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View from the North Rim

Ribbons of color: terra cotta, sienna, amber, and a red I never knew existed in nature, stretch before us like the layers of a cake that has baked unevenly.

“See the vein of pink granite?” my mother asks as she points toward the opposite wall of the Grand Canyon. ”The layer below it is 1.4 billion years older.”

The setting sun reflects a dazzling light from the rainbow of rock. I squint, trying to follow her finger. My eyes are more accustomed to the greens of marsh grass and oak trees and the blue-gray of the Chesapeake Bay.

“I see it,” I say tentatively. My social work training taught me to search for hidden meanings and uncover buried feelings. But my mother, a geologist, delights in the vivid history of the earth exposed in the rock before us.

“Which layer is from the Jurassic Period?” I ask.

She glances at me with a grimace as she begins to rock in one of the weathered chairs lined up on the porch of the lodge.

“At least I know the name of one of the periods,” I tease. “Or is it an age?”

We are seated on the precipice of the North Rim. My mother has brought us here, my family and me, the scientist in her feeling strongly that her granddaughters should witness the natural beauty and complete and vast differentness of the American southwest. My daughters, ages eleven and eight, are thrilled to be somewhere new, to eat out, and sleep in a cabin, undaunted by the lack of a television. Uncomfortable with heights, I instinctively inch my chair back as the horizon begins to blend in with the darkening sky.

“If you lean over the wall, you can see the Colorado River, 5,000 feet, almost a mile, below,” she instructs and my children eagerly jump up to peer off the edge of the inadequate stone wall.

My stomach flips as I stare at the jaws of the seemingly bottomless gorge just inches from where they stand. “Both feet on the ground,” I remind, a rule I insisted on the first day of this tour of limitless canyons and mesas with abrupt ends.

“How many times have you rafted the river?” I ask my mother while closely watching both pair of dusty sneakers.

“Nine,” she says with a nostalgia washing over her aging face, her eyes growing distant at the memory. I glance down at the scar along her knee. Arthritis has prematurely curtailed her adventures. But adventures they were, all without the accompaniment of my father who saw them as foolish.

She draws our attention to a particular rock formations that we can just make out, its silhouette forming the shape of an eagle in flight. Animated, she recounts the Indian legend, and then the scientific explanation, describing how the sedimentary rock eroded away leaving the avian monument behind. Surrounding tourists lean in closer to hear.

She is brilliant. A part of me has always been awed by that, but growing up I would roll my eyes in embarrassment when she would pull off the road to gather an interesting rock, nod impatiently when she would recognize a constellation in the night sky, or grow bored when she pointed out where the glaciers stopped their southern creep in the valleys of Ohio.

I realize now that her teachings were a rare moment of vulnerability, that she hid most of her knowledge from some of her small town friends who, intimidated, liked to titter and say, “Why on earth does anybody need to know that!”

Venus twinkles in the evening sky and she delights in the clarity of the stars, the sky devoid of all light except what nature provides.

“How do you know it’s a planet and not a star?” my older daughter ask as she sidles up to my mother’s chair. I smile, thrilled at her interest. Perhaps my children, unlike me, will follow in her footsteps that blazed a respectable trail thorough a field dominated by men.

Two years ago, when I confided to my mother that I had begun writing a novel, she was surprised. “I want you to read it,” I had said. After settling the pages in her hands, I had a sudden urge to grab them back. She read three mysteries a week––she was so smart. But then I realized why I had chosen her to read it first: if she likes it, then it is worth my finishing it.

Tears sparkled in her eyes when she placed the chapter on the table the next morning. “It’s good,” she had said and my heart swelled. “It’s really good.”

A breeze passes through my hair as my youngest crawls into my lap for warmth. I gather her into my arms and kiss her head lightly. People ask my mother questions and she obliges. Information flows out of her. I smile, Proud to call her mine.

The crowd eventually thins. The canyon’s blackness evokes an eerie feeling that the vastness will sneak up and pull me into its depths. I look over at my mother and can just make her out. She is at peace in this land of sunbaked gorges, white-capped rivers, and dramatic rock. A calm comes over her, smoothing the lines in her face. I relax, grateful that the irony of failing health that accompanies the benefits of maturity hasn’t stopped her, not yet, and that I have time left to share with her, time I vow never to waste.

End note:

After my mother died in 2007, we were surprised to discover she had requested in her will that our entire family take a seven day trip down the Colorado River on her dollar. We put her ashes in the river on the third day.

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