05/06/2013 06:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Best Thing I Learned From My Mother

Amy Ruhlin

When I was a young girl, my mother would open the front door of our home in the evenings, tilt her head to look at the sky and say, "Look at the moon!" Instead, I would look at her face. And I would see pure joy. At the time, I wasn't aware of what I was seeing; I was a distracted teenager and for the life of me, I could not figure out why the sight of the moon made my mother so happy. I would tilt my head to look at the sky too, and though I saw the same moon, I knew that I was not feeling what she was feeling. I also knew that it was important, this mysterious connection that my mother had that I could not quite yet grasp. I knew that whatever my mother was feeling when she looked at the moon, I wanted to feel it, too.

She loved trees. My aunt once helped her look for a house to rent, and years later, after I was grown, my aunt said to me, "Your mother was going through so much turmoil when I helped her find that rental, but all she cared about was making sure that she found a property that had plenty of trees!"

When I was 12 years old, my mother decided to have a small house built on an acre of land that had once been her father's garden. It was an acre without any trees. Once the house was completed, she spent the next ten years planting and growing trees: crepe myrtles lined the driveway, pin oaks stood in the front yard and cedars edged the sides of the house. She turned the backyard into a field of fruit trees. And she did it all while working full-time and being a single mother.

We spent many days and nights sitting together on her screened porch, surrounded by the beauty of her trees. And I knew that the sight of them brought her comfort.

My mother had a great sense of humor and one of her favorite expressions was: "The world is going to hell in a hand basket!" Whenever she said it, I'd roll my eyes and laugh, thinking she was just overreacting or being funny. But I now know it was her quirky, southern way of expressing concern for the environment -- her grief over trees being bulldozed for "progress" and the moon becoming obscured by pollution. In fact, she once gave me the book, The Sense of Wonder, by the noted environmental writer Rachel Carson. It still sits on my bookshelf today.

I currently live in a house with a lot of windows. And through every window, I can see towering trees with thick, green leaves in the summer and beautiful, bare branches in the winter. Each evening, when the moon shines through the highest window in my family room, I tilt my head to look at the sky and I say to my family, "Look at the moon!" As my chest expands, I feel as if the glow of the moon is coming from inside of me.

My mother showed me that in the midst of life's pain and turmoil, grief and loss, I can find great comfort in the beauty of a tree, deep joy at the sight of the moon and a sense of wonder by simply noticing the world around me.