As we drove further up into the foothills, her little feet banged faster and faster against the bottom of her carseat and her voice became more shrill and clipped. “We dere yet? We go dere? Ooo come wid me, mommy?” She was not yet angry or overly emotional, but everything about her 5-year old body screamed fear.
Alice and I had been a family for a little over a year and we made trips up to visit her first family every 2 or 3 months. Mostly, it was a chance to “visit” her first mom at the burial place in a small clearing. Her grandma and grandpa lived down the road, so we always stopped to see if they were home, and once in a while, an auntie or uncle were there, too.
I felt that it was very important to help Alice keep some kind of connection so that she would know that I was another person, another mother who loved her, but would not ever try to erase where she’d come from. The experience with The Gladys Plant (see post) the previous year had shown how much this little girl needed to intentionally remember what had come before and to not bury it or forget it.
The visits to the reservation, though, brought back the gut-wrenching feelings that were associated not just with her first family, but also with the extreme trauma and life-threatening events that had occurred to little Alice when she was a 2-year old. Her conscious thoughts rarely spoke of what she remembered after a year with me, but the drive into the mountains brought her body right back into the feelings of panic and grief.
By the time another year had gone, we’d had several more trips up to the mountains. The repeated drive there… and back home…. had helped ease the anxiety that returning to her first home brought. Alice was learning to trust that I wasn’t going to leave her behind and that nothing terrible was going to happen when we were back on her land. She had a little more distance with her grief and had found a way to share with her first mama the things that were important to her.
It was a pretty day in March. The sun was out in Seattle and the air was warm as long as you had a patch of sunshine to sit in. The crocuses had given way to daffodils already and those were starting to give way to the tulips. We were headed up to Gladys’ grave and we stopped at the store to get flowers for Alice’s first mama. Instead of cut flowers, Alice found a tray of bright primroses and insisted that Mama would love them.
As we drove up into the Cascade foothills, we enjoyed the winding highway beside the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. The sun was still beautiful and we found ourselves in and out of the shadows as we climbed further up, keeping our eyes out for Whitehorse Mountain and for the hawks and eagles that were also enjoying the sunshine, soaring high above us.
When we got out of the car in the little glen that held the small collection of grave markers, it was suddenly cold. The cedar trees and the mountains held back the sunshine and our gain in altitude brought winter back. Alice pulled on her coat, having just draped it in the backseat back in Seattle where it was warmer, and then she raced through the tall trees.
“It’s still there!” I could hear her voice as she found the spot.
I pulled on my own coat and got the small flat of pink and red flowers out of the back seat as well as the bag with gloves and a hand trowel.
Alice had raced back to me and reached for the flowers for her Mama.
After nearly a dozen trips over the past two years, I had begun to just sit down on the towel I’d brought along and let Alice spend the time as she saw fit. She started poking through the dry leaves that had collected since we were there. I listened to her chatter, letting her know that I could help when it was time to plant the primroses.“I tink you don’t need the leaf blanket now.”
“You get a pwetty crown today wit fwowers.” Alice danced over to the flat of flowers and patted a small bouquet.
“I have a tietie shirt today.” And she pulled off her coat and did a couple of pirouettes through the crispy leaves.
She skipped to the marker next to Gladys and said, “Hi,” then skipped back to the white cross and said, “Hi,” again.
“Mommy and me make tietie the same. We have wubberbands and painty tings. I pick purple and pink, a cuz that’s my favowite.” And she twirled again.
Then Alice pulled on her gloves and started scooping up leaves and bringing them to me. I pointed to a spot nearby and she dropped her leaves, watching them flutter to the ground. She had not put her coat back on after showing her mama her new tie-dye shirt and refused it when I offered. So I just sat back again to watch. It only took her about five minutes to clear the space that she wanted and she started digging.
I got up to supervise a bit, showing Alice that we didn’t need to dig deep, but to make a small trench for the plants. She insisted on finishing the row for HER mama, then, after I showed her how to gently loosen the roots from each small pot and to pat dirt over the roots once she’d put the plant in the ground, she did the rest by herself.
I went back to my seat a few feet away, shivering in my coat, while Alice was in constant motion, still chattering to her mama…. about her school, about the mean boy in her class, about her bike, and about her gymnastics. At that point Alice put down the gloves and trowel and demonstrated a few crooked cartwheels across the forest clearing towards me.
I held up her coat and after she had put it on, she sat down in my lap and pulled my arms around her to snuggle up. “Mama happy this day and me wemember to not step on her.”
I squeezed her little tighter, telling her, “Your mama is always happy when you are happy.”
There was no tension in her body, there was no fear in her voice, and there was no grief in her words. The little girl was healing.