It was just a sapling, the first tree I ever cared about….
The road on which my grandmother, uncle, great-aunt (and great-grandparents before her) and cousins live should have been named after our family because we have been its sole inhabitants for generations. Cherokee blood ran in my beloved great-grandmother Mama O and the government gave our ancestors land when they drove the Indians off the reservations. Mama O and Grandpa divided the land amongst their children. It could have been our family’s greatest inheritance since land is valuable because it offers stability. Although it has undergone somewhat of a growth spurt since my childhood, “downhome” or Lexington, Tennessee was true blue country thirty years ago. My grandmother’s mobile home sits at the bottom of a steep hill. Water came not from a faucet but from a well and so milk jugs sat on the porch and in the sink. Goats roamed in the grass—the scarce money that was collected came from selling goats every now and then. Dogs barked and ran to greet you. We walked barefoot up her steep hill into what was first my great-grandmother, then great-aunt’s, yard. Across the road lived my uncle and my cousins were next in line. In a way, the entire road was like a big backyard. No one really lived alone. Backdoors were left open at night to listen to the crickets and the locusts. There was no chance of finding your way in the dark without a flashlight because there were no street lamps or cars or anything except the thousands of stars overheard to lighten the country nights. If you walked a little further past my cousin’s mobile home, you’d come to an old shack, broken in many places, in which an ancestor lived many years ago. Lots of stories were told about that shack. Radio was the form of entertainment—that and playing outside. The TV in my grandmother’s was small and had rabbit ears that did not work half the time. Whatever we turned on was always static-filled and wobbly and the one channel that came in usually wasn’t worth the effort of messing with those ancient antennae. The next best thing, besides radio and play-time with my cousins, was my Uncle Gene. Strange in a wonderful way, he usually made us laugh as we came in the door. He played piano and, once, he and Aunt Dorothy took my sister to the local radio station and we sang on air with him playing.
Mama’s family wasn’t alone. A short distance away from this road lived my father’s mother. Mama Nora and W.A. were my paternal grandparents. In many ways, their lives differed from my mother’s family’s but, in some ways, they were the same. Both families kept a garden—I remember sitting with Mama O in hers while she tended to the plants and I also remember sitting at the kitchen table and snapping freshly harvested green beans for Mama Nora. Mama Nora’s was the only family home on her road but we could not see a neighbor from her porch. Behind the house was a path that led into some woods and to a pond. This pond, and the path that led to it, was the stuff of childhood dreams. It was the kind of path that fostered anxiety in adults and curious inspiration in children. In fact, the path that Ash told Anna about in the story of the deer and bear in The Character was written with the real path and pond clear in my thoughts. W.A smoked cigars I thought smelled sweet and Mama Nora was always cooking. The house was always aflutter with activity at Mama Nora’s—people sitting in the living room talking, women in the kitchen.
Downhome engraved multiple memories upon my heart but none so powerful as the little tree.
We were temporarily living downhome and I was in middle school when my teacher gave us each a sapling. We were told to plant it, to water it and to watch it. To this day, I have no idea what made me take the assignment to heart. Maybe it was because it was the most unique assignment I’d yet been given. Or maybe it’s because even before I embraced it I was a nature girl at heart. Or maybe it was more complicated reasons, subconscious ones I couldn’t have fully understood at the time: maybe I wanted to see something grow. Whatever the case was, I remember going home and asking my mother where I could plant it. I knew–we all knew—that we would not be downhome long. I knew–we all knew–that if I planted the tree in our own yard not only would I not get to watch it grow but I likely would never see it again. I did not know when we would be moving–but I knew we would be. And I’d decided I cared about that little sapling. So we asked W.A and Mama Nora if I could plant the tree in their yard. They were never going to move and, even if they died, the house would remain in our family’s possession which meant I’d still be able to visit it and watch it grow. My teacher told me that by the time I grew up the tree would be big enough to provide shade: I wanted to see that happen. Mama Nora and W.A. agreed to let me plant the tree in their front yard. I barely recall the day W.A. took me out in the yard to plant it. We found a spot that was kind of away from the other trees, so that I would remember where in his yard it was, and dug a hole and planted it. It looked so fragile, swaying precariously in the wind. Still, W.A promised me it would grow. Every time I visited, I checked its growth. I waited for it to grow taller. Before it could do so, though, my family moved away from East Tennessee, away from “downhome.” I don’t remember where we went, but I do remember feeling grateful to have planted the tree in Mama Nora and W.A.’s yard. Once, after we’d moved away, a storm came. Afterward, I learned that W.A. went out into the rain to help straighten the tree with a stick. Knowing that he was protecting my sapling while it was still fragile made me love W.A. a little more every day. It also made me care about my sapling a little more. Breathe and I finished reading The Little Prince not so long ago and in that wonderful book the fox tells the little prince that he wants to be tamed because one cares about things in which time or effort is invested. I invested energy and time finding the sapling a place to grow; W.A. invested time and energy into saving it from the storms. And so, I cared. Every few years, I would think about my tree and wonder if it was taller now. I waited for the day I had kids of my own and was able to show it to them, to say, “I planted this tree and it grew.”
Seasons come and seasons go. Fall changes to Winter, Winter to Summer; Fall to Winter, Winter to Summer. Beloved great-grandmothers like Mama O and Mama Nora die; great-grandfathers, too. And when a place stays empty for a little too long, when it becomes apparent no one else in the family can or will live there because it wouldn’t be same, beloved houses are either torn down to build a new one or sold to strangers. And, despite whatever the intentions were, if there isn’t someone you love ready to greet you at the door, you find it’s been years since you’ve seen your sapling. And when you do think of it, you think of how much you have changed in the intervening years, you imagine the impressive change the tree must have undergone and you worry that even if you did visit it, you wouldn’t know which one in the yard it was anymore. That makes you cry but then—when you wipe the last tear away, an image of a tree who no longer needs protection from the rain fills your mind and peace flutters into your heart. Time brings change but change brings growth.
Today is my birthday.
My mother baked Mama O’s famous chocolate pie for me yesterday. The same chocolate pie that’s usually reserved for major holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, the same chocolate pie that I can’t eat without thinking of Mama O, even twenty-eight years after her death. Only the pie isn’t only Mama O’s anymore. It’s Mama’s, too. The girls and I went shopping and got a ton of stuff — outfits and toys and boots and a world-class dinner at The Melting Pot. They laughed and we enjoyed each other’s presence. When finally the day drew to a close, I thought of how the greatest gift I could be given isn’t something that can be wrapped but is instead unhindered time spent with my girls. While the sun and rain fed my sapling and helped it become the tall tree it undoubtedly is by now, unparalleled love for two little girls helped me break out of my shell and become more than I could have thought I’d be. While flash floods may have threatened my sapling, just like life sometimes may have threatened me, in the end the obstacles carve character into the tree–and me. I’m not really a part of that road downhome anymore. I’d never leave my backdoor unlocked, let alone, open, no matter how beautiful the crickets sounded or the stars appeared. But the memory of life barefoot on a gravel road, of planting a sapling, helps me know which values I want to leave with my girls and which ones I don’t. before, back when I was a sapling, the thought wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. I’m more likely to be found outside playing in a creek or climbing a tree than inside. I know now there are things worth fighting for.
I live in the city today. A stone’s throw from bustling downtown Nashville where there are a million people trying to become famous and where the lights and pollution hide most of the stars. There are a dozen opportunities every day for my girls from museums and “playdates” to Club Night. Swinging from a rope into a creek has been replaced with ziplines in the backyard; radio is almost obsolete in the face of digital music and iPads. The boundless energy of childhood has been slowly replaced with the responsibility of adulthood. In heart, in deed, in mind… the one word to characterize life is change. Change, but not loss. Fragility has been replaced with strength; fear with faith. I don’t see tomorrow’s answers. I don’t know which words or events are going to forever alter my life. I don’t know who I’ll meet or what opportunities will come my way. I don’t know which fears will prove true and which are baseless. I don’t know if I’m creating the right memories for my daughters or what heartbreak lies ahead. But what I do know is that a tree doesn’t fall because its roots are strong. When threatened, the tree depends on its roots to hold it upright, to support it in times of need. Likewise, I know where my roots are. I know of what I’m made, of which memories taught me to laugh and which made me cry. Once upon a time, I was a daughter and sister. Today, I am a mother, a survivor, a volunteer, an author, an activist, a teacher, a sister and a daughter. Today is my birthday. I haven’t lost time, innocence or beauty. I’ve gained wisdom, wonder and hope. Today is my birthday. I haven’t lost my youth, I’ve gained a rather intense appreciation for life. Today is my birthday. I’ve not lost anything, I’ve been given today. Today is my birthday. I don’t have regrets, I cross mended bridges and find grace in dandelion fluff. Today is my birthday. I don’t fear tomorrow, I rejoice in today. With deeply planted and ever-reaching roots, I grow.
It was just a sapling, the first tree I loved…