Two Trees

By

[Editor’s Note: Earlier this year we selected two reader-submitted essays and read them to the assembled masses at Hutchmoot. We got a lot of great submissions and this was one of our favorites. Thanks to Alyssa for letting us read it. Keep up the good work! -Pete]

Two trees stood side by side, and both were doomed.

Around them, trees had been falling for hours. I watched out of the kitchen window as each sassafras giant plunged out of sight behind our privacy fence. With every mighty crash, I felt the ground shake. Now just two remained, waiting amidst the rubble of their generation, exposed and without hope.

The trees were dead already. Rooted in the neighboring yard, their rotting skeletons had been dropping limbs onto our lawn for two years. One even broke our bedroom window during a storm. The trees were no longer a shelter, but a danger. They had to go.

But these last two were tricky. One leaned toward our house, hunched with the heaviness of its fruitful days. A guide rope would have to steer it to the ground to avoid damaging our property. The straighter tree, itself hollowed and weak, would have to bear the weight of its stooped companion. The strength it had possessed in life would be called upon even in death.

A workman first tried to climb up and remove some high branches. But the trees gave no foothold. They were so far gone that each limb he tested broke under his foot. He finally had to shimmy up between the trunks like a kid climbing the inside of a doorframe.

At last he found a perch and sawed off some upper limbs. Then he tethered the trees together, the weaker to the stronger, and bound them up in a shared end.

***

Two little ladies lay in their nursing home beds. Miss Frances, with her long braided pigtails, and my mamaw, her new roommate. Both were widows, and both had laid a child in the grave. Together they brought nearly two centuries of life into one small, curtain-divided room.

Miss Frances couldn’t hear. If you had a conversation with her, the whole hall would know it. But she had a hearty spirit and a sharp mind. She had decorated her walls with stick-on dragonflies and flowers. A photo on a bulletin board showed her smiling with her former roommate. They had been good friends, but now only Miss Frances remained. She was eager to spend her days in Mamaw’s company.

“Do you know the song ‘How Beautiful Heaven Must Be’?” she asked, and Mamaw said she did. Off they went, cutting through a million cloudy memories, singing every verse of a hymn learned in years long past.

My dad visited Mamaw most every day, and he grew fond of Miss Frances as the weeks passed. He started bringing treats for both of them. When he showed up with a chocolate milkshake, Miss Frances swore she’d never had one before. She wasn’t big on sweets, but she decided the milkshake was quite tolerable.

I’m not sure how they communicated during that month together – Miss Frances with her failing ears, and Mamaw with her soft voice. Perhaps they just shared the silence, glad for the warmth of each other’s presence across the room.

My mamaw’s mind faltered as she neared the end, and she quickly declined. But Miss Frances wrestled for her in prayer. With my dad there, she once launched into a fervent petition before the Lord. Even if Mamaw didn’t understand it, my dad’s heart was cheered.

Mamaw grew weaker until her days were spent mostly in sleep. When family members came to visit, Miss Frances was their company. She would sit up and swing her feet off the side of her bed, ready for a chat. Her words came with warmth and eagerness, but she never forced words upon an agreeable silence. Her cheery disposition was medicine for each aching heart who watched my mamaw fade away.
I wondered if Miss Frances ever felt that she had outlived her usefulness. The nursing home is filled with people just biding their time, wondering why they’re still on the earth. Many are forgotten. They need help with even the most basic functions. What purpose could their existence possibly serve?

***

The workman slid down the tree trunk and disappeared behind the fence. A stillness followed. It occurred to me that my landscape was about to change forever.

At last I heard the sounds of the felling – the sounds that all day had preceded a deafening crash. The leaning tree began to quiver, too broken to stand any longer. But it did not fall. Instead, cradled by the last strength of its sister, it gently lay down to rest.


31 Comments

  1. Jaclyn

    I like how all our comments are so brief. This is a piece so gentle yet potent that it leaves you speechless.

  2. Sarah

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I lost my mawmaw last year and grieve her still, this is so beautiful. Thank you for drawing the tears from my eyes that needed to spill for her. Thank you.

  3. Julie Silander

    Alyssa – This is even more beautiful the second time around. It may sound strange, but “dignity” is the word that comes to mind… Grateful for your words and your heart.

  4. Donna S

    I read this earlier today and was too moved to attempt a response. The only words that come to me now are luminous, and thank you.

  5. Alyssa

    My goodness, I’m a bit overwhelmed. Such generous words from you all.

    Thank you for receiving this piece with gentleness and grace. What a gift to know that the story of my mamaw and Miss Frances has found resonance with each of you. I cannot think of anything better to say than thank you.

    Sarah: Somehow your comment is like medicine for me. Losing those little ladies is hard, but it helps to know that someone else sheds the same tears. Thank you.

  6. JennyD

    I have been meaning to take the time to sit down and read this for several days and just now did. I’m so GLAD that I did.
    What an amazing contrast…sitting here w/tears in my eyes!

  7. Alyssa

    Jonathan: What a high compliment and an honor. Of course I don’t mind, and thank you. And just out of curiosity, are you teaching at a university or in a different capacity now?

    John, JennyD, Sam, & Ron: I’m so grateful for your kind words and welcome. Your encouragement means a great deal.

    Becca: Thank you. Bear hug back!

  8. Jonathan Rogers

    I’m teaching at a couple of small colleges in Nashville, Alyssa. It’s been fifteen or sixteen years since I’ve taught in a classroom. It’s hard, but a whole lot of fun.

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