Today is April 14, 2013. My mother’s birthday. When she was alive I couldn’t never remember the exact date of her birthday, now that she’s gone I can’t forget it. She would have been 74 today. I wrote this a while ago for an entirely different reason but am offering it today in remembrance of my mom, Judith Avril Wilson.
The summer of 1983 when I was ten years old my family stayed at my granny”s house on Lake Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand. There my mother and I shared an experience that remains in my mind as the time when I most completely understood her humor, her curiosity and her penchant for discovery.
We were out on the lake. I was snorkeling along the surface, just off the shore of my grandmother’s beach home at Watahanui. Mum was paddling nearby in a rubber dinghy that we had found at the house, maneuvering the oars just enough to be turning in gentle languid circles. She had on a floppy hat and had a book with her to read, but when I looked up at her she was just gazing off into the gorgeous nothingness of the horizon of the ancient lake. I remember clearly the scene below me; gazing down into the water through a foggy snorkel mask, my eyes traveling over volcanic stones, rocks and the other mostly dull debris of shallow waters. I was thinking how remarkable it was that the bottom of the lake was so dull. A place with such a powerful history would surely hold many treasures and secrets.
Suddenly, there directly beneath me was a skull. I only had a second to glance at it before I instinctively sprang back and burst from the surface of the water, but in that flash it looked enormous, and evil. Screeching as only a ten year girl can I furiously paddled over to my mother’s raft in terror. “What?!!” cried Mum, panicked by her panicking child. I swam to the side of the rubber boat and hauled myself up the side as high and fast as I could; panting, breathless.
“A skull. It’s a skull. Down there”. I pointed.
My mum, now more curious than concerned, gently coaxed me to tell her what kind of skull it was. “I don’t know”, I said. “Okay, well, it wasn’t human…”
“Where is it?” she said, the smile trickling into her bemused voice. “Let’s go see”.
I was reluctant to let go of the dingy, just the thought of that skull lurking beneath the waters over which my legs were doggedly treading spooked me more than I could express. But I tugged upon the rope of the boat anyway, towing my mother as I swam a mutated form of breast-stroke towards the unthinkable. Together we made our way to where I had been and borrowing my snorkeling mask she leaned over the side of the raft, submerging her face to take a look.
When she came up again, she was laughing. “Ru! It’s just a rat skull!” she giggled. I was confused.
“Silly girl”, she admonished kindly. With much encouragement my mother convinced me to go dive down and fetch it. Which for her, I did. And of course in the end it was just a tiny skull of a mouse or a squirrel or some small drowned animal entombed there at the bottom of the lake among the rocks and sticks. I suppose it was the magnifying lens of the scuba mask that had made this simple artifact seem so much larger to me than it actually was. Or was it the fearfulness of my child-mind? After all I was the kind of kid who experienced the nervous anticipation of danger at every turn; almost always certain of impending doom. Despite the familiar clench of fear when my eyes first landed on that skull, what I remember most about that day is the confidence and security I felt from my mother, who was bold and funny and interested. I felt I’d never seen her like that before and I liked it. She was so relaxed and open towards the world that it brought out my own bravery – this new, playful Mother floating by my side was my Guardian.
I can’t be completely certain of what happened to that skull in the end. I’m sure we kept it and brought it back from the beach. We would have showed our trophy around the family and recounted our story; it getting funnier with each re-telling (as family tales do). And, after that? The details have faded with time, just as that day on the water now seems like a sepia postcard from a world long ago from when I still had a Mother, and loving her was easy and palatable and true. In that place in my heart where memory lives, I believe the skull eventually became a part of a spontaneous little altar hidden somewhere in the bushes of the gardens at Watahanui. I can see it vividly and it seems so right. Rocks, feathers, shells, maybe some flowers too; and the skull right on top – a testament to the very permanent nature of death, and the very real magic of perception.
That’s just how we did things with my mother around. She taught us to honor the significance of the natural world and the moments of courage and artistry that we meet within it.
For this Mom, I thank you.