Remembering A Tree
Mama O was my great grandmother. When I was born, everyone wanted me to call her “Grandma Owen” but I couldn’t say that; it came out “Mama O” instead. And it stuck. Mama O died when I was six, so I don’t have but a handful of memories of her. The ones I do have, though, are memories I cherish. I remember going to the store with her and my great-aunt one day. I remember how she would let me use her cane to swat at the naked light bulb string in her teeny tiny living room. I remember she had an ancient washer that sat on her unstable, rickety front porch. I remember she had an outhouse, and a garden. I remember the dress she was wearing practically every time I saw her; a faded purple one with a flower print on it. Her skin was leathery and wrinkled, her eyes and hair were dark. I remember that unique, bittersweet smell that I’ve only smelled inside her house. I remember she wrote me letters, and once, as a five year old, I sat in the lap of my aunt and steered the wheel of an old car up to her house. She sat in her same spot on the front porch and waved to me. She gave good hugs. There were a couple of really old, wooden rocking chairs that also sat on her front porch and one of them had my mother’s name carved in it somewhere. And, on her mantle, was a golden musical tree. It was the prettiest thing in Mama O’s ancient house, which is probably why I remember it so well. It seemed to somehow match the ancient, enormous oak that stood smack in the middle of her front yard. The real tree was massive and, at one time, had a tire swing attached to it. It was a symbol of strength in front of the shingle-roofed, one bedroom home. Those in the family always talked about the trees—both the real one, and the golden decoration one. I remember always wanting to make the golden one play and getting excited about playing under the shade of the real one when we would visit her. Both trees were beautiful.
When I was in elementary school, my teacher gave us a baby tree to take home and plant. I instantly loved that tree. My family moved so much that I was afraid to plant it in the yard of our home—I wanted it somewhere safe, I wanted it to grow in a place I knew I would be able to visit it. So I planted it in my great-grandmother’s front yard. Behind her house, there was a trail that led into the woods. If you followed it, you eventually came to a little pond, in which fish swam. It was like a secret hideaway. My great-grandfather helped me care for my newly planted tree. When a storm came shortly after we planted it, he stayed awake that night to make sure it survived. He tied it to a stick he stuck in the ground to help keep it upright. And, whenever we went “downhome”, I had a desire to go by that house to check on the growth of that tree. I loved the idea of it growing up with me. It wasn’t very strong, that little tree. It had to be secured through a storm, because, otherwise, it would have drowned. I wasn’t very strong either. I had my own storms waging on either side of me. But the tree in Mama O’s yard, that great big, massive tree, was strong as an ox. Most trees were. And I knew that that small little tree I planted with my great grandfather would grow to be just as strong. We both would, together.
I was thriving under the heat of the first love, I was in awe of everything and filled to capacity with wonder and hope when we took the unpaved trail in a local park. Before one of the sweetest days I’d ever encountered was finished, we’d carved initials in the aged bark of a tree. Heartache was to follow, but the tree remains standing and the initials are still visible. The tree held the hope and innocent wonder; today, I think on it with great tenderness and friendship. The tree acted as a treasure chest, upon which we stored our memories, blossoming admiration and care; a place where we marked time as ours; a time capsule I’d open again throughout the years when I was in need of friendship and tenderness.
The first time I helped my daughters climb a tree, I got a little giddy with excitement. I was a grown adult, but up high I still climbed. I’ve never been an outdoorsy person, I prefer the quiet indoors, normally. But give me the shade and sturdy branches of an old tree, and I melt. From high in the branches, I could look down on the ground, remember how small we really are. I could feel the breeze better, the rush of excitement, the pitter patter of nerves as I realize I could break my neck climbing. There’s a sense of freedom, kind of like flying, when the arms of a tree cradle you. What child has not seen a good tree and thought of climbing to the top? As I do, I feel strong and capable, yet also small and protected by the enormity of the tree.
Today, I search out trees, I look for them. I love the white ones, and the weeping willows and the magnolias and the smell of the old pine. Oak, though, is my favorite. I love the shape of its leaves, I love its smell, I love how enormous its size can be, I love its rough bark as I roll my palm over its trunk. One of my daughters’ favorite books is “The Giving Tree”. We’ve colored in the black and white pages of that book, and we’ve acted it out, taking turns being the tree. In that story, the only thing the tree ever wanted in return for all it gave was the mere presence of the boy. It didn’t stop to count the cost of all it was giving away; instead, it gave freely and “shook with joy” when the boy played under it or even merely sat on its trunk. The tree was the best friend that the boy ever had, but it took him his whole life before he realized it.
Thousands of years ago, a man carried the wood from a tree that had been chopped and fashioned into a cross. It was so heavy, and He was so bruised, that the guards forced a man from the crowd to help Him carry it. The journey was agonizing; He was tired, sad, scared and very much alone. Eventually, He made it to the top of the hill only to have His hands and feet nailed to the cross. The wood is unforgiving; it was hard and uncomfortable against his wounded back. By the time He died, the tree would have soaked in some of His sweat and innocent blood. It was a terrible, awful day. That tree held the body of my best friend. Without that tree, and the Man whose physical weight it held, I would not know the preciousness of hope, the light of forgiveness or the comfort of the Father. My heart breaks as it mourns over the pain He suffered on my behalf. My heart will rejoice soon when He breaks free of the nails and walks unharmed out of the tomb, strong and alive. But, today, the image in my mind is of Him offering understanding and love to a criminal while His own body was racked with pain. Today, the image in my mind is of His mother, and the terrible pain she must have been feeling as she watched Him hang upon the tree. Today, the image in my mind is of the price paid.
Probably one of my favorite songs of all time is Tanya Tucker’s “Strong Enough to Bend.” It goes: “There’s a tree, out in the back yard / That never has been broken by the wind / And the reason it’s still standing / It was strong enough to bend.” Jesus is the strongest tree I’ve ever known: He gives the most shade, the most protection; He’s mighty enough for creation itself to obey His every word, even for Satan to run at the sound of His name, but yet He bends too. He loves us enough to provide mercy, grace, an opportunity to start anew, forgiveness and compassion–and arms outstretched upon a cross. I remember the cross because I love Him. He doesn’t count the cost because Jesus loves me.