Mother's 100th birthday


I was talking with my niece yesterday about the things we love to photograph. She is a skilled photographer who has studied at a fine arts college and makes some splendid photographs. She said that she loves to take photographs of sunsets. I said, I’m one who enjoys sunrises. I said, there is nothing better for me than to launch a canoe or kayak on a calm body of water just before sunrise. I like to capture images of the reflections in the water as the sun rises. She said that becoming a mother a couple of years ago changed her life. She now is awake early in the morning and is growing to appreciate sunrises. She grew up on Whidbey Island, very close to the place to which we have now moved in Washington and knows the part of the world to which we are now learning to appreciate. She now lives in upstate New York on the other side of the country. I commented that I seem to have moved to the sunset coast of the country, because the sun rises over the ocean on the east coast and sets over the ocean on the west coast.

It was a simple conversation that seems difficult to report in writing this morning. But I think that I am learning to appreciate sunsets for a variety of different reasons.

I grew up in a place where the sun sets over the mountains. The photograph with today’s journal entry was taken last night from the top of the driveway at the place where I grew up. We have gathered in this place as a family to reconnect and to remember as well as to celebrate the future that lies ahead. Today would have been our mother’s 100th birthday. We gathered in this same place in 1988 on the occasion of what would have been her mother’s 100th birthday. Of course this is a different gathering. I am now a member of the grandparent generation. Back in 1988, we had two young children and the niece with whom I was talking last night was a toddler. Now she is a mother of a toddler. Another niece, who was not yet born in 1988, was delighting us all with the news that she and her husband are expecting a new daughter for our family - their first child.

In 1988, I lived in Idaho. Now I live in Washington. Most of the time between the two gatherings, however, I lived in South Dakota. Our South Dakota home was another place where the sun set over the hills. I seem to have a natural orientation in places where the sun rises over the prairie and sets over the mountains. I’m an east slope kind of person, in a way.

These days, however, I’ve moved to the west slope. The sun rises over the mountains and sets over the ocean in my new home.

Sunrises and sunsets are not the substance of growing older, but they are a way of counting the passage of time and keeping ourselves oriented in this wide world. My mother lived most of her life in Montana. She was born in Fort Benton, up on the northern wheat lands alongside the Missouri River. It was the head of navigation on the Missouri. The steamboats didn’t venture farther up stream in the days when water was the main mode of transportation. As an adult, she moved around a bit, but settled with her husband in Big Timber, a small town nestled between the Crazy Mountains and the Absaroka Mountains just north of Yellowstone National Park. When she had raised all of her children and become a widow she moved West to Portland, Oregon for a while to be near my sister and her family and later she moved to South Dakota to live with our family at the end of her life. She experienced the change in perspective of different vistas for sunrises and sunsets.

Being here at this point of my life reminds me of the passage of time. In a way I have become the patriarch of this small clan of people. I’m the oldest male at this gathering and will be the oldest male when the rest of the people who are coming have arrived today for the noon meal and celebration. I was the oldest of the sons in our family. And being together is a stark reminder, especially for my generation, of our mortality. I grew up in a family of seven children. Only four of us are now left. We’ve been looking at old photographs of the days when we were children and taking photographs of the generation of our grandchildren. Our mother would have loved spending time with the little ones as much as we do. She would have taken the same delight in the news of coming births that we feel.

We have gathered to honor her memory and tell some of the old, old stories. But we have also gathered to celebrate the future that will continue the legacy of her love far beyond the span of our lives. Some of us are paying attention to the sunsets while others are discovering the sunrises. In the midst of all of that, we are sharing the same moments. As we stood together last evening watching the colors of the sun and clouds over the mountains and appreciating the natural beauty of this place, the passage of time might have been more apparent to some of us than to others, but we were all sharing the same moment. The love and spirit of our elders, who have gone before us, is visible in our children and grandchildren.

Ours is a normal family. We’ve spread out all across the country. We have different passions and different vocations. We see things from different perspectives. Some of us are careful as we choose the words to say to others, remembering when harsh words were spoken and wanting to avoid words that hurt. And in the midst of all of this we laugh a lot. It is good to be together in this brief moment of time that is ours.

I’ve still got a few more sunsets in me and even a few more visits to the places where the sun sets over the prairie. I’ve got a few more sunrises to photograph before I put down my camera. Today is a day to enjoy the stories of those who have gathered and a day to remember. It is also a day to look forward with great anticipation and joy and share the excitement of the new life that is bursting forth.

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