By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse-Colored Glasses: Wildflowers for mother

She is buried in Monument at the cemetery that is at the foot of a little bluff not far from the John Day River, where deer, in curiosity, often peer over the sagebrush during a service.

I, of course, was at her funeral, but that was in March 1980. I have not been to the Monument cemetery since.

For others, I go to the cemetery. I go each year to the grave of my father, who is buried near Woodburn in a cemetery with a strange name: Belle Passi. I understand that it means “beautiful place.” It is the site of one of Oregon’s ghost towns, but the cemetery is there now.

The marker on my father’s grave is flat, as the markers are required to be in that cemetery. They are cold and impersonal. It calls to mind Flanders Field with its crosses row on row. At Belle Passi, the markers in those rows are indistinctive, as if manufactured in mass numbers, unlike the markers in the pioneer cemeteries hereabouts. I take flowers each year to my sister’s grave — and some years I manage to not cry — but I have not been to my mother’s.

I do not know what kind of marker she has because I have not seen it. It will, no doubt, have her name and the date of her birthday — May 30, Decoration Day — and the date of her death.

It is not as if I am trying to deny my mother’s death. She has been gone 25 years. Rather it is that I do not wish to think of her that way.

Instead, on Memorial Day, I think of her as a living mother — as if it were Mother’s Day.

She was a plucky, spunky lady, except that she was afraid to stay alone at night. If my stepfather were gone, my sister and I did not plan to stay the night with friends. Yet in the middle of the night, if she heard the chickens making a din — a sign that some varmint was trying for a meal — she got up from bed and headed for the chicken house, a good block from the house, to confront whatever it might be that was menacing her flock — be it skunk, raccoon or even cougar.

Often, she came down to meet me when I was walking home from school. Down the dirt road she’d come in her housedress. Women then were not yet wearing slacks and jeans and pants except to ride horseback.

Housedresses in those days were easy to find. Mother usually ordered hers from Sears or Wards. And often, in the summer, she wore tennis shoes without socks. We did not often wear sandals around the ranch. They were little protection if one stepped on a rattler.

Her hair was black before she started turning gray, and it was induced to curl by a home permanent given to her by a friend, since we did not have beauty salons in Monument.

But even in housedress and tennies, I thought she was beautiful as she walked down the road to meet me. I thought her very much the gracious lady.

When we once were shopping in Portland and were to meet at a designated place, we saw each other from half a block away and she smiled. Her smile, I always thought, put Mona Lisa to shame.

She was incredibly busy on the ranch: taking care of her chickens, picking raspberries, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, canning, mothering. But busy though she was, she wanted to be pretty, too.

If I wanted to especially please her, I gave her facials, although I knew not what constituted a facial because I had never had one. Mine were a poor substitute for those from a salon, but they pleased her: cold packs, hot packs, astringents, creams.

She hated it when her hair started getting gray and often inveigled me into plucking out the gray hairs with tweezers.

Always, she wanted a bouquet of flowers on the kitchen table where we ate. When I hiked the ranch, I tried always to bring her a bouquet of wildflowers. She especially liked the lavender flowers we called bird’s beak, and when I brought her the first bouquet of the season, she was as grateful as if it had been Chanel No. 5.

Although she had never lived on a ranch before we moved to Eastern Oregon, she accepted the lack of sidewalks and lawns, the coal oil lamps, the outdoor plumbing. She never seemed to have moods. She had no bad days. I do not remember that she ever shouted at me or lost her temper. She did not criticize or belittle. Yet she must have been so tired.

We were not a demonstrative family. When, as an adult, I read a book by Beverly Cleary telling about growing up in Yamhill, she wrote that she couldn’t remember her mother ever kissing her. Ours, too, was that kind of family, but I had never considered it a childhood omission. I was snug and nurtured and content. Home was a wonderful place — so that although I wanted to go away to school, when I left my cocoon I counted the days until Christmas vacation or the end of school so I could be home again.

After Homer and I were married, we often talked of where we would live after he got out of the service. As we considered various locations, one of my first thoughts always was how far I would be from “home.”

On Memorial Day in Monument, everyone would have gone to the cemetery. They would have taken flowers — iris, snowballs, lilacs. They would have walked the cemetery and read the inscriptions on the markers and said, “Do you remember her?” and they would have recalled the days when those names were living beings.

But I was not at the cemetery in Monument on Memorial Day. I do not think I shall be there soon. And I have a feeling that my mother understands.

But some year, if I were to go to that little cemetery in Monument, I would first hike the hills to see if I could find a bouquet of bird’s beaks. And those I would take to her grave.

Elaine Dahl Rohse, who died June 8, 2023, at age 103, was a News-Register columnist for more than 40 years. This column was originally published in 2005.