My mother was always a walker. Every day she would put on her Scandia Woods socks, pull them over her pants and slip on her L.L.Bean gumshoes. Pulling the socks over the pants was a critical step. She’d already had Lyme disease twice, and she was doing her best not to get it again. Where she walked was on the old bridle path next to her house in Connecticut. People used to ride there when I was a kid. Now it was closed off to horses and to people; too many kids had used it for drinking parties, and the wetlands folks had introduced so many rules about what had to be done to make the land “passable” that the woman who owned it, a friend of my mom’s, said enough and put up a keep out sign. Only my mom had permission to keep walking there. As she moved along, she’d pick up any branches that had fallen in her path. She was the keeper of the trail.
Four years ago, when my mother was 84, I bought a country house farther up in Connecticut, where the bridle paths were many and still open to the public. The woods on my property were as dark and deep as those in the Robert Frost poem. There was no trail. The underbrush was thick and prickly.
By the time I got the house, my mom wasn’t walking as much. To cut through her woods to get to the bridle path, she’d started using the walking stick my sister had provided. She’d fallen once on the trail, she told us. And she almost couldn’t get herself up. We urged her to take along the cell phone we’d given her, so she could call for help, but she usually forgot it. Anyway, she said, she didn’t really know how to use it. We gave her instructions more than once. But she kept forgetting. One day, she said, she was on the bridle path and couldn’t remember how to get home. That was about the time she sent my daughter, her granddaughter, a birthday card addressed to one of our cousins. It was signed not “Grammy” but “Charlotte,” her first name.
That winter I became obsessed with making a trail through my own woods to give our mother a place to walk when she visited—and a daily activity if she eventually came to live with me. There were enough pieces of flatland to lace through that it would be an easy walk. The beginning and end of the trail would come out on the lawn, from which you could see the house. It would be a path my mother could walk without getting lost.
Here’s the thing about woods: Trees shed branches, sort of the way people shed hair. So the floor of my woods was covered with branches. You could barely move without tripping over one that was hidden under the leaves, which had been collecting there for years. So, step one: Pick up branches.
Actually, step one, said my brother, was “flag” the trail. Once I decided where the trail was going, I needed to mark it. He said I could get flags at the hardware store, but mine didn’t carry them. I ordered them online: 200 for $60. I staked flags where the trail would be. That took three days. Now the woods were dotted with bright red pennants, which looked almost garish on the bare winter terrain.
Every day I’d bundle up and go out there to gather branches. I’d make a pile. Some “branches” were small swamp trees that I could pull up by their roots. Pretty soon there were three piles, then six, then dozens. The piles grew, day after day, until they were taller than I was. “Make the piles by the trail,” my brother told me. “That way we can chip them and spread them out.”