“You know, your daddy used to always let me think I saw them first,” Mama said as I pointed to the one red maple I could see blooming. I tried to time the afternoon hunt with the best sun angle for viewing as we cruised the forest service backroads. I felt like I was striking out until she confessed she had already spotted a couple prior to my discovery.
As far as seasonal markers go, these scarlet jewels are one of the first natural treasures of the calendar year and one of many that my family has always enjoyed “finding.” Their small inconspicuous blooms are humble at best when viewed in isolation. But when they combine forces, they light up the entire tree crown with a crimson glow that is a sure sign spring is on the way. Mama knew they should be making their appearance around Groundhog Day. This year, the phenomenon occurred much later in February in our neck of the woods.
Since Daddy was basically in the woods every day of his life, he was always the first to notice seasonal markers. Still, he allowed Mama to see or hear such treasures before ever letting on he’d beat her to the punch. Though he may have fallen short of the husband glory on many occasions, he knew he could at least offer this small sacrifice.
Spring was always his favorite season. It meant the end of a stressful calving season, one often laden with guilt from poor timing and failed attempts to beat natural mortality odds. Later in his life, from the back of a pickup tailgate, he confessed that he knew God would hold him accountable for all the lives he had been entrusted with.
“Every horse, every cow, all of them,” he said as he watched his beloved sunset. “I’m responsible.”
The long nights of winter were especially hard on him. As a child, I remember seeing his bedroom door closed with only the light from a small bedside table lamp creeping beneath the doorway. I had no idea at the time what he must have been going through. Trying to support a family of four and another 300 mama cows with only one income must have been an incredible burden to bear.
I used to write him colorful notes of encouragement on construction paper and slide them underneath the door. He kept them all. Before bed, he always gave me and Rachel a hug and told us how much he loved us. The smell of Barbasol shaving cream still sends me back into his bony arms. He needed spring to come quickly. We all did.
The joy of discovering nature’s spring harbingers literally kept him sane, but seeing Mama light up must have meant more to him than any pride associated with finding the “firsts.”
“That and the whippoorwills,” Mama added with a wistful gaze as we rounded the dirt road corner, heads outstretched from the SUV window hoping to see more red. “He always let me hear the first whippoorwill of the year.”
Bearden is a biologist with the Geological Survey of Alabama. She writes for Farm Press about the exploits on her family's ranch in Alabama.