Paint by Words

This chapter appears in the book, “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose,” by Chris Olsen

It was a freezing cold morning in January. In spite of the subzero temperatures, the sun was a blazing ball of white light in the cornflower blue sky. As I sat at my desk working, a murder of crows squawked verbosely outside. The frequency and volume of their caw-cawing distracted me. I got up from my chair, wrapped my thick wool cardigan sweater around me tightly and looked out of my office window.

I peered up at the 100-year-old white pine tree in front of my house. My eyes scanned the stubs of the bald limbs that had cracked off near the top of the tree long ago and then darted to the branches of the other naked trees nearby. I couldn’t spot the crows’ shadowy figures anywhere. They were close, though, and so loud I wondered if they were angry or distressed about something. Or maybe they were just celebrating, I thought. Perhaps they were thankful for the sunshine and rejoicing in spring’s imminent arrival.

As I sat back down, I thought of my mom. It had been nearly 20 years since she’d passed, and I still thought of her every time I heard a crow call out. She reminded me of a crow. Her hair was black and wavy and shiny. Her eyes deep and intense. She loved nature, my part Native American mom—spending time in nature, learning about nature, honoring nature.

Growing up, my family took camping trips near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota—close to the Canadian border—nearly every summer. My favorite part was hiking in the woods with my mom. Hiking was simpler back then. No one cared about high-performance shoes for navigating the rocky terrain or man-made fabrics meant to wick away moisture. It was more of a “hike as you are” kind of thing. We wore the same T-shirts, shorts, sneakers and flip-flops we wore all summer. My mom had a pair of Dr. Scholl’s sandals with clunky wooden soles like clogs. They made a clopping noise as she walked through the woods, and as I trailed behind her I often imagined we were on horseback.

She called our hikes adventures. We’d follow a well-worn trail looking for birds and bugs and berries. We’d eat wild raspberries and blueberries right from the bush. I’d fill a bucket with as many as I could find, and she’d promise to use my bounty to make campfire coffee cake for breakfast—a mixture of Bisquick, milk, eggs, sugar and berries, poured into a pie tin and baked on an open flame.

“Listen to the cicadas singing!” she’d say, calling my attention to the high-pitched screechy mating call of the male insects. She explained they were the only bugs capable of producing such a unique and loud sound, and that it was meant to attract a mate while simultaneously stopping birds from eating them. It also meant they were dying.

She’d veer off the path and find a scenic spot to set up her easel and canvas. She’d prop up her small wooden suitcase filled with tubes of paint and brushes. Then she’d sit and paint beautiful pictures of the forest as I looked for gnome houses in the trunks of the trees or lay on my back daydreaming and staring up at the canopy of pine trees. She taught me that crows were the wisest of all birds. She said some Native tribes even believed crows could talk. I would strain to hear the crows, hopeful I could make out what exactly they were saying.

Right after she died, I noticed whenever I left the house a crow would call out from the treetops. “Hi, Mom!” I would holler back.

As these memories flooded my mind on that January morning, I realized in an instant: That day was her birthday. She would have been 76. I wished more than anything we could’ve been celebrating together. She adored celebrations almost as much as she treasured the woods. She loved hosting, cooking and giving gifts. She took great pride in decorating the house, planning the menu, and selecting and wrapping the presents. My heart began to swell as I realized how much I missed her.

And then suddenly I heard scratching and fluttering outside my office window. I turned my head slowly and froze as I saw a beautiful black bird peering in at me.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, my eyes welling with tears.

I gently reached for my phone to take a photo.

“Please don’t go,” I said quietly, desperate to capture the moment in an image outside of my brain.

She didn’t go. I took her picture, she stayed for a minute longer, and then she flew away.

Buy the book “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”

About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support womxn-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.

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