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Over the River and Through the Woods (2018)

Giving Thanks, 2018

And then the rains came to Paradise and in the valley below the ridge, my mother and I went to Thanksgiving at my brother’s home.

It was a soaking rain; one that washed the heavy and grimed coats of the fire crews closing the line on the Camp Fire. It was a soft pelting rain that soaked the gray flecks of ash off the leaves that remained in the trees and then washed the leaves out of the trees. It was a cold rain and it made for a miserable Thanksgiving. We all loved it. You stood outside in this drenching rain and raised your face towards heaven and felt it fall on you. It was a rain that smelled of smoke.

My mother and I left early to drive to my brother’s home in Grass Valley. At 90 minutes it is at the outward edge of my mother’s travel radius, but this one is worth it and we are in no position, jammed into her apartment, to attempt to have it in Chico.

Our route goes down Highway 99 and then east towards where the Camp Fire grinds forests in its bright fangs, but picks up Highway 70 outside of Oroville. Then it is down that dangerous two-lane freeway to “The Shortcut” and then the climb up to Grass Valley; another town built in the mountains inside a pine forest.

Thanksgiving marks the second time my mother has been out into the smoke from Paradise. The first was the day or so before when she insisted on going shopping for “something red, some red top to go with my red boots.” She’s had her almost magical pair of red boots for decades and they’ve become a kind of signal that wherever she wears them is an official feast or festival. And so we went downtown with masks on to shop. For my mother at 104, a little smoke is not going to keep her from making a fashion statement… or Thanksgiving with her family.

South of Chico about nine miles we entered the Burned Zone. This was where the fire threatened Highway 99 on the first night and even managed to jump it but was then turned back. As we flow along at highway speeds the land on the west side has dry brindle grass covering the earth, on the east side the burned char from the fire and the backfires stretch over the long flatlands where cattle would graze, and then over the low hills and far away. Patches of brindle crop up here and there but it is mostly a scene of a black dank earth. It goes on over the low hills and higher ridges and then out of sight. It seems limitless. It smells of the pit.

Then suddenly we’re out and everything is “California, the Golden State!” We drive south under an overcast sky where slabs of clear blue are showing higher up. We drive down 70 towards Yuba City past trailer parks, and ranches, and endless orchards with my mother trying to figure out what the trees bear. “It would be thoughtful to put up a sign telling us.”

A bit north of Yuba City we get to the Woodruff Lane shortcut. For years this has been a beaten-up shocks-destroying section of road that took fifteen miles off the journey to Grass Valley. Everyone used it and everyone hated it for its potholed surface and loved it for its clouds of migratory birds settling into the rice paddies. This year the shortcut has been, magically, paved and lined and made new. We run it at highway speeds and the birds swirl over us as the sun comes out around us and we cruise back up into the mountains.

Of late my mother has become a fan of the diva, Sarah Brightman, and one of her CDs is playing as we make the final turn towards my brother’s place and, of course, Brightman’s version of “Dust in the Wind” plays its four minutes when we are five minutes away. My mother listens thoughtfully and says nothing. I’m finding it difficult to see clearly. And then we are there.

My brother and his wife are there as are her daughter and her father and assorted friends. As usual, the meal is cooked perfectly and is straight down traditional lines. Two additions to the lineup this year one of my nearby readers along with homemade apple pies dressed in a crust that is cooked to a flakiness of great promise and a bottle of local Placerville wine.

After two sets of Grace for this family’s deliverances this year, the turkey and side dishes are heaped and reheaped on the plates. Then it is desert and some football during digestion. I walk outside with a glass full of the local Placerville wine to a little patch of needles and leaves under the pines, now soaked with rain and hence, for now, less lethal.

I raise my glass to the four points of the compass and say a prayer for all those whose ashes are being washed clean and downstream by the rains in Paradise. Then I pour out my small libation to the dead. Then I drive down out of the mountains with my mother beside me through the most beautiful Sierra autumn sunset I can remember. By the time we get back to the Burned Zone, it’s dusk and we can’t see the gathering darkness.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • JoanOfArgghh! November 24, 2018, 8:53 AM

    Oh, Gerard! Just…
    Thank you for this.

  • John Venlet November 24, 2018, 8:55 AM

    Sounds like a Thanksgiving Day full of thanks, grace, reflection and love.

  • Monty James November 24, 2018, 9:46 AM

    My sister-in-law’s parent’s old place in Paradise went up, as well as the high school she attended. Dammit, there was a lot of dust in the air while I was reading this, my eyes kept watering.

    I might have it wrong, but I believe there is something reparative about Thanksgiving that I don’t think about most years. You reminded me of that just now, Gerard.

  • The Old Salt November 24, 2018, 9:50 AM

    Damn. Lost my mother in 2017. Well written, Gerard, extremely well written.

  • JiminAlaska November 24, 2018, 10:11 AM

    Good on yet Gerard, upon reading this on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I tipped a (small, wee, since it’s very early in the day) glass of Jameson’s to the health of your momma, you, and all those around you.

  • Kurt Miller November 24, 2018, 10:57 AM

    This song came on the satellite radio just after I read today’s gift from Gerard. Funny how that happens sometimes…
    ‘After the Rain’ by Neil Tatar

  • Marica November 24, 2018, 11:36 AM

    Thank you so much for sharing your day and your thoughts.

  • ghostsniper November 24, 2018, 12:08 PM

    She’s lovely.
    And red is HER color.

  • John Condon November 24, 2018, 12:42 PM

    “My mother and I left early to drive to my brother’s home in Grass Valley. At 90 minutes it is at the outward edge of my mother’s travel radius, …”

    Ha! Same as my mom – and she is 22 years younger!

    Lois looks great.

  • Phil in Englewood November 24, 2018, 3:09 PM

    Thanks for the story, Gerard. Your Mom looks great.

  • Jimmy November 24, 2018, 3:38 PM

    My Mom lasted to 96-1/2. You are so blessed with yours at 104. I’m sure you cherish every moment. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Fletcher Christian November 24, 2018, 4:21 PM

    I’m not conventionally religious, but nothing else fits:

    Lux æterna luceat eis, Domine:
    Cum Sanctis tuis in æternum:
    quia pius es.
    Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine:
    et lux perpetua luceat eis.
    Cum Sanctis tuis in æternum:
    quia pius es.

  • Hale Adams November 24, 2018, 4:41 PM

    I second Ghostsniper’s motion, Gerard.

    Hale Adams
    Pikesville, People’s still-mostly-Democratic Republic of Maryland

  • jwm November 24, 2018, 4:52 PM

    Almost every writer on the internet wants to get us angry over something. Most of them succeed. This site is a tonic for that anger. I come away from here with a renewed sense of gratitude and grace. Thank you for this.


  • Leslie November 24, 2018, 7:06 PM

    Thank you for sharing this with us all. You and your mother mean a great deal to us all.

  • Janet Miller November 24, 2018, 7:42 PM

    Your mother reminds me so much of my dear friend who died 4 years ago at the age of 92. She was truly a treasure in ways that I recognize in your beautiful writings about your mother. Especially, she was a beautiful friend and I miss her every day. Thank you.

  • Jaynie November 25, 2018, 4:28 AM

    Nothing for me to add, your poignant piece has such wonderful, moving, comments. A Thanksgiving for the ages. Thank you GVDL. At church this morning I shall remember in my prayers those souls who perished back in the hills and canyons in their old rusting trailers.
    And so I can only add, that your Mother looks so fantastic, and “ when she insisted on going shopping for “something red, some red top to go with my red boots.” She’s had her almost magical pair of red boots for decades and they’ve become a kind of signal that wherever she wears them is an official feast or festival. ” those boots must be quite something.

  • John Condon November 25, 2018, 5:31 AM

    For some years, my stepdad would say to my mom “We are not old, we are older.”

    Considering my memory of all the nice things you have said – and the things you say of her now, I would say she is still in the ‘older’ category.

    Set. Match. Love.

  • Flannelputz November 25, 2018, 6:12 AM

    To describe a pie as “cooked to a flakiness of great promise”…

  • Mary Ann November 25, 2018, 8:06 AM

    My Mama has been gone 20 years, although I feel her near quite often. I take a vicarious comfort in the stories about your Mama. Glad you and she had a blessed and safe Thanksgiving. Thankful for your writing and what it does for those of us that read it.

  • Stephanie November 25, 2018, 8:34 AM

    Your mom is beautiful!

  • Jeff Brokaw November 25, 2018, 10:00 AM

    Another moving and beautiful essay filled with grace and hope. Loved it.

    You really do have so much to be thankful for, as do we all.

  • Deana November 25, 2018, 11:27 AM

    When I’m 80, I hope I look as good as your mother does over 100. She is beautiful!

  • Howard Nelson November 25, 2018, 11:43 AM

    ” … it’s dusk and we can’t see the darkness.”

    Because your mother and you are of the Family of Light.
    Keep well.

  • AesopFan November 25, 2018, 12:53 PM

    “It was a cold rain and it made for a miserable Thanksgiving. We all loved it. ”

    Our high school choir sang Peter Lutkin’s setting for Numbers 6:24-26 at the end of every concert, and even on the road as a grace before meals (1960s in Texas; the whole cafeteria stopped and listened).
    It helps me to keep things in perspective.

    The Lord bless you and keep you;
    the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
    the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.


  • AesopFan November 25, 2018, 1:05 PM

    Just because this also seemed fitting, in a time of Thanksgiving for grace received.

    Alleluia – Randall Thompson performed by Octarium

  • Casey Klahn November 26, 2018, 8:46 AM

    Sacred alchohol.

  • Terry November 25, 2019, 7:22 AM

    The picture of your mother , Gerard, will always remind me of love. You both will remain as family to me. Even though we have never met in person.

  • Vanderleun November 25, 2019, 7:28 AM

    God bless you Terry. My mother thanks you from heaven and I thank you from here on Earth.

  • An Appreciative Reader November 25, 2019, 8:52 AM

    Come and Sit With Me Awhile
    by Kathleen Higham

    Come and sit with me awhile
    Why could I not be still?
    Just a sweet, tender request
    Sometimes I failed to fulfill.

    Come and sit with me awhile
    For I may not always be here
    Needing a little time from you
    Time we will both hold dear.

    Come and sit with me awhile
    Before my time is gone
    When tears will bring you to me
    In the hours before the dawn.

    Come and sit with me awhile
    We don’t even have to talk
    Just come, just come, my child
    We’ll take a quiet walk.

    Come and sit with me awhile
    So quickly comes tomorrow
    I pray for your presence
    A moment I might borrow.

    Come and sit with me awhile
    Only one can love you more
    My God, your God, our God
    He waits at Heaven’s door.

    Come and sit with me awhile
    For with Him I will leave
    It may be unexpectedly
    Your heart will not conceive.

    Come and sit with me awhile
    Remembering my Mother’s voice
    Come and sit with me awhile
    Someday there will be no choice.

    Come and sit with me awhile
    Warm eyes will tenderly greet
    A Mother’s heart will touch you
    When together we shall meet.

    Come and sit with me awhile
    I can feel my Mother’s smile
    She waits patiently in Heaven
    Saying, “Come and sit with me awhile.”

  • ghostsniper November 24, 2021, 1:37 PM

    The Lady in RED.

  • Kristen November 24, 2021, 2:37 PM

    My mom died the Sunday before Thanksgiving last year, almost willing it to happen rather than live locked down and unable to be touched by us, or see our faces to read our lips, the Meniers disease distorting the words, no matter how much amplification her hearing aids provided.
    Palms together on the window outside her room, I longed to be a kid again and have her be strong and capable. She hated Turkey and made a mean red wine soaked roast. She was tiny but ate like a field hand. Her dinners weren’t for the faint of heart.
    Thanksgiving didn’t happen for us, it just passed by, another day spent waiting for the funeral.
    I’ll toast her memory this year and that of a young person who “checked out” on his own, the son of my best friend. Perhaps we can go wet the ground of his grave and remember happy times when our kids and moms lived and we made memories that were joy filled, even when everything in them was not joyful.
    Thank you for sharing this story.

  • Terry November 24, 2021, 5:14 PM

    Gerard. Your Mother as captured in the picture brings a huge smile to my face on this less than happy era we have entered.

    Thank you for posting this wonderful story again.

  • PA Cat November 24, 2021, 5:22 PM

    What Terry said– and I’ll add– this is another story about the Van der Leun clan that must be included in The Book.

  • jd November 25, 2021, 6:32 AM

    Loved reading this beautiful story again, Gerard.
    Many thanks for sharing it.

    Rush had a good Thanksgiving story too: