My mother talked to toads. Not all the time. Just when she was out back watering the compost. She had built a big compost pile behind the azaleas in the backyard, despite the fact that the house and yard, shielded by only a few trees, backed up to the suburban country club in the new development we moved to in 1964.
Some of the neighbors viewed her compost as garbage that should be left at the curb for the trash pickup. Unperturbed, Mom daily carried out potato peelings, orange rinds, and egg shells and dug them into the heap that was busy converting itself back into a rich food for her garden.
During dry spells, she dragged the hose out to water the pile so the yeasty mix continued to "work" effectively. While watering the compost, she also refilled the birdbaths and the small bowl she had put on the ground for the toads. She was the only mother in the community who considered the thirsty toads, and was rewarded for her thoughtful effort with their trust.
I came home one afternoon to find her standing near the compost, water trickling from the hose in her hand while a toad sat by her feet, drinking, apparently unafraid. He must have sensed that she was a creature of integrity.
Also unlike the rest of the community, Mom recycled, carefully separating glass and aluminum from the garbage, tying the newspapers into neat bundles, and hauling it all to the tiny recycling shack at the dump once a week. Convinced that it was the right thing to do, it gave her satisfaction.
Some of my friends thought her eccentric. She always carried a trowel in her car and, occasionally, while ferrying kids to school or sports, stopped to dig up a clump of wild oxeye daisies in a ditch or some ajuga that had somehow migrated to an unclaimed patch along the side of the road. She smiled indulgently when one of her passengers teased her, but continued digging.
In autumn, she dug sassafras roots in the woods. After carrying a small piece of root home, she scrubbed it, peeled off a few strips, put them in a pot of water, and brewed them. Then she'd serve up the root-beer-flavored tea with a spoonful of sugar. Delicious. (She later sent me sassafras roots while I was in college, a source of much amusement in the dorm. Others got boxes of cookies. I got bits of trees.)
Mom also transplanted dogwood saplings from the woods, though it was illegal to dig up a dogwood, Maryland's state tree. Her objective was to replant them where they would thrive: in our yard, in a neighbor's, or on some other out-of-the-way patch of ground.
"They'll die here, all choked together," she'd explain. She was upholding the spirit of the law if not the letter, and in the careful explanation of her reasons, taught us the difference between the two.
Mom didn't play bridge, sit by the pool, or lunch at the country club with friends. That simply wasn't her. Instead, she read voraciously, worked tirelessly in her garden, played the piano, and volunteered at her church.
Since she and Dad went to different churches, her working for church occasioned a certain amount of discussion in our home, particularly when it interfered with Dad's plans on weekends.
BUT Mom, while catering to my father in many loving ways, was adamant about her obligations. She had chosen her church after much careful thought and prayer. It had not been an easy choice: Her father was a minister, but she had not chosen her father's church, either.
Hers was a well-considered choice born of conviction, not convenience; she would not renege on conviction.
Only on Christmas and Easter would we go to church as a family, always to Dad's. Occasionally, on the drive home, Dad would murmur that it would be nice if Mom came with him regularly.
"No, Bunny," she'd reply gently, but firmly. Though she hated argument, she would not compromise her principles for the sake of either peace or conformity.
Over the years, I watched her quietly go her own way, taking joy in her days, doing the things that most sustained her - and us. She taught us to think for ourselves and to accept responsibility for our decisions. Life was meant to be thought through as it was lived, choices made consciously.
During my teens, when conformity was a matter of survival, or at least so I imagined, she showed me by example how to determine my own path.
Even if she disagreed with one of our decisions, provided she was convinced we had given it clear thought, she would respect it. She showed us that resisting conformity was not a matter of rebellion, but a matter of being yourself, of fulfilling your own heart's longings.
Now, I find myself doing things that are considered a little eccentric. I walk to the store with a basket on my arm to save gas. I compost, recycle, and use newspapers as mulch for my garden. When I remember to fill it, I have a small bowl of water near the compost heap.
Occasionally, I find myself talking to toads.