It was ever so common for me in my younger years to quiz my grandma about this flower or that flower, this tree or that. She hardly ever came up empty- crepe myrtle, sweet clover, white oak, snapdragon. “Oh, doll, I haven’t seen one like this in a very long time…they don’t grow where I live…I only see them when I come East…the last time I saw one was in Pennsylvania, a very, very long time ago.” In the rare event that she couldn’t quite place a thing, she’d sigh wistfully and say “Pap would know.” We’d both sigh a tiny bit, and then on I’d run ahead of her, making her laugh at my long gangly monkey legs.
She came from a family of arborists, this dark-haired wise one. Her Pap knew every tree in Colorado like the back of his hand, the just right way to cull and prune. He died before I lived, but he lives on in her. I thought she was a tiny superhero of plant knowledge somehow…I may have been only eleven but she barely peered over my shoulders, my pre-teen self grown nearly a head taller than her already. If I knew anything about Grandma, it was that she knew her plants. It awed me. I could barely tell the difference between two trees, let alone whether one was a maple or an ash or a dogwood; I’d never slow down long enough to find out. And yet she knew each intimately. I was always comforted by this, my child heart knowing that if she knew each tree so well, she knew every whorl of my skin and the seedlets of dreams growing underneath.
My children ask these questions now, the curiosity insatiable. Unlike the lyrical conversations with my grandma, I can only fill in the basics. “It’s a decidious tree, honey. It means it loses all the leaves in the fall.” As I tell them I feel the lack of it. It took me a few days to finally figure out the tree in our back yard was a black ash after extensive study and contemplating more than a few guides. It is in these moments that I find myself sighing and saying, “Grandma would know.” She’s only a phone call away, mind. She knows my children like she knew me, and they have the blessing of it.
But somehow I feel the ache of it, this loss of collected memory. When she turns her face to the sun no more, her encyclopedic knowledge of nature goes with her. It was just a tiny drop in the bucket of all she knows, those trees. There is so much more to her than that. And I can’t help but wonder in my twenty-first-century spaceman world what I’m losing, what my children are losing. What are we gaining? I was reading the other day, a poem…and one line stood out.
Each grinding flattened American vowel smashed to centerlessness, *
My mind has been turning that over and over since then. I have access to so much and yet know so little, a centerlessness that more often than not leaves me feeling quite unmoored. I can google myself into abandon if I so wish, but what will I know when I am done?
I think back to the days before my children came to be, the literature I studied, the poems that tunneled under my skin, rooting deep, and I see the words are my own forest, the wood and pith of my existence that I will pass on to my children’s children. The Word incarnate, first and foremost, the ancient words that come before, the inchoate nameless becoming known. I will weave them together and remember them and speak them over my children.
I have felt so powerless in this grinding post-modern centerlessness to fight against the darkness falling, falling everywhere, and it’s my grandmother’s tales of trees that bring me back, grab anchor. She’s still here, you see, and there is still time to learn of the collected memory that binds us together, make wide the ohs and ahs, the ups and ifs that have gotten so flattened about, to remember the language. Slow and see.