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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Tears in the Tetons

Our home was not a center of hospitality as a child.  I remember no shared dinner tables, no regular activities with friends, no social interaction with neighbors..   However, I do  recall a few non related people who seemed to appear for a few nights, mostly because it was so rare. There was the visit from Sumiko, who had worked with my dad when our family lived in Japan, and a Franciscan Friar with a kind spirit who appeared in a dark robe and white clerical collar. To this day, I have no idea what his relationship was to our  normally socially isolated, spiritually devoid family.

And then there was Margaret Altmann.

Margaret was legendary in our family, the way that some families have an elder in their matriarchal lineage who is revered.  Born in Berlin, she had three strikes against her as the Nazi Party rose to power.  She was highly educated, she was Jewish, and she was gay.  My mom told us that Margaret saw the handwriting on the wall, so she immigrated to America and began an illustrious career that would include earning a second doctorate from Cornell and eventually becoming the leading authority on moose and elk in the United States.

But it was not moose and elk that first brought her to my mom’s attention. It was a miniature Schnauzer puppy.   

My mom had also emigrated from Germany and was raising her four children in Virginia near the Hampton Institute where Margaret first worked. .  After purchasing a puppy from Margaret’s latest litter, they became fast friends, and Margaret took my mother under her wing, even forgoing her scholarly duties once when the whole family became very sick while my father was deployed overseas.  Mom shared how Professor Margaret lovingly cleaned up the home and cooked for everyone and tended to us children so my mom could get some much needed rest.  Mom never forgot that kindness.

They became fast friends for life, and when my dad was killed by a drunk driver the spring of my junior year, my mom decided to take me and my brother, who was a sophomore, to stay with Margaret at her cabin in  the Buffalo Valley overlooking The Grand Tetons.  Perhaps she thought that visit would take all of our minds off the tragedy that had blown up our lives.

She was right.

My brother and I listened to animals prowling the dark in the only night we dared sleep in a tent in a meadow behind the cabin.  We watched thunderstorms light up the Tetons as they raced into the valley.  We listened to the crackle of the wood stove in the one bedroom cabin where Margaret stayed each summer doing research.  We rode her horses into the hgh meadows, and she taught us how to be invisible to an elk.  And, for that one week, we rested from the trauma, our hearts too filled with the mystery and majesty of the Tetons to entertain thoughts of sorrow.

Fifty years after that experience, with my husband in tow, I drove the backroads of the Buffalo Valley in search of that cabin.  As we meandered up the first road, I saw where I had jogged the first morning and encountered fresh bear prints in the mud.  I saw the Buffalo River Bridge, where years later my mom and I and my twin daughters “fished” and feared passing bears.  But I could not find the cabin, and so we went further down the road to try and find the dude ranch where Margaret had taken us to meet her friends during that first visit.

It was still there.

Tim went inside to the small restaurant as I parked the car.  I stepped out and glanced across the valley.  The view had not changed.  In the distance, the Tetons loomed like sentinels over the valley profiled against a sky darkened by an impending summer storm.   The Buffalo River wound through the landscape, and the inescapable smell of pine was trapped in the breeze.

And then it hit me.

I had come to know these mountains as a teenager, bereft and struggling to find a language for my complex sorrow.  The father who had abused me but had also infused me with a love of literature and music was gone.  Forever.  There would be no reconciliation in this life.  But I could not let myself process that sorrow then because once my father had died, I received a lifelong job assignment..

I had to take care of my mom.

Over four decades later that job came to an end with the death of my mom at 95. And now I stood there overlooking the valley as the hint of a storm brewed, and a spasm gripped my heart. For all these long years, my seventeen year old self had never fully processed that unexamined sorrow. For all these long years, the Buffalo River had flowed through this valley waiting for my return. For all these long years, the Tetons had loomed in the distance, holding my tears, waiting to release them to me.

I cried them now, helpless against the flood.

I was free to grieve.

Though I have always considered these Tetons my spiritual home, I have not been back since that last day in the Buffalo Valley.  Those mountains graciously held my sorrow all those decades, and in some ways, it feels like we have both gone our separate ways, no longer burdened.

But the Creator who painted their grandeur against a rugged sky still calls me daily to rest in untamed spaces,  no longer in sorrow, but in overwhelming gratitude for the endless healing capacity of wild, beautiful places.

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