Maybe no relics to remind us what can happen. [o]
My 71-year-old mom, in hiking boots and light jacket, with bucket and shovel, storms through the woods behind the house where she and Dad have lived since 1972.
Judy Goodman, my mom, who fills not only both sides of the inside of a thank you note, but also runs out of room on the back, who adopts a nine-and-a-half-year-old dog because someone has to, and who catches fish and kisses them before releasing them — stomps through the woods. She is pissed. She hates to be angry, would much rather be visiting one of her hospice patients or bringing someone her homemade sticky buns.
But the forest floor is again newly scarred with tire tracks, burn outs, and trash. Riders of ATVs and dirt bikes have found access to the patchwork of 80 wooded acres of easements and private land behind my parents’ and their neighbors’ homes. Until recently, Mom and Dad rarely saw or heard anyone on the trail. But now, growling engines and strewn garbage have replaced deer and songbird sightings. Though my parents collect trash every time they walk the woods, they can’t keep up with the mounding beer cans, vodka bottles, and chip bags. Even an old couch and burned out truck.
In exchange for her efforts, she breathes more deeply.
Mom and Dad raised my brother and me almost more in the woods than in our home, giving us magical names for our magical place. The Woods Biney Twiney: a sun-dappled, shade-spilled forest, where a friendly creature named Woobawooba lives, and where trees can grow a bench called a Feringeran, where we return to rediscover grapevine hideaways, rock-walled forts, peace, and breath.
Mom marches down the trail, bucket banging her knee, and passes a littered firepit. She tromps past the blackberry patch where she once lost a ring, and then down the steep hill where Dad cracked three ribs and punctured a lung while sledding.
She heads to the lowland where vernal pools reemerge annually; this year, they’re nothing but muddy tire tracks. The ephemeral pools, ruined, the soil, compacted and flung: the peepers, toads, and salamanders — homeless and therefore gone.
Beyond the swampy tracks, she finds what she has come for: the last bedraggled lady slippers languishing where a once audacious thicket grew. She has done her research; she knows it’s unlikely the delicate orchids will survive transplanting. But if she doesn’t, they’ll be gone anyway.
"The last bedraggled lady slippers languishing where a once audacious thicket grew . . ." Photograph by the author.
She digs deep, prodding with her spade, giving a wide berth for the roots. After her vigorous marching, her sightings of new trash piles, her frustration and anger that people seem driven to wreck, she breaks a sweat. Digging these thoughts into the earth, she claws rocks out of the way, half-moons dirt under her fingernails. In exchange for her efforts, she breathes more deeply.
She takes two lady slippers: one for her and one for me. And then she starts back home — the bucket heavy, her body warm, her jacket tied around her waist. The hike back up the sledding hill is arduous: rocky and steep. She has to stop several times to catch her breath, switch hands for bucket and shovel.
Even though my husband and I don’t have children, Mom surprises me with the lady slipper on Mother’s Day. This is the kind of woman she is: any excuse to celebrate will do. “You are a mom to Leo,” she insists, petting our yellow Labrador retriever.
The orchid is brash and flaunting, thrusting its lovely swollen, veined, pink bloom into the world: a flower more strumpet than photosynthesis, more lady of the evening than lady slipper.
The subject: unconcerned. Photo by the author.
The next spring: both our plants emerge and bloom. And later that year, after much hard work, Mom, Dad, a collection of neighbors, and a township supervisor close off access to wheeled vehicles. Day after day, my parents go to the woods and lug garbage and recycles home. The only things they don’t collect are the couch, which someone has burnt down to springs, and the truck, a kind of relic to remind what can happen.
The vernal pools? They’re back. The peepers, too. Tadpoles scoot and shimmy. Salamanders dart. And even the patch of lady slippers begins to recover.
A story with a happy ending. And a happy middle — my mom, a woman who climbs mountains to save a flower. ≈ç
HEATHER GOODMAN. Motivated to pursue fiction after attending Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Heather's work has been published in Fiction, Witness Magazine, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Hunger Mountain, The Crab Orchard Review, Shenandoah, and the Chicago Tribune, where her story 'His Dog' won the Nelson Algren Award. She also teaches high school students and edits for Quiddity. She lives in rural Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia.