a delicious cold lunch,” she said.

While Mama cleaned up the kitchen, I lit the candles and sat on the sofa under the afghan with my book. From there my perfect day went south.

I love to watch figure skating. Always have. In high school, I switched out the poster on my bedroom wall of Julie Andrews spinning in an alpine meadow in favor of Peggy Fleming spinning on Olympic ice. In the winter, I was glued to Wide World of Sports. On Saturday, Mama had enjoyed watching the competition with me until I had to go out. On Sunday, she came in and sat down in the recliner next to the sofa, asking if couples would be skating. No. Within seconds her body slumped and her mouth fell open; she snored three feet from my head through the first group of the men’s event. She woke as the second group was warming up and moved to the swivel chair in front of the television. Between each skater she swiveled to face me, blocking the TV so I couldn’t see the scores, and asking me questions during the commentary: “Did you think he was as good as the last one?” “Did he make any mistakes?” “What was the matter with that jump?” “Are the couples going to skate?” “Do they just skate in one corner of the rink?” “Was his music different?” “He looked embarrassed, was he?” (That last regarding the gold medalist overcome with emotion after his performance.) I tried to answer. She couldn’t hear me. I repeated it louder. Then a follow-up question.

Just as it ended, and I was praying she would eat some lunch then take a nap, the sweet neighbor who often comes to visit on Sunday afternoons called. When Audrey presumably asked how she was, Mama told her she was lazy. This is her response when she hasn’t accomplished whatever she thinks she should be accomplishing, which is never. I’m so glad I didn’t absorb her belief that self-care is the equivalent of laziness. What a burden. Jo Ann tells the childhood memory of our mother calling from the kitchen to ask what she was doing. “I’m in the bathroom,” Jo Ann would call back; because if she said she was reading she would be told to come and do some chore. I  remember Mama saying rather snappishly that she didn’t have time to read the newspaper, or a magazine. I never saw her reading a book.

Audrey is coming at 4:00, the time I figured Mama would be napping and I could inhale the solitude. Maybe she will take an early nap if I help her get something to eat. She says she’s not hungry. She moves into activity mode; striving, I guess, to make up for two hours of laziness. She brings the calendar to me. “Is February first really a Saturday? I can’t work out how that is.” She wants me to prove it mathematically; that is, on my fingers. Then she wants me to go with her to the basement freezer to tell her what soup is there; apparently the list on the refrigerator is insufficient. She doesn’t believe me that there is soup in the upstairs freezer. I let it go and take a spinach and a pea up to add to the collection falling out when the freezer door is opened. I also take up the five containers of celery soup that she had me take downstairs Friday after telling me it wasn’t good. She is going to throw them away. Yes! Later I find them crammed into the upstairs freezer. She waters the house plants and makes two phone calls. I give up and go downstairs to my cave, my stomach clenched, feeling like I’ve been skating up a moving glacier into thin air.

Finally I hear the microwave ding. I guess she has warmed some soup. Audrey comes. No nap; no silence. I start dinner and Mama lies down at 5:45, just as Rebecca arrives for supper. While pizza dough rises, I write the first draft of this post. As I finish, I hit some key and the whole thing goes poof. No recovery options.

That was my mountain today. Meanwhile, my writer friend Taline just scaled Mt. Kilamanjaro.

Pots du Créme au Chocolat

The Story:

Over my adult lifetime, my mother frequently expressed her failure as a mother because she fed her babies Gerber’s chocolate pudding, getting her daughters started early on sugar. They were different times, I tell her, can’t know what you didn’t know. And besides I have no chocolate love regrets. (Does early exposure prevent allergies? I would hate to be allergic to chocolate.) Jell-O chocolate pudding, the kind you stir constantly on the stove, not the instant variety, was one of the few cooking experiences I remember from childhood. Now my tastes are more sophisticated, and this chocolate “pudding” recipe is blue ribbon. And so easy. I hope I made it for my mother, I don’t remember. She did love chocolate!

The Recipe:

Makes six servings


2 cups heavy cream (or whole milk, if you’re on a diet, haha)
6 oz dark sweet chocolate (I use 60% Ghiradelli), cut into small pieces
⅓ cup sugar
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla (or Grand Marnier, or rum, or Kahlúa)
Chocolate curls


Preheat oven to 350º. In a heavy saucepan combine cream and chocolate and cook over medium heat stirring until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

Whisk in sugar, yolks (one at a time), and vanilla. Strain (if you want, I don’t) the custard into 6 one-half cup ramekins and place in a baking pan. Add hot water to the pan to reach halfway up the side to create a water bath. Bake 25 minutes or until top is set. Remove from pan and let cool. Garnish with chocolate curls (whipped cream opt). Pure deliciousness! Even better after refrigerating.