When I visited my parents in Indiana over Labor Day weekend not long after my maternal grandmother died at the age of 87, my mom and I spent an evening watching a documentary on Yellowstone, a place neither one of us had ever seen in person. With fireflies lighting the night sky’s darkness outside our living room, we watched the spread of wolves into vast stretches of Montana and Wyoming. At some point during those hours we spent on the couch together, my mom said their howling sounded as if it were its own form of music. I knew she was lonely for her mother then, and the wolves’ cries must have seemed to express sympathy and solace. When she called me in Chicago on a Saturday morning less than a week afterward, she mentioned the wolves again, with something in her voice sounding close to rapture. She sighed and said the color of their eyes still haunted her after she woke from dreaming about them. “Amber, almost golden,” she nearly whispered.
When Yellowstone National Park was created in the late 1800s, settlers freely gunned down a population of wolves that at the time appeared endless. Unhindered by regulation, the hunting continued until the wolves had vanished by 1926 from Yellowstone completely. While the gentler animals that flourished in their absence at first seemed to render the land a more benign place, eventually the spread of herbivores consumed so many grasses that the rivers began to widen, morphing into stagnant lakes and sprawling beyond any beavers’ ability to repair them. It was not until the 1960s that biologists began to seriously consider the prospect of reintroducing wolves into the park system. Although groups as fond of sylvan landscapes as the Sierra Club and National Audubon Society initially opposed the measure, over time more and more biologists started speculating that the wolves could help reverse the decades of damage. More than 30 years would pass before this idea became a reality.
It was September, and the leaves in Chicago were already turning when my mom called me that first Saturday after we watched the wolves’ documentary. In southern Indiana, nights still were balmy. Crepuscular insects still mated on tree branches while my parents rocked on their front porch swing in the early evenings. As my mom likely sat in short sleeves at our kitchen table with the window open, I was wearing jeans and a sweater. I was drinking my second cup of coffee while a long pause between us kept elongating. “They were blue,” I finally said as a way of breaking the silence between us that was growing heavy. “Wolves have blue eyes,” I remember insisting, because I thought I could picture them clearly. In response, my mom only sighed, saying I must be right about this. She must have been imagining the wrong color, she admitted.
Soon our conversation ended, I poured the last of my coffee into the sink and dropped an aspirin into a glass vase filled with lilies that had begun to wilt almost as soon as I bought them. The aspirin would preserve them for a little longer, however, so that for a time at least they would look a little less like they were dying. I did this only because I had seen my mom do the same hundreds of times with flowers she plucked from our garden. Only a moment passed before the aspirin became a vapor, a cloud suffusing a vase my mom had given me a couple months ago when I moved into this apartment after finishing college. Releasing its powder, the white tablet now disintegrating among the lilies’ stems resembled a small geyser, which in Yellowstone kill someone every season, a phenomenon that still strikes me as evidence that the earth itself is carnivorous, allowing equal room for predators and prey to roam its expanses. As I watched the pill dissolving, I asked myself whether part of me needed to know more about the wolves than my mom did because these animals and I shared more in common. Though I rarely act on these impulses, I have always felt capable of inflicting pain in a way my mom could never manage. From other predators, I have kept my distance for this reason.
Growing up, I understood my grandmother was ill in the way that children know things without knowing them for certain. Every week, I watched my mom make repeated visits to a home with a brown carpet permanently grayed by cigarette ashes. Because my grandmother’s vacuum always seemed to be broken, my mom often brought ours from home to clean what I knew my grandmother only proceeded to dirty as soon as we left again. For as long as our three lifetimes overlapped, my mom tried to make me love her mother in much the same way she did, with a clinging desperation that I now realize reflected her never receiving all the care she needed. Perhaps unaware of her own motivations, she tried to make me spend more time with my grandmother than I ever wanted, tried to coax affection from the sheer abundance of time spent in her presence. She tried without succeeding.
I always found the woman’s body and house too soiled, the woman herself too lacking in energy, to feel anything approaching the love that normally comes for this close a relative. My grandmother’s fingernails were yellowed with tobacco stains, and she rarely washed her clothing. I complained to my mom about her bad breath, the odor coming from her armpits, the wetness of her kisses. I balked and pleaded that I had nothing to say to her when my mom forced me to call her on weekends. I had been shown photographs of her when she was younger, photographs meant to serve as proof of her beauty, but still thought my mom the lovelier woman. The fact remained, however, that my grandmother’s eyes were still blue as cornflowers, while my mom’s irises had no consistent color, fluctuating instead between emerald and a pale cerulean. My own are a yellowish brown or amber—hawk’s eyes, my husband sometimes calls them, though he more often likens them to a lion’s. Unlike either one of these women who came before me, my vision is also myopic. Without artificial lenses, everything blurs into the same looming apparition.
It wasn’t until I was in college, not long before my grandmother’s death, that I knew she had been an alcoholic. Not until I was a grown woman, only a couple years away from losing my own mother to the cancer we both failed to see coming, did she confess that this person whom I had never loved descended into addiction after her divorce in her later twenties. A devout Catholic, my grandmother could never remarry according to church doctrine, according to the morals of everyone in her town and family. For the sake of her religion and in the eyes of all she had ever known of society, she had to stay single and sexless. Moving back in with her parents after she no longer had a husband, she began to live much like a child again, becoming more helpless as she failed to keep a job and earn a steady paycheck, as she woke near noon most mornings and let her aging mother do all the cooking, as she left her daughter largely neglected. After both of her parents passed away, both at advanced ages, she remained in the same house where she had lived now for decades while rarely taking time to clean any of its surfaces.
It was a predator kept in a cage, then, I had witnessed. Even after my grandmother stopped drinking, she never stopped showing her teeth to a daughter who was painfully gentle in comparison. For as long as I knew her, she regularly insisted she was dying from a series of imagined diseases, something done only to claim yet more of my mom’s attention. Even as a little girl, I always felt only a woman as naïve and trusting as my mom could ever imagine any amount of weakness in someone this hungry for signs of submission. Almost as testament to her toughness, my grandmother’s life lasted nearly thirty years longer than her daughter‘s. She possessed so much more strength than her offspring despite a lifetime of chain smoking and decades of alcoholism, despite a diet consisting largely of fast food and donuts for breakfast. Within only a year of us watching the wolves’ documentary, stabbing pains began shooting down my mom’s spinal column, early symptoms of the cancer’s metastasis throughout her frailer system.
Once the wolves were formally reintroduced into Yellowstone in the late 1990s, they began to contain an herbivorous elk and deer population that had long become noxious, species only appearing harmless as in truth they devastated the growth of willows and cottonwood trees until the range lost its thickets. Soon the wolves forced elk, deer, and caribou from valleys and gorges, allowing the trees to grow taller in the process. Forests began recovering some of their deepest shadow spaces as the riverbanks suffered less erosion. The wolves gradually restrained the sprawl of rivers through what their carnage set in motion, curbing rising flood waters while encouraging once sallow valleys to bloom with wildflowers.
Blue is not the color of wolves’ irises as it happens, only of the rivers they straighten. During their first few months of life, the eyes of young wolves mirror the water and sky at their purest, azure and sparkling. Yet as a cub matures, as its teeth begin to sharpen into daggers, its eyes also darken. They change from the color of my grandmother’s to something closer to my own irises’ amber, meaning the blueness was likely all my invention. I know this now that I have no way of apologizing to my mom, who remembered them clearly. Though she was no predator, she had a tenderness that allowed her to empathize with those who were in a way I hadn’t, in a way I am still reluctant. She had seen the wolves’ yellow eyes without changing them to something more appealing. She had seen and heard the yellow music. She found it consoling. They howled, she knew without bothering to explain the reason, because they survived by consuming the life of something else only barely dead, still nearly living, because nothing in this world worth eating is truly lifeless. The hunger of one animal often ends another one’s life on this planet, and so after staining their own coats scarlet with the blood of another body, the wolves sang a requiem.
All these years after both these women have long left me, I still cannot help wondering whether I gave wolves the eyes of my grandmother rather than my own because I was unwilling to confront my own ferocity, because I wanted to reflect my mom’s own gentleness more than may ever be possible for me. My mom must have realized my mistake but let me believe what I imagined, let me enjoy the same power that she granted to all predator species. To my grandmother, a woman for whom I still can summon little fondness, she must have similarly offered herself as prey when no others emerged in her environment. My mom must have known her own mother needed to go hunting on occasion, and in allowing herself to be hunted, she helped to bring the world into balance. Soon after my mom’s passing, wolves were removed from the government’s list of endangered species. Vulnerable to guns once again, their carcasses began to flood the Western river basins. Their numbers have dwindled ever since as Yellowstone’s rivers continue to widen.