A woman and her young grandson wove their way through the woods, her long skirts rustling through the unruly grasses on the path they forged in their hunt. The boy–lanky and sturdy, sun-browned skin and coffee-colored eyes–followed closely and tuned his ear to listen to her instructions and her thoughts. He fixed his concentration, studying the vegetation the way that she did. She searched for herbs and roots and wild-growing plants, ingredients for the medicines she had learned to prepare. Cough syrup, tonic for upset stomach, colic aids, sore throat soother, and others. She knew where to look, what was meant for healing, what could cause more harm. He didn’t always remember which of their collected items went together, but he noted that his sight for the right ones had improved since his first jaunt with her.
As the two companions made their way to a clearing, grasshoppers and midges, moths and butterflies skittered up and out. Cicadas hummed. Frogs trilled back and forth across the glade. Mother Min visited the woods frequently, and every time he was allowed to go along, it was like a class at the schoolhouse for him, only better. They worked, but it wasn’t like work. It felt like parts of church, if he was allowed to say so. And maybe time stood still even though everything moved all around them.
Out of necessity, Mother Min found her way into practical nursing after a stint teaching school, which also came by way of necessity. Soon after she turned into her 28th year, her husband died of typhoid fever leaving her with four little boys under the age of five. She refused to separate them, from each other or from her. There would be no shipping them off to an orphanage. She sold the family farm and moved to a house in a nearby town where she took up teaching. With 12 aunts and uncles on her husband’s side and 10 on her own, she appealed for help with the boys when she needed to work.
She never looked back, only forward, one foot in front of the other. By the time her grandchildren came along, her teaching days were over, and she earned a living in another helping profession.
The boy gained much from his grandmother, not only from the outings to the woods and fields but also from accompanying her on house calls. He learned a great deal by simply paying close attention to the way she lived. Mother Min spoke of God, of her faith. She walked closely enough with Jesus and so reflected that love, often without particular words. She possessed considerable grit and grace, resolve and resilience. She was undaunted in the face of many obstacles. Impressions the boy kept as reference, a compass of sorts, for years and years to come.
Mother Min died in August of 1957. She was 82.
One day last week, I walked through the woods with her and my uncle while I visited with him on the phone. I found a kinship with my great grandmother beyond blood, beyond years. And my uncle, still considerably sturdy in his lanky frame, easily looked to that compass and found a comforting and teaching presence, across all that time.