By: Tanya Ward Goodman
My Mom is headed back to New Mexico. A couple of hours ago, she walked through a set of airport sliding doors, the sunlight turning her silver hair to a spill of mercury down her back. In almost no time, she will walk out a similar set of sliding doors into the cold, dark evening of Albuquerque. This morning, she gasped at the beauty of a flowering acacia, each yellow bud like a fairy’s powder puff, and tonight, she might slip and fall on the icy walk to her front door.
Because it’s still winter where my mother lives, we spent the last five days in search of spring. At Descanso Gardens in La Canada, winter and spring are just beginning the changing of the guard. Spent camellias fall to the ground, some still bright as blood, others the brownish color of a squeezed tea bag, while in the big flower beds, tulips nudge their green noses toward the light.
Mom brings her binoculars wherever we go and pauses to stare off in the direction of a particularly interesting tweet or whir. If she waits long enough, looks hard enough, a bird will appear where at first glance there was only a tangle of bare branches. We see a Spotted Towhee doing a little jitterbug in the fallen leaves. Mom tells me that the little bird with the brilliant red wings was once known as the Rufus Towhee.
“It drives me crazy when things change,” she says.
Her and me both. But what can we do?
Mom has been visiting me in Los Angeles for nearly eighteen years, though if I asked her to drive us around, she would look at me as though I asked her to tour the unfamiliar terrain of Mars. She loves L.A, but is often overwhelmed by it and so over the course of all of these years, we have found a kind of familiar route for her visits. Despite our best efforts at keeping things constant, we can’t seem to stop things from changing. When I pick her up at the airport, we almost always go directly to the Rose Café in Venice where she has the quiche and I have the poached salmon. After lunch, we take a peek at the gift shop and then we walk to the beach. Mom’s legs are bothering her and so on our last trip to the beach, we did not walk across the sand to the water’s edge, but instead stayed on the sidewalk and looked out at the sea. Years ago, we might have walked a mile or more, stopping to pick up stones or watch a particularly silly seagull.
We always make a trip to a nursery, even if only to visit the plants. We like the Sunset Nursery in Silverlake with its cramped aisles and proximity to Pioneer Chicken. We’ve never eaten the chicken, but it’s funny when the wind shifts and the aroma of scented geraniums or mint mixes suddenly with fried chicken. Lincoln Nursery in Pasadena is wonderful because of their wall of Italian seed packets and vast array of ceramic pots and a trip to Theodore Payne is almost like returning to New Mexico, so drastic is the change in landscape from Los Feliz to Sun Valley. Over the years, Mom chose plants for pots on the porch of my first apartment and helped transform the weed-choked yard of another apartment into an approximation of an English garden. She encouraged me to buy a butterfly bush and to start composting. On this most recent visit, my son harvested little carrots from our raised beds and put them into Mom’s hand and she laughed and showed him how to rub the dirt from the orange root.
Antique stores are another staple in a typical Mom Visit itinerary. In the past, we’ve wandered the streets of Orange, and Ventura ducking in and out of crowded antique malls until we couldn’t handle the sight of one more Bauer bowl. On this trip, we headed to Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena, where in four blocks, we found Japanese table lamps just like the ones on my Grandma’s side table (marked at $800!), enamel Catherine Holm bowls like the ones in my kitchen cabinet and a life-sized wax figure of an elderly man asleep in a wheelchair. His price wasn’t marked, and so I said “hello,” before I realized he wasn’t real.
As at the garden and the nursery, we reach out to touch a beautiful thing. Mom and I spent the last five days running our fingers over leaves, leaning in to smell flowers or cupping our hands around a perfectly round ceramic pitcher.
“I’ve got enough to last until the snow melts,” Mom said when I dropped her at the airport “I think I can make it, now.”
The light is fading now as I write and when I look out the window, the big Sycamore in my neighbor’s yard looks like an ink drawing, it’s bare branches stark against a bright pink sky. Mom’s plane is just landing and as she makes her way out into the cold, the last five days will be tucked inside her heart like a tight bud waiting to unfurl.