One Tough Mother

mother and son hike

Novelist Benjamin Percy finds inspiration and fortitude in his mother, who once, in her third trimester, butchered an elk for 1,000 lbs of meat.

My mother climbs mountains. Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainer, Mt. Bachelor, the South Sister. She hikes dry canyons and sage flats and cinder cones and waterfall-laced gorges. Every week, sometimes several times a week, for as long as I can remember. Snow doesn’t bother her. Rain either. In caves she has shrugged off her backpack and eaten a peanut butter sandwich, waiting for storm systems to pass, golf ball-sized hail, whips of lightning. She gasps a lot. Sometimes in awe of a sunset or a toothy ridgeline or a moss-draped old growth forest. And sometimes because she cannot breathe.

She has severe asthma. When she suffers from an attack, her breath sounds like pebbles sucked up and down a straw. This does not slow her down. Not only does she climb mountains, she runs six-mile trails. And she works forty hours a week as a florist, weaving together arrangements into bright explosions of color. Spring is her favorite time. Because the trails open up, the woods go green, the wildflowers press from the mud. Even though this is the time when pollen sleeves her throat and occasionally shoves her into bed with a coughing fit for an afternoon.

She never complains. She always manages to bend a situation into a smile. A cougar paced her for three miles? And it was so exciting! Her throat closed up and her lips turned blue in a wildflower meadow? And it was stunningly beautiful! I am amazed by her resilience, her toughness, her grateful awe for the natural world. She keeps binoculars by her bedroom window, as if to draw the woods out back even closer to her. She calls out to birds and laughs when they call back. She leans her face toward a pale mushroom, as if to whisper into the forest’s ear her gratitude.

Her skin is dark as bark from all her time in the sun. Her biceps surge with muscle. She remains unaware of the piece of moss or lichen clinging to her hair until I pluck it off her.

When she was six months pregnant with me, my father shot an elk, returned home, deposited the carcass in the garage, showered, pulled on his suit and headed off to the courthouse where he was working as a prosecutor. There was frost on the windows, snow on the ground. But then a warm wind blew through, jacking up the temperature to fifty — and then sixty — in the space of a few hours. During a court recess, my father called home in a panic. My mother–alone, heavily pregnant–would have to butcher and package the elk carcass, nearly a thousand pounds of meat, all on her own. And she did. This is her standard, as not just the toughest woman, but the toughest person I know.

I have inherited her asthma. Sometimes my throat feels sleeved with ants. Sometimes one cough leads to twenty. But so have I inherited, by way of her example, a forceful stubbornness. This is why I am muscle-weary, training for a marathon, even though my lungs occasionally fail, gasping and hitching.

I need only think of her to toughen me up. When I feel lost and depressed in the white bowels of January—when I feel exhausted by my sick children waking me constantly in the night—when I feel run down by stacks of papers to grade, deadlines to chase—when I’m tempted to walk the final stretch of a ten-mile run—she is my cure, the antidote to any weakness.

My mother—the mountain-climbing, trail-running, fish-gutting, elk-slaughtering florist, who never whines and always grits her teeth into a smile, no matter how rough the circumstances—will always be a heroic example for me of how to live.

—photo by rjs_flickr


About Benjamin Percy

Benjamin Percy is the author of two novels, Red Moon (out now from Grand Central/Hachette) and The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2010), as well as two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Grand Central/Hachette, 2012; Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006).


  1. Heather says:

    Quite a tribute. What a gift to know your good fortune.

  2. Jacque Brown says:

    I know your sweet mother. We were friends in high school and remain friends today. She is a true friend and a beautiful mother.

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