My mother gave me my first journal, a 6 by 8 inch hardbound, unlined volume called The Blank Book. I hadn’t yet become enamored of working with words–although I’d already discovered the magnificent obsession of craft. I was a serious French horn player, completely taken by music. All my friends in high school, when my mother gave me the book, played instruments in Jazz Band, Orchestra, Ensemble, Marching Band, or Youth Orchestra. I didn’t yet know the portability of writing, the ability to walk anywhere with pen and journal rather than bulky brass instrument and hard case that weighed a third as much as I did.
Never meaning to turn from music, I began to fill the book. I gathered quotes, clippings, accounts of dreams, observations of birds and animals, pen-and-ink drawings, song lyrics, names, dates, letters. I recorded my junior and senior years inside that book. On its pages are a pretty good sense of who I was before college.
I still own The Blank Book among the ninety-some journals I’ve written since.
My mother gave me a journal for a reason. I didn’t know at the time–and she might not have either–that I’d keep the writing habit. Her gift was long lasting, multifaceted, open ended. My mother gave me many other great gifts: my life, my start on the river, our family, my love of nature. My brown eyes, my odd nose. When she died I inherited turquoise rings, silver pins, scarves, dresses, coats, her color chart, a watercolor she painted of the desert, a hair brush with her hair still in it. Her lovely hair was far less gray than mine is today, although she never colored it and I’m younger by five years than she was at her oldest. She also gave me a creative bent, a temper, and all the Peterson Field Guides.
Terry Tempest Williams tells the story of meeting her future husband Brooke in a bookstore in Salt Lake City, where they bonded immediately over books. He said he’d like to own all the Peterson Field Guides some day. A young woman who might have been a rival said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Terry said, “I already own them.”
When I hear this account, I think of the field guides I inherited from my mother, and I wish I’d kept them all. I didn’t. I’d recently learned from feng shui teachings that we help lighten the souls of those gone before if we don’t feel obligated to keep the material objects they’ve given us. We help release their ties to earth. Full of grief, agonizing over seeing her handwritten name on the frontispieces, I decided to pass them on. I kept only those I knew I’d use: birds, trees, wildflowers, tracks. The others I let go, hoping it would ease her journey to heaven.
I still consult my mother’s guides when I need to settle a burning curiosity about what I see when I look outside, as she taught me to do.
Other times I open the guides simply to remember her–to feel the leaves she pressed between the pages, to read the 3×5 note cards with inquiries and key words. Why do oaks deliquesce? Where can red-winged blackbirds live? Ecotone. Watershed. Ammonite.
I have a friend whose late mother’s old guitar sends him into a mood: nostalgia, longing, fierce reminiscence. The scent and feel of the guitar call up songs sung years before, memories he might not recall otherwise. It’s a mixed blessing, keeping artifacts of the dead. You remember things you want to. You remember things you don’t.
For me, I feel my mother in the field guides, the blank book, the memories of a happy childhood spent as much as possible outdoors. I feel her in my innate drive to create, to keep setting new words on paper. She set me on my path with a modest gift–not, by far, the most costly or elaborate treasure or teaching she gave me. She started me looking and writing and discovering the world, and I’ve never stopped.