Family / Travel

There’s a Bear In The Garden

Last Wednesday, I drove eight hours to Ford, Washington to scatter my grandmother’s ashes. I was dreading the event, as she was the woman who helped raise me, and her house was my escape each summer (I had a very rough childhood); I did not want to let go of either her or the house. It was a hot drive up, and I was greeted by an empty house. Some friends of the family had taken it upon themselves to empty the house of all furniture, thinking it would be “helpful” to us to not have to do it ourselves. It was a shock to say the least. Imprints in the carpet from where her furniture had been, and bare walls empty of her favorite paintings. By the time I flopped onto her red velvet couch – the only thing left in her living room – and slid into my sleeping bag, I had a headache and my eyes were dry from crying. This is going to be a rough couple of days, I thought. I fell asleep not knowing that the next day would be the first time I ever saw a wild black bear.

The red velvet couch and the window looking out to the garden.

Waking up at 8:30 the next morning, I realized I was alone in the house. My mom and step-dad had gone into town to meet with the lawyer handling my grandma’s estate, leaving me to get a head start on painting. Twenty-eight years ago, my grandma had painted the living room walls a pale pink, but they now looked a shade closer to an expired Pepto Bismol lavender. Painting over them with eggshell white was like painting over her and the memories of us together in the house. With each paintbrush stroke came several memories at once, bombarding my brain and making the easy task more difficult than it should have been. I jumped suddenly when I heard my mom’s little white Havenese yapping his “little dog” bark. He was charging down the hallway to the front door, his chain color rattling loudly. “Murphy!” I shouted. This dog’s bark was too sharp and crisp for this early in the morning. “Shh!” I scolded him.

This is Murphy…

When my grandma was still alive, she always had a dog. A Brindle, a Dingo mix, two Siberian huskies, a sheep dog, etc. In the country, we sleep with our doors unlocked, but she lived alone on 30 acres, so she always had some kind of alarm system. When a dog started barking, we knew something was outside – either a person or a wild animal. I hadn’t heard a car pulling up the dirt and gravel driveway, so I raced over to the living room window and scanned the lawn and then the garden. My eyes quickly focused in on a black ball of fur galloping through the garden. Bear! my brain registered. “Holy crap!” I said aloud, smiling and squealing like a 5-year-old who just got her Barbie dream house. The bear disappeared out of my line of vision, so I raced around to the front door and outside onto the driveway, barely noticing I was barefoot and standing in a pile of pine needles. Where did it go?! I tiptoed down the driveway, hoping it hadn’t gone far. Nope, no where to be seen. Dang dog, I thought, walking back up the driveway and glancing around just in case there was another in the garden.

The garden

Once back inside, I continued painting, but kept checking out the window every five minutes just in case the bear decided to make another appearance. It didn’t, and it was then that it dawned on me how lucky I was to have seen a wild bear. From the time I first started spending summers with my grandma (8 years old), I had always told her I wanted to see one. She told me she had only smelled one, but never seen one, and she was glad because she was afraid they would get to her goats. It seemed unfair that it was only after she died that I finally saw one. I wanted to tell her about it so badly, and I couldn’t.

About the size of bear I saw (photo credit: duke.edu)

The next night, we scattered her ashes in a clearing on the property my grandma had always felt contained a certain “energy.” (Side note: Ford is Indian Reservation territory and her property was once part of it.) Standing there, watching family members and friends take handfuls and let them go in the wind, I wondered if the bear was in some way symbolic of my grandma’s death. So I did what any other 22-year-old would do with Internet access. I Googled it. Native Americans believed that if any animal passed you, it was a message from the universe. From the animals characteristics and your environmental surroundings, it was up to you to figure out the meaning. The bear represented freedom, peacefulness, harmony, bravery, and protection. There was one other symbol it represented too: great love. My grandma and I were closer than my own mom and I are. It may sound cheesy, but part of me feels like that bear showed up in my life for a reason; like she sent(?) it…

It was a comforting feeling seeing the bear. My mom was really jealous when I told her about it, and I could tell my step-dad was a little annoyed, too. But there was a reason I saw it and they didn’t, even if I’m not yet quite sure what that reason is. It’s going to be a struggle learning to live without my grandmother in my life, but I will always have that memory of the bear and seeing it just a day before scattering her ashes.

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