Mom metaphors struggle to bridge the gap

I feel her embrace as I walk the fog-wreathed hollows of the Vaqueros Hills in March; catch a whiff of her fragrance in buckbrush blossoms on Murchio Gap in April. The pitch of her laughter is on my mind in May, when the air in Mitchell Canyon timbrellates with a thousand bird calls. And as I roam the exposed hilltops of Highland Ridge in June, I imagine the southwest breeze as her breath reigniting the embers of my spirit.

It’s fitting that Mother’s Day falls in spring, when birth and beauty and nurturing warmth fill the air. As a metaphor, spring helps bridge the gap between memory and the present moment. But try describing your mother’s impact on you, and metaphors fall short. If metaphors are comparisons, what our mothers mean to us is beyond compare.

No fog-wreathed hollow could have nursed me back to health as Mom did when as a kid I suffered from rheumatic fever. No bird calls could have stimulated my interest in astronomy by giving me binoculars for my birthday. It’s correct figuratively and literally to call Yosemite’s awe-inspiring mass of granite called Half Dome “unwavering.” It’s not eroding in a hurry. But unlike Mom, Half Dome could never show me unwavering loyalty and encouragement all these years, despite my deserving less. “Mother Nature” is an equivocal image. Like unwavering Half Dome, nature can represent a good mother. But Half Dome is indifferent to my well being. Mom could never be that.

Ella Erickson in 1938.

Ella Erickson grew up on a farm in Klevenville, Wisconsin, and her love for the natural world – the open sky, the creek she loved to explore – influenced my desire to connect with nature. Even now, from her 10th-floor view of Lake Morton in Florida, she reverts to farm-girl lingo when describing the floating swans and pelicans as “critters.”    

As a kid raised in the city and suburbs I never brushed a cow or plucked a chicken. I was never required to collect eggs or shove a hay bale down a hole in a ceiling. As a teen I never rode a horse bareback. As an adult I never served in the Women’s Marine Corps (I couldn’t pass the physical). But Mom did, and was stationed in Washington, D.C. during World War II while waiting for the man who would be my father to return from the campaign in Italy.

Mom was a working woman. She raised four kids while holding demanding jobs at Wheaton College and Central DuPage Hospital in Illinois. But she carved out time to pursue her passion for reading, which inspired me to crack open books that lured me into realms of wonder. The particular aroma of Wheaton’s Adams Memorial Library – a musty mélange of wood, leather and old paper – is etched deeply in memory. Take a wild guess who chauffeured me, for years, to the library.

Mom stood beside me in our front yard the night of my 12th birthday as I trained my brand-new binoculars on the Milky Way: stars behind stars dissolving into a haze of farther stars. I later learned that as a kid, Mom would step outside at night, lie against an incline near her house and gaze at the heavens. Nine decades later, in her east-facing apartment, she’s up before dawn, savoring those same lights. In our phone conversations she’ll ask about the celestial wonders she observes. My ability to provide answers is her accomplishment, too.

In 2019 Ella Erickson turns 99. Her voice is less strong than before; less fluid. But in it I hear the voice I’ve known from the beginning, a voice for which metaphors struggle to bridge the gap: a voice warm as the wind that swirls through Murphy Meadow in May, gentle as the water that flows down High Creek in March, uplifting as the ruby bursts of clarkia blossoms adorning Castle Ridge in June. A voice – and a woman behind the voice – like spring.