To Fern, On Mother’s Day
On this Mother’s Day, 2017, here’s to my beautiful mother, Fern, my First Teacher, and to all the moms, in appreciation of the lives they’ve given us, and what they’ve taught us and shared with us along the way.
She taught us how to laugh, especially at ourselves. One of the only times I’ve ever seen her angry was when we taped the handle of the spray nozzle on the kitchen sink so that it sprayed the face of the next person who used the faucet. Which was her. At which point she let us know then and forever after, it is never okay to humiliate a person to get your laughs.
She gave us an appreciation of words and of language. She would have us trace letters by holding a sheet of paper to a window. I got in trouble in first grade because I insisted that you could pronounce the word ‘the’ as ‘thee’ if a vowel word followed it. ‘The apple’ is pronounced ‘thee apple,’ I explained. Sister Francille wanted us all to pronounce it ‘thuh.’ I thank Fern for her gifting me at a young age with respectful skepticism of titles, authority, uniforms, and habits (nuns’ or otherwise).
Having grown up on a dairy farm, she could milk a cow by hand like nobody you’ve ever seen. You probably haven’t seen anybody milk a cow by hand, ever. I have, and believe me, nobody could do it like Fern. She played a cow’s udder like a percussion instrument. That milk hit the pail like Buddy Rich’s sticks hitting the drums. It was music. Socketa-socketa-socketa-saaahhhhh! Socketa-socket-socketa-saaahhhhh! went the milk-in-pail beat. Like all good musicians, Fern had more than one technique. You probably don’t know that you can squeeze a cow’s teats to make music, or you can do what my mom called ‘stripping’ them. You can thank Fern for what you just now learned. There’s music in every task.
She taught us that no matter what kind of burden we are carrying, it can be made lighter by a song. I can’t tell you how many times we piled into our family station wagon, and it was tense, because our dad, the legendary Cowboy Bob, was on tilt about something. We would not have crossed the bridge in the bottom across the Little Flat Creek that marked the boundary to our farm, before Fern had begun a sing-along. You Are My Sunshine, or Playmates [Come Out and Play With Me], or My Darling Clementine. And pretty soon, we were all singing. Cowboy Bob included. Fern lives the old adage that we don’t sing because we’re happy, we’re happy because we sing.
She was afraid of horses. And yet we always had horses — sometimes a lot of horses — on our farm, because my dad loved horses, and, as it turned out, they were how he treated himself for his PTSD (nee shellshock) from World War II. We had no idea of the atrocities he’d seen. He never spoke to us about them, or to Fern either. And so from her, we learned to confront our fears, because some things — especially our loves — are bigger than our fears. And we can never discover our capacity for love if we let our fears get in our way.
She has endured the deepest hurt a parent can experience — the loss of a child. We know that her grief is always there, only a memory away. She has shown us how to endure. How family, community, friends and faith can carry us through our most awful times. How to find light in even the darkest night. Our thanks to her for this is everlasting.
You probably don’t know that when she was 85 years old, she started a company, Fern Fashion. Now you do. It is never too late to do that thing you’re thinking about. Ask my mom.
Even her name, just her name, connects people to her. What a beautiful name, people will say, half a world away. She sounds amazing, my friends will say. And they will be 100 percent accurate.
My friend, Zabeth, loves Fern so much [even though she’s never actually met her in person] that when we performed an improv show together a couple of years ago in L.A., she led our team onstage holding a portrait of Fern in front of her like it was a photo of the Dalai Damn Lama, and before the show, at Zabeth’s insistence, we passed out Fern’s special oatmeal cookies to the audience. That’s how my mom travels. She stays at home on the farm and her goodness gets around.
Scientists and theorists can be discussing fractal theory, and when they find out my mom’s name is Fern, they’ll pause and say, You know, ferns are fractals. And I will say yes, I know. It is the only way I am able to understand fractal theory. My mother is a fractal. Her patterns are in her quilts. In the sounds of the milk hitting the pail. In her exquisite handwriting that is unlike any you’ve ever seen. In the joy of her laughter. And the sing-along way she expresses herself, always. As long as I have known her. A lifetime. Fern ferning.
With love and respect. Your son.