Moroccan Goats and Montana Memories – A Story of Love, Locations and Loss
It began on an early morning bus ride in Morocco. The last thing I expected was a goat sighting to bring me to tears and make me feel more connected to my family than I had been in months.
The bus was on the road to Essaouira (pronounced “ess-uh-wee-ruh”), a small, coastal town that is known for its seafood and chill atmosphere. A bit of calm would be a welcome relief after the sensory overload of Feś the last few days.
We bounced along as the bus accelerated at corners and decelerated on straight stretches. I chewed peppermint gum to keep the road sickness at bay. There is always something about the mixed aromas of dusty old busses, diesel and vanilla air-fresheners that threaten to turn my stomach. Shakira blasted from the speakers. Sun streamed in from the window and warmed my face and arm. I was drowsily balancing between sleep and waking when the bus abruptly pulled over on to the side of the road and came to a stop. Everyone stirred and slowly got up and exited. I got out to stretch and calm my nausea on firm ground
I had been in Morocco about a week at that point. I was on the sort of wandering travels where I didn’t necessarily know where I was going, when I was coming home or what was next in my life in general. Some might say I was lost but at that moment, I was in love.
I usually think it’s dangerous to declare love for a country so soon. It’s like saying “I love you” on the first date. But with Morocco, it was different. I loved the chaos of the medinas, the hospitality and humor of the people and never-ending, over the top opulence that is found in the handicrafts, doorways and tile. It felt exotically foreign and yet welcoming. And that morning, walking around outside the bus, I sighed happily at the scrubby stretch of desert surrounding me. There is a beauty in the dry country that is highly underappreciated. The flat stretch of landscape was dotted with the occasional argan tree, but otherwise bare and open.
I strolled around, surprised at how bright the sun was already. I stopped near an argan tree to find the relief of the shade for a moment before getting back on the bus. I listened to birds, the other bus passengers, the cars on the road. Then a strangely familiar sound made me look up. That couldn’t be, could it?! I turned to see goats perched on the tree branches above me. The goats delicately balanced on branches high and low, chewing away with that somewhat creepy, vacant look that is unique to goats and goats alone.
I felt a shiver, and looking on I choked back tears and felt homesick for the first time in months. I was torn between tears and laughter at the sight. Memories of Christmas with my family, my little sister Molly and our dog rushed through my head and heart, threatening my composure and nonchalant demeanor.
I will warn you, this is a bit of a sad story. But like most sad stories, it’s sad because there was at one time, a happiness in its place that was lost, and cannot be recovered.
If you will take a brief step back with me, first to Montana, three years ago, then two years ago, and ending right back here, under the argan tree in Morocco; then it will all make sense.
I grew up in small mountain town in Southwest Montana. For those of you who haven’t been there. The men are rough around the edges, the women are too, although sometimes less so. Both are used to fighting the climate and fighting for a living in economies that favor those who can do for themselves. The winters are snowy, cold and beautiful. The sun in the summers is harsh and direct. Neighbors help each other out and families have reputations that span generations.
In my family, there were four kids. And by kids, I mean children, not baby goats. The baby goats lived across the creek. We lived ten miles out of town, surrounded by old logging roads and because of this, us siblings became each other’s best friends in the absence of neighbors to play with. The oldest was my sister Lacie, who was usually in charge. I was second and the quietest. The only boy, my brother Lowell was third. And the one who knit us all together was my little sister Molly, the baby of the famiy and the one who managed to get along with us all.
Over the years, we had a variety of pets, but none as beloved and babied as the dog Loki. Molly had chosen him as a puppy from a box outside a Home Depot one hot summer day, not unlike the hot sunny day I was currently experiencing in Morocco. The puppy was part husky and part Australian sheppard. He was a good mix for the cold, snowy winters of Montana. He would be warm enough to spend time outside and because he was part Austrialian Sheppard he’d be small enough to take to work in the pickup, which is something Montana men in particular value. Molly was a sweet, sarcastic and compassionate soul. She felt sorry for him, panting in the sun. So, she convinced mom to buy the dog and trained him over the next few months, often carrying him around like a baby. We named him Loki and he quickly became like the family mascot.
Loki was the cutest puppy I have ever seen. He was the type of adorable that left a person questioning whether he was real or just a very animated stuffed animal. Loki went to work with my dad, rode snowmobiles with my brother, either running alongside or up on the seat, and was universally adored by both the family and the neighbors. Molly called him her little fur baby. Loki adored Molly and my mom the most. He’d whine when he didn’t get to ride the ten miles to town with mom and sleep near Molly when she was home or my mom when she wasn’t.
The dog became a constant topic of conversation. I’d call to see what my family was up to and instead and hear all about what Loki was up to. Molly told funny stories about him since her way was humor. She talked about how cute him and mom were together as she adored them both. Lowell talked about how fast he could run and how funny he was playing in the snow. My dad talked about how much Loki loved my mom and my mom talked about how she accidently spoiled him with so many treats the vet had to intervene.
So, it is not surprising that the family obsession with Loki eventually wove its way into Christmas. One of our family traditions is for my dad to take the three of us girls shopping for my mom before Christmas. This shopping trip usually cuts dangerously close to Christmas Day. We drive two hours to get to the nearest mall on icy roads and drink gas station coffee along the way.
As we walk through the mall my dad hands us money and we will go into the stores to buy what he wants us to get for our mom. For example, he may say, “Go get your mom that perfume.” We may counter offer his ideas with heavy-handed suggestions of what we think she actually wants. For instance, “I think she’d rather have Ralph Lauren perfume than the one inspired by Britney Spears.” Some men are just better at fixing diesel engines than buying gifts. When we all worked together, we were usually able to find a thoughtful mix of oddities for my mom before loading back up for the icy drive home.
Three years ago, Molly and Dad had seen a calendar called “Goats in Trees”. Molly said that she’d like to get it for mom and call it “Loki’s in Trees”, replacing the goats with gorgeous photos of our beloved dog. It was quirky and funny. It was a way of joking with my mom for her obsession and showing the obsession was mutual on Molly’s part. Also, in most of our opinions, this made for a much more aesthetically pleasing calendar image to enjoy each month. I assume that shortly after this comment, my dad may have smelled the faint scent of meat cooking, because for some reason, the calendar was not purchased.
Then, the unexpected happened in September of the following year. and we lost our baby, our ray of sunshine. Molly had died. She was in a car accident on the way home from a bonfire one warm night in September, a week after her 20th birthday. We were all devastated in a way that felt as though we had each lost a part of ourselves. It was demanded that Loki attend the funeral at our local church. Molly would have like it that way. It would have made her laugh. We arrived to the church miserable that day and walked into church as a unit as the leaves fell like teardrops around us. The entire pack, including Loki, sad, broken and lost in grief. Loki sat in the front pew with the rest of the immediate family, but unfortunately, there are some wounds so deep that even the calming presence of a pet can’t touch them.
I won’t go into all the sorrowful details of that fall, just suffice to say, as the last of the leaves dropped and the snow set in, Christmas wasn’t shaping up to be very merry. The feeling of excruciating loss was so new that none of us were very enthusiastic about celebrating. We were all still in shock and trying to figure out how to function when such a big piece of our family was gone.
That Christmas, my older sister was pregnant and couldn’t fly home for the holidays. I was arriving a day before Christmas and wouldn’t make it on our annual shopping trip. So, my dad was on his own, for the first time since having children. And without our guidance, his mission to find gifts for my mom took the same strange and sometimes misguided direction that we had worked so hard to mold into acceptable gift buying.
Malls in Montana are not the shopping meccas of bigger metropolises. They often have a scant collection and stores you may or may not have heard of before. Still, my dad approached the mall with the dogged determination most Montana men approach life with. He set out to scour the shops until he found the Goats in Trees calendar. Now, this is a strange calendar to find one year, let alone two, but as with most things he sets his mind to, he eventually got what he wanted. Not being tech savvy enough to know how to turn on the computer, he enlisted the help of my brother’s fiancé to print off dozens of pictures of Loki. When I got home and saw the calendar he had gotten for my mom, and the stack of photos, I was more worried than ever that this Christmas would be rougher than I anticipated.
I was asked to paste the photos of Loki over the goats. And that is how, one Christmas, two years ago, I found myself in my dad’s shop, next to the welder and old Ford truck, cutting out pictures of Loki and pasting them over goats in trees. Loki was smiling on branches of an argan tree in January and prancing down the trunk in May. In several he sleepily lazed, inexplicably suspended on limbs that would never hold his weight in real life. January through December, my mom could ponder each month during the coming year, just how strange her family was.
The next day, there was new snow on the ground and the silent stillness outside seemed to echo through the house that somehow felt lonelier than ever with five people, rather than six, around the Christmas tree. It was the first time I had heard the house quiet enough to notice the crackling of the log in the fire. We went through the motions of our typical Christmas traditions. We all wore our new Christmas pajamas and opened stockings, then presents. The living room gradually began to feel heavy with the weight of sadness that none of us could express. Each of us silently opened our gifts as the sadness we had all been moving aside that Christmas season welled up and threatened to drown us. About midway through, my dad got up out of his chair – an unprecedented Christmas first – and handed the wrapped calendar to my mom.
We turned to watch my mom, opening her gift. I felt nervous. You can imagine, this gift takes some explaining, even then, it’s still kind of odd. She turned through the calendar month by month, quietly as we waited. The stillness inside the house now seemed more pronounced than the stillness outside. Her face didn’t give away what she was thinking. Dad explained finding the calendar the year before with Molly. Mom was still quiet. The log in the fire crackled awkwardly.
Was she confused? Horrified? Sad? Then, she laughed. A hard, genuine laugh of a pleasant surprise. We each looked around at one another then, we all laughed. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. The ridiculousness of ourselves, our traditions and our obsession with that beautiful dog.
The gift was strange and perfect. It brought us out of our avalanche of grief for a moment to remember happier times and the sense of humor that was so distinctly Molly. It knit us back together, in the sweet and understanding and self-deprecating way Molly did. And rather than crying over our loss that morning, we remembered Molly’s sarcasm and wit and we told stories about the times she had made us laugh. The log in the fire could no longer be heard. The house felt alive again.
So that is why, in the hot Moroccan sun as I see this tree full of goats on the side of the road more than two years later, I miss my sister. My eyes tear up and threaten to cry, which would only add to the bizarre sight. Instead I laugh and I take a picture to send home to my family. In the hot Moroccan sun, I can feel the stillness of the snow that day. I laugh to think of what a strange clan I belong to, not unlike these tree-dwelling goats.
You sometimes find yourself and your connection to home when you least expect it.