story time

for Lilly, Layla, and Sophie

I hear my grandmother’s subtle knock on the door as she slips into the house, and I tumble down the hall behind my dogs, who are as anxious to sniff and to lick their hellos as I am to see her again. By the time my grandmother turns back from fitting the old wood and glass door snugly into its frame, we are, all four of us, there at her heels, broad smiles and wide wags greeting her.  Her arms are so wonderfully warm that none of us can seem to wait our turn for their welcome.

We are going today to our favorite place, so I grab my hooded sweatshirt from the hook by the door and my hiking boots from the front porch, where I’d dropped them off, muddy, and head out to her car. I love riding in my grandmother’s car with its bumper stickers about kindness and love and compassion.  Immediately I feel different when I get in it, as if I am somehow responsible for really being the words I’ve just read.

In the car, I settle into the warmth and quiet that I always experience in my grandmother’s presence.  I don’t know how or why… maybe it’s her own quiet way that awakens those quiet genes of hers in me….but we settle in with each other almost at once.  I sigh. This is how I imagine it must feel to curl up in a winter cabin, next to the fire with a good book and a mug of hot chocolate.

We aren’t going far at all, but this drive always feels to me as if we are journeying to a whole new world. A world where people walk slowly, talk softly, listen deeply.  And this time of the year is always our favorite to visit there.  In summer there is shelter from the heat of the sun, in spring there are the sounds and smells of new things, in winter there’s the hush of being blanketed in snow, but in autumn there is mystery.  Leaves are revealing colors you didn’t know were there, fruits and seeds are ripening at once, and everything that’s dying is becoming food. I love the autumn best of all. Grandmother always told me that autumn was the season where she’d too felt most at home, until more recent years when the stillness of winter began beckoning her.

Soon we arrive at the small parking area at the trailhead. Grandmother and I dangle our legs out opposite sides of the car as we don our hiking boots for our walk, then grab our packs and hit the trail. These woods are mostly young, or so grandmother has told me. Though they are much, much older than even she, in tree-years they are mere teenagers. Many years ago, before grandmother’s grandmother was born, every tree in these woods had been cut down by lumbermen. It’s hard for me to imagine that this favorite-place-in-the-world of mine was once completely stripped naked of life like that. I feel sad when I think of that. But today She is so full of life that I know she has healed from those days.

(Grandmother taught me to use the word ‘She’ instead of ‘it’ when talking about the earth and the things in it. She says it helps us to love and learn from Her more)

I think it would be hard for me to believe my grandmother’s stories about how these woods once were, if it weren’t for another grandmother much older than she, who tells the same story each time we visit Her in this place. That’s where we’re going today, of course. We hike for 2 miles before reaching the footpath, which leads up to Her, that veers off from the main trail. It’s not hard to find, if you’re looking for it, for there are others who come to visit with Her too, animal and human friends, and together we’ve worn a narrow path.

I remember coming here with my 2 cousins, when we were 5 or 6 years old. Grandmother had said ‘We’re going on an adventure together today!’. Of course, we ended up here, at the Grandmother Tree. We three girls tried to reach around her trunk, to give Her a girl-hug, but our arms weren’t long enough no matter how far we stretched our fingertips and pressed our cheeks into Her belly. Not until Grandmother joined us, were we big enough, and then we stood for a very long time, just holding Her, feeling Her life next to our hearts, so close.

Grandmother Tree had more stories to share than just the story of these woods being clear cut, for She remembered her sisters and cousins with whom She’d once dwelt in these woods, who would be as grand as She today had they lived.  I love when She tells this one.  I always feel a shiver run down my back as I turn around and around to see a dark forest filled with beings like Her, feel the deep, quiet peace of that. This is what the words on my grandmother’s stickers feel like.

But the biggest secret She shares is the one of how She survived the woodcutter’s blade, so that She could live to grow into such a Wise One, offering seasons and seasons of shelter and shade and nourishment to so many creatures, like my grandmother and me.  To hear this secret, you must follow that narrow footpath, for you can’t hear it from the main trail. You have to walk around back. Then She will tell you. Back there, between the place where my cousin’s cheek and mine hugged her belly, she whispers Her secret in your ear.

Her scar is massive, taller than both my cousin and me standing on top of each other’s shoulders. My grandmother calls it Her beauty mark, though the loggers who paid a visit to these woods didn’t see it that way. That’s why they didn’t want Her. She was hollow inside, with a wound so large that decay had set in even then. Disfigured like that, she would’ve been worthless to them. That’s why my grandmother says it’s this gaping cavity that saved Her.

Together, my grandmother and I learned that after a major trauma of some sort, fungus gets inside a tree and begins to decompose the tender middle-wood. However, a tree can survive the loss of her middle-wood as long as she continues to grow on the outside. Many injured trees lay down rings and rings, covering over a wound, though they are hollow inside, and survive for quite some time. Sometimes though, trees like Grandmother, with more massive wounds, grow new wood right on the edge of their wounds by curling inward. Rather than growing flat across the wound, which might heal the wound faster, trees like Her grow two supporting columns of new growth called ‘rams horns’ which make the tree stronger.

My grandmother once taught me this prayer about Rams.

Great horned ram, filled with life force,
Teach me to a black sheep,
Going my own way, following my path,
Not walking in the rut made by the narrow-minded.
Help me to to keep my balance in unstable places,
Keeping my freedom to be me.

When I was a little girl, that first summer when all four of us wrapped ourselves around Her, I could slip through the doorway to sit inside Her belly.  The ground was soft and moist, filled with leaves and rich with decaying pieces of Her  Sometimes I wish I were still that small, so I could sit there today, because I’ve got some questions that I need to ask Her, and it seems the answers are clearer in there. Today, I sit with my back to her belly instead, where She willingly holds me up as I draw pictures and write stories in the empty book my grandmother gave to me. I like the stories that come when I sit here with Her. They always surprise me somehow.

Other days I scurry up her trunk and out onto a limb, to my grandmother’s favorite seat. My grandmother loves to tell me the story about how, when she was a girl herself about my age, she climbed up to the highest limb she could reach in the white pine in her side yard, but then was afraid to come down. ‘Just like a cat’, with both hoot in unison. My great-grandfather had had to climb up to carry her down.

But she’s not afraid to go out on a limb in this tree, for there’s one more secret I haven’t yet shared about Grandmother Tree. Long before I was born, my grandmother went looking for Her. She had heard rumors about this magnificent matriarch who dwelt in the woods near her home. The day she discovered Her, it was early spring, after a harsh winter, filled with heavy ice storms and fierce blasting winds. There had been a late spring snow the day before, but it was warm the day that my grandmother walked the main trail. Ahead and to the right, my grandmother noticed a brightness, as from an opening in the canopy, where the sunlight was penetrating, streaming in. As my grandmother drew nearer, she knew, instinctively that this was the place.

She tells it like this.

It was as if I came upon the scene of great Beauty where something profoundly sacred had just happened. It was obvious that something terribly violent had occurred in this place; at the same time there was something incredibly serene about this place where I stood. I knew the tree had succumbed recently, for there were still leaves in her branches. The impact of her falling, I cannot fully describe. Trees, which had stood for a century, had come down with her, while branches were stripped completely from others. The gaping tear was in the canopy now, and it was as large as a football field. At first, I found it odd that so much of her massive trunk remained standing, at least 2 maybe 3 of me high and wondered why she would break like that, wondered how even lightning could’ve penetrated her girth to fell her. But when I came around back, to the secret place, I saw then for the first time that She had succumbed at last to a wound. I touched tenderly the flowing contours of her scar, peered inside her cavity and up into the sunlit sky.

I remember most how She was dripping that day. The snow was melting rapidly and there was a moist ripeness to her lying there. I understood that in her falling, in her dying at last, she would yet give birth to new life. The sunlight, penetrating through to the forest floor, thanks to her surrender, would surely impregnate the seeds lying dormant there, and Grandmother’s very bones would become a placenta, nourishing new life. Her wound had become a womb.’

So you see, when my grandmother found her, before I was born, She had already broken off, about 15 feet above the earth, and plummeted to the ground. So, when I scurry up her trunk to sit in Her limbs today, to write or to draw or to listen, it is upon the remains of Her trunk, which still sprawl across the ground, that I scurry. When I was a kid, She was the best playground I could have ever wanted. My grandmother would give me a boost up onto her trunk and off I’d go climbing and running, never too high, but close to the earth, and never afraid to come down.

In the summertime now, She is covered in vines and green growing things, but this late in the autumn, after the vines have died back, we can sit on her bones once more. Today, my grandmother and I eat our lunches out on her favorite limb. We talk about turtles and trees, but mostly we listen. Grandmother closes her eyes and smiles for a long time. Somedays, I join in her ‘listening smile’, and somedays I draw pictures of her smiling, but today I slide down to peek under the leaves and the rocks for what might be hiding there.

Its soon time to go home, so we gather our things, kiss Grandmother Tree goodbye, and head back to the car for the drive back to my house. My grandmother asks me what I am looking forward to in my week, and I tell her. She reminds me to keep listening, to keep looking beneath the leaves and the rocks.

I kiss my grandmother goodbye at the door and dart inside. The dogs break into a frenzy of joy when they see me. They smell the earth on me.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Tweets that mention story time « Emmaatlast’s Weblog --
  2. beth
    Feb 08, 2011 @ 14:05:56

    in this time, feeling the great loss of nadia and really letting me feel, i remember so much before she died. how it was that last day sitting next to her on her couch and trying to not hurt her. her body so decimated even her cat being near was painful. then she opened her eyes and all that she ever has been was there. that light, brightness, loving, joy, life …… my dearest nadia was still there. i had learned of me, learned to love so much deeper and had learned what it was to have a loving mom all from her. she had a bag of gifts for me by the door, and meds that she thought might help my pain. she told me to be careful going home (i could not care of my safety i was losing my nadia). i saw that my nadia was dying as she lived with grace and loving. i remember now how my mom just passed, how she died as she lived too. still blaming, still hurtful, still horribly wounded and running from it.

    as i read this i thought of all that has been going on for me. i felt what you wrote, the warmth and loving not only with the grand tree being but with your grandmother. the time i spent so much with nadia with our eyes closed and just being together just loving. the last few years had sooo much of this. i tried so desperately to absorb all that loving she so poured out to me and to give her all that i had so that she could feel every last drop of my love of her. your being in silence with your grandmother made me think of that.

    thank you soooo much for sharing this with me. it touched sooo deep and i needed it sooo badly. vicki, be well



    • emmaatlast
      Feb 08, 2011 @ 17:14:09

      dear beth,

      the grandmother in the story is me. that is the secret, i think, to finally healing a loss such as you have experienced, realizing that all of the wisdom, grace, compassion and love that you found in the other is actually in/with you.

      it is the big ‘Wisdom, Grace, Compassion, Love’, in other words, that she was a container for, and you are always invited to open to receive its Ever-presence and to let it flow through you, as it did through your beloved.

      remember, dear beth, we are all embodiments.

      all is well,

      ps. i just thought of this, is this close to the 2 year anniversary?



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