PINEDALE, Wyo. — I'm writing this while sitting on a bed in a motel room done up in knotty pine. My mother is in the kitchenette (Yes! I love kitchenettes!) sipping hot chocolate while I'm propped up against a pillow, listening to the sound of water on water — rain falling on the lively stream right outside our window.

Last night I sat on its banks and filled my lungs with sweet river and cottonwood smells while listening to the buzz and click of hummingbirds ...

My mother and I are cooling our heels here in Pinedale, Wyo., after spending the weekend in the land of her ancestors (aka Big Piney), celebrating my Aunt Ava's 90th birthday with the rest of the town in the new Senior Citizen Center there. Technically speaking, Ava's not my aunt ...

She does, however, belong to that group of women (see also Millie, Lola, Bev and Edna) who I grew up calling "aunt" whenever I visited my mother's people up here in the northlands.

For the record, Ava looks fantastic. I'm not kidding. The woman did NOT sit down the entire time we were at her party —she was too busy chatting up guests like she was Jay Leno. Her favorite gift? Ninety quarters. A quarter for each year.

"I'm going to Wendover tomorrow," she said and she wasn't kidding. My "cousin" Rex and his wife were taking her the next day. (MEMO TO AVA: Hey. Behave yourself, OK?)

Anyway. The party was fun and the food was great. We had pasta salads and chicken salad served on croissants. Dude! The day croissants show up in Big Piney, you know the French have totally taken over America!

Before I left Ava's party, she said to me, "Get up here next spring and I'll take you fishing again."

Then she grabbed my face hard with both hands, examined me closely and said, "You look like your mother ... "

Oh. If only that were true.

My mother (apparently known north of the border as "Patti Lou") was looking m-i-g-h-t-y fine in her crisp white shirt, skin-tight jeans, diamond studs, turquoise belt buckle and kick butt boots. I have never, EVER looked so good in my entire life.

Later my mother and I stood together at the crossroads of her life.

Literally. Highway 189 out of Piney. The main road back into town.

"I wonder where I'd be if I'd never left," she said, shielding her eyes from the gold glare of the sun.

I'm wondering that about my own life this morning, actually. What would my life had been like if my mother were still here?

Maybe I'd be those women I saw last night in the grocery store with the big game heads on the wall, filling my cart while listening to Faith Hill, then stepping outside into the parking lot just in time to see a slick dark moose dart across the street. Maybe I'd pause before loading my groceries into the back of my car and think how vast the sky is here and how beautiful the light looks as it falls slant on tough tall grasses.

Who knows? My life would have been different, that's for sure. But I think it would have been a good one, too, because you know how it is.

There's always more than one road.


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