Growing up we lived several miles from the nearest town. I wandered the woods and rocky cliffs along the Mississippi River. At six or seven years old, Mother sent me with an empty honey pail to pick wild strawberries in the meadow or blueberries in the marsh. I never thought to be afraid.
Now I stroll the evening streets of Ubud, Bali, alone. Lighting is sporadic, but bright energy spills from the restaurants and shops as I pass. Reggae bands enliven the night with syncopated rhythms and upbeat happiness. I’m on the other side of the world from the familiar forests and prairies in a country that is 88% Muslim, something that political pundits insist should strike terror in my heart. I’ve never felt so safe.
But two weeks ago I travelled back to the U.S. to meet my first granddaughter. I’ve waited a long time for this event and Hadley Sophia has exceeded every expectation of loveable perfection. For the first week we clustered together, mommy, daddy, new baby, and granny, in their Manhattan high rise apartment. Cozy took on new meaning as we waltzed around Hadley’s feedings and stole sleep in small doses.
I’d booked my visit for six weeks and it was clear that we needed more space. So when her pediatrician gave us the go ahead, we packed the car with an insane amount of baby necessities that didn’t exist when I was a young mother, and high-tailed it to their lake house in Pennsylvania.
As we drove the winding roads along the Delaware River, bucolic landscapes rolled with us: undulating green and blue punctuated by old barns dating from the 1700’s. My neck craned from side-to-side and I couldn’t contain the exclamations of delight that erupted unchecked every few miles.
When we pulled into the gravel drive shaded by old-growth hardwoods, and opened the car doors there was a simultaneous influx of breath as we filled our lungs with sweet country air. Tension and jet-lag seeped out of my body. My shoulders lowered, gut muscles released, the frown lines in my forehead smoothed shedding stress, melting into unworried peace.
We settled into the abundance of space with reckless abandon, occupying all of it. My private upstairs sanctuary wrapped itself around me. I hung clothes in the waiting empty closet, filled dresser drawers, and connected to the internet. Hadley assumed her role as Princess of the Estate and again her adoring subjects fell into obedient homage.
Hadley’s mom (my Type A, corporate ladder climbing daughter) adjusted with amazing discipline to the monotony of one-hour feedings every two hours. She managed night vigils with Miss Cranky Pants, daddy’s endearing name. But after three weeks of enforced sitting with milky breasts at the ready, a change of scene was needed. She strapped Hadley to her chest in the ergobaby carrier and shouted, “We’re going for a walk! Coming, granny?”
At the end of the driveway we left civilization and plunged into wilderness. Princess Hadley was asleep before we left the house so her mom and I were free to exult over the tallness of the trees, the blueness of the sky, the freshness of the air.
After a short distance we turned off the tarred road. Our new route, a rutted dirt track, was bordered on either side by dense forest. We passed one house opposite our own driveway. After that, the only visible clue of domestic life was a For Sale sign advertising 2.46 acres of hunting land.
Deep in the shadowy recesses of my amygdala, that ancient part of the brain where fear gets triggered, distrust of these idyllic surroundings simmered. Here I was with my petite daughter and infant granddaughter, unarmed, completely vulnerable to unwanted attention from curious wildlife or backwoods crazies.
Every noise from rustling leaves to cracking twigs unnerved me. On the surface I laughed and carried on a lighthearted conversation with my happy daughter. Underneath the veneer I was primed and ready. I planned my attack. What would I do if called upon to protect my two beloveds from a bear or a mountain lion (are there mountain lions in these parts?)
I’d grab large rocks in each hand, raise them threateningly above my head, and make as much noise as my aging vocal chords could muster. I figured that would scare any human to death and it might deter an animal, at least for a while.
I calmed myself with this image and began to enjoy the walk when the unmistakable sound of claws digging into bark made me swivel. Bear! It must be. What else could make that much noise tearing at a tree? The pores in my scalp prickled with sweat as every hair on my body straightened and quivered. I scanned the rocky roadbed for boulders of the appropriate size. Blood pounded in my ears and my vocal chords atrophied.
Then I saw it: the brown form three-quarters of the way up an oak tree, laboring to pull itself higher. But the tail was too long for a bear’s tail, and the pin-cushion body could mean only one thing. “Look,” my voice, hoarse and scratchy, commanded attention, “A porcupine!”
“Really, mom? Are they that big?”
“I know! It looks huge.” We stared transfixed in horrified fascination. The noise of its lumbering ascent, scraping and dragging, held a promise of future nightmares. I shook myself out of trance. “I’m ready to start back, how about you?”
We retraced our steps toward home. At some point during the return trek my daughter asked if I felt nervous being out in nature. It was an opportunity to explore the feelings of vulnerability and the protective instincts that had arisen with such force. Was it a result of the violence that floods the media day after day so that no place feels safe?
Was it because I’m a mother, hardwired to protect my young? Was it the sudden awareness of my age and diminished physical strength?
Later that afternoon, chilling on the deck, we watched a mother deer and her fawn graze in the grass below. Just then something disturbed Hadley and a wailing squall far too large for her tiny body pierced the quiet. The deer’s head shot up. She stared, ears erect and twitching, then strode directly toward us. I scooped Hadley up and as suddenly as it had begun, her crying stopped.
The mother paused, watched for a moment more, then lowered her head to feed once again. My mouth flapped open in disbelieving awe. What just happened here? What crazy mothering instincts were getting roused today?
I peer down at Hadley in my arms, now quiet and contemplative. “What do you think about all this, little girl?” I murmur nuzzling into the softness of her cheek. Wrinkles pucker her brow, her mouth forms a perfect ‘O’ and she stares unblinking into my eyes. Locked into her intensity I know she’s up to the task. Whatever lays ahead, this child was born for it.
For a while our realities will overlap. For a while we’ll share the ride toward a future that I’ll escape and she’ll inherit. As I watch her sleeping face, one eye opens. I catch the ghost of a smile. It’s as though she’s spoken, Relax, granny, I can do this! I smile back and sink into the bliss of just holding her.
If you are a grandmother have you experienced this moment of strong connection with your grandchild? If you are a mother have you experienced that protective instinct that makes you feel invincible? Please join the conversation!