Subject: Birthday Present
Date: August 14, 2014
On the white screen a black rectangle appears across which stretches what looks like a film strip. I click the “play” triangle and the image moves, a coiled nubbin swaying and dancing within the dark space. It’s tiny hand bounces against its face in a heartbeat’s rhythm. From the screen I hear my daughter-in-law’s voice, “Oh my gosh,” while Michael, wordless, laughs.
My only son and his wife, late thirty-something actors squeaking by in New York, had not seemed eager for parenthood. Yet, what I never expected or even dared hope has suddenly happened. A baby girl tethered in her amniotic sac floats into the future and my mind flies. I’ve got to tell someone. I’m going to be a grandmother.
“Wait,” Michael tells me, “until after the first trimester and all the genetic tests. Just in case.”
But when life suddenly shifts you can’t sit and wait. Excitement sends me off to Powell’s Bookstore within the hour. The Expectant Father and Mayo Clinic’s Guide to Pregnancy zoom out in the morning mail. Questions race through my head: What kind of stroller will they want? Can I learn to knit anything besides hats? When can I visit?
“I won’t be sending any clothes in lavender or pale pink,” I tell Michael. “Bold, primary colors and stories with strong-willed girls.” I imagine him nodding.
After two days of holding the secret I called my oldest friend, the one who’d hiked with me for thirty days along the Skyline Trail, the one who’d known Michael as long as he’d lived. “Guess what?” I said. “They’re having a baby!”
Three weeks later I headed out alone for a summer’s end backpack trip. The first night I pitched camp beside tiny Red Lake. Its grassy necklace glimmered in the twilight and patches of cross-hatched ripples skated here and there like an animated woodcut. A lone duck dipped and dived across the surface. A heron squawked its way onto a high pine; below one small fish jumped once. There was more company in the sky as clouds barreled in from the west and darkened the lake. In the final dusk a robin scavenged the shore while I crawled into my tent. The next morning I said goodbye to renamed Solo Lake and hiked on in search of more camaraderie. Within a mile I happened on the huckleberry fields beside a lake with four ducks, three Clark jays, and a pair of cinder eaters who sat with me at dinner bobbing in the ash-full fire pit.
A cold wind raked the trees and rattled the tent all night long, hinting at winter. But sometime after midnight the skies cleared, stars pierced the pines, and the Milky Way poured across the lake. In the morning up the trail, I stalked huckleberries to fill my pail and bring home to share. Like a mama bear I snuffled through the undergrowth around the camp and hillsides and finally found thigh-high bushes nestled among beargrass with berries plump as nipples. The lake still lapped against the rocky shore but in the shelter of an outcrop and warmed by sun, I stooped to pick one fat berry, its skin glossy and so tender it almost split to my touch. It clung to its stem, reluctant; on its bottom turned toward the light, three concentric circles, like ripples on a lake, like a belly button.
“Little Olallie. Little Huckleberry,” I murmured. “You’re nestled and tethered, waiting for winter, waiting to carry the line forward.”
I stop. My eyes seek berries, but my thoughts turn to the little girl unfolding inside Tam, becoming who she will be. Already she carries inside her a nest of eggs for the next generation. She is my toe into the future, carrying forward the family I have known, not just my son but my mother and father and grandmother. I turn among the bushes and seeds burst from the beargrass. Everywhere, cones, berries; everything aims towards the future.
Yet, here I stand in empty fields where once generation after generation gathered to harvest, long before wilderness designations and Oregon statehood, long before Lewis and Clark, where women bent to the bushes, baskets in hand, babies strapped on their backs and children, their lips stained berry-red, tousled the leaves. Will my granddaughter go picking with me? Will she taste wild berries, hike steep trails, or sleep out under starry skies? When she’s ten I’ll be eighty. What will we collect to carry home and share?
Here, under the late sun, wind whips through the hemlocks. Winter’s coming on. Back home I’ll choose bright yarns for a hat. Baby Girl, Olallie, Little Huckleberry. February is almost Spring.