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Seasons of Motherhood

Aboard a dogsled, a mother-daughter relationship comes full circle


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I wipe my nose with the back of my glove. It’s below zero at dusk in Ely, Minnesota. My mom and our fellow novice dogsledders are cheerily pouring steaming water and kibble into our dogs’ bowls. She croons, “Good girl, Prairie, that’s a good dog. … ”

But I can’t find my Kleenex.

I always seem to misplace my Chapstick, or lose my keys, when I’m around my mother. Even though I’m 40, my child-mind assumes she’ll take care of me. After all, she’s my mom.

I sniff again. “Hey, Mom, got any Kleenex?” She waddles toward me, encased in cold-weather clothing, and fishes a tissue out of her fanny pack. I throw back the hood of my parka and wipe my nose. “Thanks.” I feel a little sheepish, needing her like this. But she’s smiling. Well, I can see only a one-inch strip of her bundled face, but I assume she’s smiling because her eyes crinkle up.
I came from Berkeley, my mom from Southern California, for a mother-daughter dogsledding adventure. I expected a jingling sleigh, a Dr. Zhivago landscape, and lots of bonding with my mom. But I also knew I’d fall into a familiar pattern: she’s the mom, and I’m the child. I have the runny nose; she provides the Kleenex.

That night I dream I’m a little girl again, wrapped in my favorite red-hooded coat, holding my mom’s hand on the way to kindergarten. I’m awakened by her soft snoring, and I creep out of bed. I curl next to the potbelly stove in the lodge, and watch the darkness shift to dawn.

After breakfast, my mom and I ride together, balanced on narrow sled runners. The morning sky is the pale blue of baby clothes, crisscrossed with pastel pink bands. My mom can’t brake the sled on her own, so when we head down a hill, I use all my leg power to slow us. The trail is bumpy in spots, so I position myself behind her, my arms anchored so she can’t fall. When the dogs nip at each other, I run ahead to distract them. “On by, Copper. Hike, hike, hike!”

The sun makes the landscape glisten as the dogs gallop through powder that comes nearly to their collars. It’s completely quiet except for the shuuushing sound of the sled. I reach one arm out to give her a squeeze, feeling completely blessed to be on a dogsled with my 64-year-old mother. “My teeth are freezing I’m smiling so hard,” she says.

At the bottom of a small rise, the snow spreads out, virgin and flawless as a new tub of Cool Whip. “Mom, check out that snow,” I whisper.

“Oh, man.” She grins.

“Easy, dogs, easy!” I stomp on the brake. She steps off, spreads her arms, and shuts her eyes. She falls backward with a puff, then spreads her arms and legs, making a snow angel.A black mitten pokes above the snowline. “Heeelllp,” she says, giggling. I pull her out; she’s covered in powder. We’re still laughing when we take off again on our sled.

The next day, we leave the dogs behind and hike with our guide to a snow cave. I make a stirrup with my hands to boost my mom up. Inside, my flashlight beam illuminates thick, transparent cascades of ice.

We inch along on a narrow ridge, clunky in our heavy snow boots. She has become very quiet. “You OK, Mom?” Her hood nods. The ledge narrows, and when we have to step across a dark, icy chasm, she stops cold.

“Shit,” she mutters, pressing her back against the ice-covered granite. My mind freezes for a moment. My mom is scared.

I take a deep breath, and exhale a cloud of steam. “Mom, it’s alright. You can do it.” It’s what she’s said to me so many times over the years.

I yank off my glove with my teeth, jam my fingers into a tiny crack and step across the crevasse. I brace myself, then grab her forearm. “I’ve got you, Mom.” I feel the weight of her, and hold my arm strong and steady as she steps across the blackness below.

When we make it into the sun, our guide lifts my mom down. I leap into a downy snowbank. “We did it!” I say, smacking my naked palm against her gloved hand in a triumphant high five.
We hike back across White Iron Lake. The world looks like a giant wedding cake, all sparkly white frosting. We wade through the thigh-high snow, and I hear her panting. “Let’s rest, Mom.” I put my arm around her narrow frame.

I walk slowly, hanging back so that she will not be last. The trail bends east, and the low winter sun is at our backs. I stop in my tracks when I see our shadows. Because I am behind her, my bluish form is small, coming only to her hip.

For a bittersweet moment, in shadow, I am a child again.

I breathe deeply and march on through the snow, the clear, icy air stinging my eyes.
That evening, our guide thumps my mom on the back. “You did great,” he says, over steaming bowls of chili. “Amazing, really.”

My mother smiles, her face glowing. She sniffles from the spicy soup.

“You rock, Mom,” I say, and hand her a tissue.

Berkeley writer Suzanne LaFetra went dogsledding at the Wintergreen Lodge in Ely, Minnesota. For information call (800) 584-9425 or go to www.dogsledding.com.

 

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