My parents’ country house was built nearly a century ago, and though it’s a country house, it has many of the trappings of an upscale city dwelling. There are formal spaces with slick, polished wood floors, large glass windows with delicate carving around the moldings, and rich fabrics with tulips and rosettes adorning the floors and walls. Still, if you look closely, you can see that this is not the house of wealthy people. The shiny floors are scuffed and have stains that have been strategically hidden by the furniture. There are cracks in some of the windows, and a window in one of the upstairs bedrooms has been boarded over. The textiles are worn and faded.
My family moved to the country when I was a teenager, after my father died and my mother started to lose her grip on reality. My younger sister was too young to understand what was happening, and so it fell on me to be the lone witness to my mother’s deteriorating mind. She had been an archivist and had the organized, logical intelligence you might expect from such a person. Our house was filled with books and art and music, but everything was taxonomically ordered. I remember asking her things like where a notebook I had used two weeks earlier was, and she would respond, “It’s in the third drawer from the top in the desk in the den—at the back next to the pencils,” without missing a beat. She was the keystone that had kept our lives in order.
It felt beneath my mother how cliche it was, but when my father died suddenly, something in her cracked. It was as though all of the little hooks and shelves in her brain that kept everything organized and in control had gotten loosened and were starting to fall apart. Not only did she no longer know where the notebook was; she now had to think for a bit to understand what you meant when you said the word notebook.
Walks in the meadows and woods around our house always did her good, so on weekends when I didn’t have school, I’d always make a big breakfast and get her outside. Seeing the natural world around us, ever changing as one season morphed into another, seemed to bring her out of her stupor.
I recall one day when we walked down the road toward town and a fox ran across our paths. Her head turned just as the animal darted into some bushes along a ditch. I heard her breath catch. I wasn’t sure if it was in fear or wonder.
Several months later, we bundled ourselves to head out during the first snowfall of the season, something I thought would be especially cheery for her, since she loved the peace that snow brought. It was the first real cold snap of winter—almost too cold to head out—but we draped ourselves in woolen scarves and hats and trudged out into the shallow snow drifts. The world was quiet and eerie in that way that it only ever is during a cold snowfall. The frozen mud crunched under our boots. A flock of magpies pecked and bobbed in a nearby tree. One of them called out, and the sound echoed across the dense sky. My sister was trudging ahead through the snow, her small head tucked down into her scarf to keep the cold away, when I noticed that my mother had fallen behind. I turned around, and there she was, sitting in the road, tears streaming down her face.
“What is this? This white? This!” She gestured frantically at the air around her. “I— I can’t remember what it’s called. I can’t remember if I’ve seen it before.”
I didn’t know how to answer a question that was at once so simple and complex. So I sat down in the road with her and put my arm around her as she cried.
Later, as we were walking back to our house, I though about what we should do, and for the second time that day, I realized that I was facing an unanswerable question that was at once altogether simple and impossibly complex.
So we went home and made a fire and cooked some stew and watched as the snow continued to fall across the meadow that stretched behind our house.