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Words by Courtney Ludden, photos by Ludden Family and Ann Nielsen
My mom died in the early morning hours of July 12, 2016. I was not there — my daughter and I would arrive the following day — but my dad and brother were, as were her three beloved and highly dysfunctional dogs. She was surrounded by love — so, so much love. She died peacefully in what she considered the most powerful place on Earth — the crown jewel of the continent along the western edge of Glacier National Park where the Rockies barrel into Canada, and Trail Creek flows from its headwaters along an old Salish Kootenai migration trail into the North Fork of the Flathead River.
Jinny, or as she was most affectionately and widely known for the last 15 years of her life, Mama Ludden, was a mother to Brad and me. However, we weren’t alone under her vast umbrella of warmth, wisdom, humor and grace. As we were reminded and came to fully understand in the weeks following her death, her nurturing spirit reached far and wide and with undeniable impact. As one friend explained in regard to her passing, “It’s hard to wrap my head around because your mom meant so much to so many people. She was truly a mother figure to hundreds of individuals…”
In honor of her, and the hundreds and hundreds of people who also had the privilege of knowing her in this light, I pass along some of the cornerstones of her magic here.
LOVE WINS EVERY TIME.
Tell someone important to you that you love her. Say it often enough that she comes to know it herself. When I was in the first grade, my mom would write sweet, funny notes on the shells of the hard-boiled eggs she put in my lunch bag, telling me how special and important I was and how much she loved me. I’ve never forgotten that, and attribute the bulk of my self-worth to the person who so regularly reminded me of it.
No one I know loves like my mom did, save my 20-month-old daughter, Inge. We’ll always know where she gets it.
FIGHT FOR WHAT’S IMPORTANT.
Go to bat for your beliefs. Aim high; swing hard. This is my favorite “she marched right into the principal’s office” story about my mom, although it was not the only time she did. She advocated for our education, and for education in general throughout her life.
When I was in the third grade, my teacher told us that we would only be able to attend the Halloween party if we mastered a 10-scale multiplication table. I came home crying that day, knowing that my friend Nick — who struggled with multiple learning disabilities — wouldn’t be able to pull it off. As one of the poorest, most underprivileged kids in the most economically depressed school district in a small Montana town, I knew he needed that party more than the rest of us. The next day, my mom met with the principal, and demanded that every child be allowed to attend the party. I don’t remember which costume Nick wore, but I remember that he was there.
My mom was always on the front lines for those who couldn’t be, demanding equality and kindness on behalf of fellow humans who needed help.
HAVE FUN AND LAUGH HARD. REALLY, REALLY HARD.
Life is funny, so laugh.
After my mom’s death, this is what I heard most often from people: “I miss her laugh.” She had a great laugh, and it was infectious. It was central to who she was, and always seemed to rise from the core of her being. She laughed often and much and always unapologetically. She understood the fundamental effect of it, and it was nearly impossible not to join her.
My mom found the light and the humor up until the very end. There was one moment shortly before she died that will stay with me, and make me laugh forever.
She loved her dogs, and they loved her. There are Frankie and Otis, both Boston terriers, and George, an English bulldog. Three dogs best suited for a Brooklyn brownstone found their way into my mom’s Montana heart, and there they stayed amid the labs and retrievers, griffons and spaniels.
The only one that has a penchant for hunting of any sort is Frankie and she tends to focus her efforts on mice and squirrels more than foul or deer. My mom affectionately referred to Otis as her portly man of leisure, and my brother feels it would be best if he was wearing a helmet at all times. When he does exert himself, which is almost never, he has a tendency to run into things, possibly due to his wandering eye. And then there’s George, Jorge, G-Man, Mr. G. Short. Stocky, barrel-chested and bull-headed, hanging out with George is sort of like hanging out with an errant toddler (to his credit, he is still a puppy — sort of). His hefty little bulldog bod is tan and white, which led my husband to appropriately coin him our sweet “grizzly Twinkie.”
On one of my last visits to Montana, shortly before she died, my mom and I had many emotionally gutting conversations; the kind I don’t think I’ll ever be brave enough to have. We talked about her last wishes, her legacy, and the lessons she wanted to make sure I would teach my child. She told me the way in which she hoped she would transition into her next life, and what she expected of us after she did.
We sat on the deck, overlooking Boundary Ridge — the severe mountain edge that separates Montana from Canada. It was sunny and warm, and Inge was asleep in her stroller behind us. Just us girls.
As we came to the end of the conversation, my chest still silently convulsing from sobbing so hard, my mom got quiet. I waited for another difficult discussion. When none came, and the silence continued, I continued to listen. Finally, she said in complete seriousness, “And I guess I can take Otis with me…if you guys want.”
I laughed until I cried some more. I still do.
ALWAYS BE KIND.
You can never make yourself feel better by making someone else feel badly. Few people know that my mom majored in special education at the University of Arizona. She went on to establish a program for the adult disabled population, teaching her clients how to live on their own. Later in life, in addition to her work with First Descents, she also volunteered with the local Special Olympics athletes in our hometown, and there was one in particular who struggled to make friends. I’ll call her Lilly.
Admittedly, Lilly’s Asperger Syndrome made it challenging for others to connect with her, and she was frequently left out of group activities, inside jokes and invites. My mom immediately recognized this and became Lilly’s friend — possibly her only one. She would take Lilly out to lunch and to the local mall, which was Lilly’s favorite place, knowing that Lilly’s own mother rarely, if ever, showed up at the group home to visit her daughter. Mama Ludden was that type of person. She was that type of teacher. She was that type of mom.
ADVENTURE MATTERS. Just go for it, and see what happens next.
My mom was an adventurous spirit her entire life. She grew up swimming competitively until she reached college. In her freshman year at U of A, the coach announced that it was a guys-only club; no girls allowed. She showed up for tryouts anyway.
She and my dad met on a three-day blind date, repelling off cliffs in southern Arizona and dancing through Mexico. They would venture to Colorado to ski during school breaks, and made their way up to Cody, Wyo., one summer, which turned into an eventual permanent move to the Rocky Mountain West.
She summited Mount Rainier and Mount Kilimanjaro. She ran a marathon. She trekked through Patagonia and Bhutan, and swam with sharks and seals in the Galapagos Islands. She set foot on all seven continents. In the spring of 1989, my mom signed up for a kayaking class, and shortly thereafter, purchased a beater of a boat — an old, dinged-up plastic torpedo that would unwittingly establish my family’s trajectory for the next three decades.
Brad and I had the incredible privilege of growing up kayaking, and to that end, growing up on rivers. It remains my most favorite way to see the world. As a family, we began testing the waters in northwestern Montana first, mostly on the Middle Fork of the Flathead. Shortly after that, we discovered the Lochsa River in northern Idaho, where Brad and I would come to spend the bulk of our youth. This spiraled into one adventure after another with my mom always leading the way.
She kayaked class IV waterfalls in Canada, and paddled rivers all over the globe, including in Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Chile, Laos and Cambodia. I don’t tell you this to brag on her behalf — not by a long shot. I tell you this to exemplify her understanding of the power of adventure. She understood its power to make us whole, to heal us, to make us brave, and to connect us.
My mom didn’t suffer from cancer, but she did battle a terminal disease that slowly took away her ability to walk, and then rapidly took away her ability to move altogether. As the weight of her illness became greater, and the reality of its immediacy set in, she frequently turned to her First Descents family for support. Not always outwardly, but in thought nearly constantly.
Sometimes she would vocalize it. “I need to be grateful. I need to be brave. [Possum] has terminal cancer and she’s 30 years younger than I am. I can’t feel sorry for myself today, because she never does.”
I speak for my brother and my dad here, but I don’t think they would disagree when I say, without question, that the First Descents family prolonged my mom’s life. And I don’t mean the countless hours she joyfully contributed to the program, or the many, many, many stories she would tell about her experiences with FD, or the glow she had every time she returned from camp.
She owned every inch of those. She was proud of them — not her contribution to the cause, but what she gained from it. No, I’m talking about the last years of her life, when she was too sick to be there. When all of you — in spirit or in person — came to her side. When you showed up for her. According to science, she lived longer than she should have, given her disease. According to First Descents, of course she did.
In the wake of her death, so many people have asked what they can do to help. And the only thing I can tell them is, “Go have a bold adventure.” For her, but mostly for you. Because that’s where the answers and the truth and the meaning are — in the things we dare to do, in the risks we’re willing to take, in the journeys that beg us to become bigger than who we were yesterday.
She never shied away from the promise of it. She would encourage you not to either. You’ll find her there, cheering you on. When I’m in Montana, amid the towering mountains and cascading skies, it’s easy to feel her. In fact, it’s nearly impossible not to.
No longer a prisoner of her body, her spirit roars through those deep canyons in what I imagine is the ultimate dance. She rolls over peaks in rippling clouds, and showers them with frequent thunderstorms. Since her death, there have been so many rainbows and sunsets and moonrises that appear more vivid and peaceful in a way we can only attribute to her. However, it’s admittedly harder for me to find her here, where I live in coastal California, so from time to time, I go looking.
The local pier, which juts nearly 2,000 feet from the shore out into the Pacific, is as far away from civilization and as close to uninterrupted wilderness as I can get within walking distance. So that is where we go. On a recent stroll to the end of the pier on a particularly windy day, my daughter was laughing as the strong ocean breeze blew across her face. Inge loves the wind, and the water. As the airstream made the rat’s nest of hair on her head even more of one (just the way my mom liked it), I said as I so often do when we’re amid any force of nature, “That’s Grand Jin saying hi,” and waved at Inge to drive the concept home.
Inge turned away from me, toward the water and the wind, and waved back.