A goodbye in the mountains near Nogal, NM

I’ve been meaning to write a post about my mother, Norine, for a while now. As a single mom, she did her best to support me and my passion for plants. It’s largely because of her that I am who I am today. My mother died last summer from age-related dementia. Anyone who’s been through this with a family member knows it’s not easy to see somebody slowly lose their memories, their ability to speak, and then their willingness to eat and drink. I’ve been processing it for a while and decided to write about her life and what she meant to me.

My mother was born in Wausau, Wisconsin. Her parents, Irene and Edgar, raised her on the family’s dairy farm along with her brother Dick.

Old picture of Irene and Edgar
Irene and Edgar
My mother Norine as a young girl with her brother Dick and her parents Irene and Edgar
Irene, Edgar, Dick, and Norine
Norine, as a young girl, with her baby in a carriage
Norine as a young girl
Norine, as a young girl, with a kitten in a carriage
Norine with a kitten

Growing up, Norine and her brother raised dairy cattle to show at 4H, an organization that trains and engages youth in the work of their community.

Norine and Dick as children raising dairy cattle to show at 4H
Norine and Dick with two calves

Music always played an important role in my mother’s life. As a young woman, she played accordion, saxophone, and piano. She grew up listening, playing, and dancing to Big Band and Polka. She loved to dance.

My mother was also an accomplished seamstress, sewing many of her own clothes. I think this is a photo of her in a prom dress that she made.

She married young and had five kids, Jan, Randy, Kris, Lois, and Ron. From what I understand, life on a dairy farm was hard and they were poor, but she loved her kids fiercely.

Wisconsin family on a dairy farm in the 1970s
L to R: Lois, Kris, Ron, Randy, Mom, Jan, Grandpa Edgar, and Cheryl (Jan's daughter)

Within a year or so after the photo above was taken, she divorced her husband and fell madly in love with my father who was a part-time instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio. I was born soon after.

Picture of little ole me with curly auburn hair
Photo proof that I used to have curly, auburn hair
Mom and Dad at Ron's wedding
Mom & Dad at my brother Ron's wedding
Dad smoking a cigarette in a restaurant
Afterwards, the three of us at a restaurant

Things weren’t easy for my mother. She came from a very religious Lutheran family, had divorced after having five kids, and fallen in love with my father, who was Catholic. I was born out of wedlock. Then, her eldest son, Randy, was killed in a car crash. So, after the other kids had grown up and left home, my mother took me and moved across the country to Hobbs, NM. I think she fell in love with the idea of the Southwest as portrayed by country music with cowboys and rodeos and dancing…

Me behind the first house I remember
Behind our first home in Hobbs
Photo of a young me riding a tricycle in the flat desert of Hobbs, NM
Winter in Hobbs, NM

But, Hobbs wasn’t the vision of the Southwest that she expected. It was an oil town in the middle of a flat, brown desert. We were relatively poor during those early years. It wasn’t always easy to find good housing and I remember saving up S&H green stamps to trade for toys. Many of my early memories of her involve music. Sleeping in the car one night on the way home from the babysitter while Debby Boone sang You Light Up My Life on the radio. Listening to her play LP records of Marty Robbins in the living room.

Soon after we arrived in NM, my interest in plants began.

Me as a young boy, examing wildflowers after a rain, circa 1979
Me, circa 1979, examining desert flowers

It probably wasn’t easy to raise me, a somewhat quiet boy with unconventional interests during the 1970s and 80s. There was a strong push from various men over the years to “man” me up with cub scouts and sports. She quickly saw that it just wasn’t me and allowed me to find my own way. Mom bought me my first plant, a small little peanut cactus (Chamaecereus silvestrii) that I can still remember sitting in a sunny living room window and she would drop me off at local nurseries while she did the grocery shopping. My apartment bedroom was soon filled with houseplants purchased by saving up my weekly allowance. Occasionally, there was space on a patio or in the backyard of an apartment to grow outdoor plants.

Mom and me and a schefflera house plant
Mom, me, and a schefflera that she grew for many years
An old photo of zinnias
An early photo of zinnias I grew from seed

Eventually my mother saved enough to build a small home out in the country. It was simple. We had a few chickens and ducks, a dog, occasionally a pet rabbit out back. She bought a piano and we both took lessons. It was thrilling to finally garden outside without restraint.

A simple house in Hobbs, NM with a new garden out front
My first garden
Mom in the 1980s
Mom in the 1980s

After middle school, we moved back to Wisconsin so she could take care of her mother and so that I could get to know my father better. My grandmother was a long-time gardener, spending every day “puttering” in the garden on the family farm, where were two giant cottonwood trees in the front yard. I was able to garden there too, spending most of my weekends there once I got my driver’s license.

Mom bought me my first technical horticulture books and allowed me to fill the kitchen table and living room with all manner of seedlings, cuttings, and houseplants. Grandma showed me the joys of plant catalogs. I was interested in it all. It was a fantastic way to spend the winter when it was too cold to be outdoors.

Family farm back in Wisconsin
Family farm
Mom, grandma, and me
Mom, Grandma, and me
Garden flowers in Wisconsin
My garden at the farm
A rock-lined path through the pine windbreak
The woodland garden

But eventually, the Southwest and the desert mountains called again. After I finished high school, we moved to Las Cruces, NM with my grandmother. My sisters, Jan and Lois, had already moved down to the Southwest years earlier when we first lived in Hobbs, so we were able to spend more time together as a family again. I started my first year of college at New Mexico State University studying horticulture. After one year, I moved out on my own, back to Wisconsin. I missed the green and the trees. So, for the first time, my mom was living alone.

Mom's adobe house in Las Cruces
Mom's adobe house in Las Cruces
Organ Mountains, Las Cruces
Organ Mountains, Las Cruces
Train with fluffy white clouds
Desert train under a perfect sky
Jan, mom, me, grandma, and Lois in Las Cruces, NM
Jan, Mom, me, Lois, and Grandma

My mom had always been drawn to places with mountains, trees, clouds, sunsets, and old buildings (a predilection I share), so she moved to Ruidoso, a village in the Sacremento Mountains of central New Mexico. There, she was surrounded by ponderosa pine forests. She loved it. She joined the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Posse (a volunteer organization to help out at community events), enjoyed line dancing, and took several art classes.

Back in Wisconsin, I came out as gay (surprise!) in 1995. Her support for me never faltered. I am forever grateful for that. She even tried to start a PFLAG group in Ruidoso, not an easy feat in a small town. She continued to support me through those first lean years of college, when tuition and rent were difficult to cover on my part-time job at a local restaurant.

View of mountains and trees from the top of Sierra Blanca, near Ruidoso, NM
View from Sierra Blanca
me and my mom
Me and my mom, 1996

Eventually, Ruidoso got too cold for her. So my mom moved to Nogal, NM. I remember as a child, we would pass through there on weekend trips to the higher elevation mountains. We would both look down into Nogal Canyon from the highway and dream of living there someday. Now, Mom was living that dream.

View of Carrizo Peak near Nogal, NM
View of Carrizo Peak from the pass
Green juniper branch with mountains in the background
Juniper above Nogal Canyon
Norine with a country western vest she made
Mom with a handmade country western vest

Mom bought a little house that had belonged to an old boyfriend, John. Nogal is a tiny little place with less than 100 people, but she was happy and made several close friends. She enjoyed dabbling in her garden, spending time with her cat Sunny, and continued to go out dancing at every opportunity. She would walk almost everyday, exploring the area and taking photos of things that caught her eye. The following 19 photos show us what those were.

Mom's house with apricot trees in front
Mom's house behind the apricot trees
Red hot poker plants with red and yellow flowers
Red hot pokers in the backyard

She loved her little red barn out in back. I’m sure it reminded her of the farms back in Wisconsin. That old handplow was from the family farm.

A red shed, a green yucca, and an old handplow
Little red barn
Prickly pear cactus with red fruit
Prickly pear fruit
Yellow apricot leaves and an old building in Nogal, NM
View of Nogal through the apricot tee in fall

There are dozens of pictures of Nogal Peak through the seasons.

Nogal Peak covered in snow near Nogal, NM
Nogal peak in winter

She began drawing in earnest, favoring colored pencils.

Carrizo Peak, a mountain near Nogal, NM
Carrizo Peak
Colored pencil drawing of El Capitan mountain by Norine
Mom's drawing of Carrizo Peak
Colored pencil drawing of a sunflower by Norine
Sunflower drawn from a magazine
Colored pencil drawing of a church by Norine
Old church drawn from a magazine
Pitcher of wheat drawn by Norine
Still life: vase of wheat
Old stone house drawn by Norine
An old building in Nogal (see photo above with apricot tree in fall)
Old barn drawn by Norine
Art class assignment: pen and ink drawing
Crocus sativus drawn by Norine
One of my favorites, an incomplete Crocus sativus

Mom spent a lot of time watching the seasons pass from her front porch. She loved the poplars growing across the street, which is probably the most photographed scene in her collection.

Green leafy poplars and a rainbow
Spring
Green leafy poplars and white cumulus clouds
Summer
Poplars with yellow autumnal leaves
Fall
Poplars in snow
Winter

Mom always loved a good sunset. I can remember her staring at them for what seemed like hours when I was a little boy in Hobbs. I didn’t get it then. I get it now.

Red, orange, and pink sunset, and a rainbow, behind tall, dark poplar trees
A rainbow at sunset

Mom also had a fondness for old, gnarled trees and natural wood with character and story.

Mom moved to Oregon in October 2008 to be closer to me. She lived for a few years in Independence, joined the Peedee Women’s club, and gardened on the back patio. She doted on her cat, Sunny, who was her faithful companion. Many an evening, L and I would drive over and we would have dinner and watch Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune together. But, eventually we needed to move Mom into assisted living (where she continued her passion for dancing!), then to memory care, and finally to a nursing facility in Corvallis. Towards the end, Mom was pretty silent, but she still recognized us and held on to her passion for music and dessert (we both have a sweet tooth).

Mom and Ted dancing at The Corvallis Caring Place
Mom dancing with her boyfriend in assisted living

On August 8, 2023, Mom passed while I was at her side playing her favorite music. I made sure each of the kids had an opportunity to chat with her beforehand and I said all that I needed to say. Absolutely no regrets. It felt fitting to be there at the end for the woman who had been there for me since my beginning. I am forever grateful.

On August 17th, we took Mom’s ashes to the overlook where she could look down into Nogal Valley, where the house, neighborhood, and mountains she loved were all in view. There’s a view of Nogal Peak off to the west.

And a view south overlooking her home in Nogal and Carrizo Peak down below.

Goodbye Mom, we miss you.

View of El Capitan mountain near Carrizozo, NM

This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. Kris P

    That’s a lovely testimonial to your mother, as well as a nice nod to your younger self, Jerry. She clearly did right by you and you did right by her. Not all parents and children can say that. Whatever your spiritual reliefs may be, I’ve no doubt your mom will always have a place in your heart and mind.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Yes, I am very lucky to have had such a wonderful mother. It’s true what they say, she is always here with me.

  2. Tracy

    A lovely remembrance.

  3. Jane / MulchMaid

    What a lovely spirit your mother had! Your love and admiration for her is evident in every word of this tribute. I’m so sorry for your loss, and equally sure your dear mother lives on in your heart, and the hearts of those who knew and loved her.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      She was an inspiration, for sure, and definitely lives on in our hearts.

  4. Oh, Jerry, Norine’s spirit comes through in your words and images. Such a story of love, thank you for sharing. It sounds like those who were fortunate enough to have met her were enriched. I would love to have known her. Hugs…you did right by her, for sure. xo

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Thanks Tamara! She did her best to be kind to everyone all the way up to the end. I am very fortunate indeed.

  5. danger garden

    Loosing a parent changes you. I imagine loosing the one who was your only does so in even more complex ways. What a childhood you had with her! Thanks for sharing this story with us, and including the photos. I hope writing this brought back even more memories. You chose a great place to release her. It’s not lost on me that you sat here in my garden just a week later. You must have been feeling so tender.

    1. danger garden

      BTW Ruidoso rang a bell, I’ve heard Andrew’s family talk about it. His grandmother ran a restaurant there in the ’80’s, The Schoolhouse. Probably a little earlier than your mom’s time there.

      1. Botanica Chaotica

        We actually briefly lived in Ruidoso in the 1980s. Although I don’t remember the restaurants, I do remember I loved living up there.

    2. Botanica Chaotica

      Yes, it’s an odd feeling losing a parent. It reminds me to live life to the fullest and to treat people kindly. Last summer was a bit of a mess and I was grateful for a bit of a distraction at that time.

  6. Beth@PlantPostings

    Oh my goodness, what a beautiful remembrance. Your mom had a rich, full life, and you both were blessed. She was a great photographer and artist, too.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      She was the best! That’s all one can ask for is a rich, full life with love.

  7. hb

    What a tender, loving memoir about your dear Mom. Touching and beautiful. She lives on in you. Thank you for sharing her story–and some of yours.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      It is comforting to have her memories and her lessons live on through me.

  8. Chavli

    This is a lovely and moving remembrance, Jerry.
    “Music memory” remains strong even in older folks who suffer from dementia; it’s a wondrous thing (I saw in my mom in her declining years).
    I find it very touching that you are able to rediscover and connect with your mother through her art and choice of photographs.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      I am so fortunate that she had such a passion for music. It’s a great way to reconnect with those we’ve lost and to bring happiness to those who have dementia.

  9. Jennifer

    My Mom died ten years ago March 8th. I loved reading about your Mom. I know how beautiful she is, because of her beautiful son.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Thanks for sharing Jennifer. Take care as that date approaches. I hope you have a special remembrance that will help you honor her life.

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