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my mom, two poets, and a tree

Last weekend we gathered at my Mom’s gravesite for a private, informal memorial. Our group consisted of my family, my sister’s family, and 13 of my Mom’s devoted caregivers who had worked with her over these last years. We stood on a green lawn under a wide arc of shade provided by the box elder that has sheltered my dad’s gravesite for years. Some of us were masked.

My brother-in-law, George, opened the gathering with the words of my nephew Ben, who is in graduate school for pastoral theology. Because he is experiencing some voice issues, his Dad read his words for him. He opened with a prayer, and then spoke lovingly about his grandmother, her great generation, and her powerful love for her family. Then it was Ellen’s turn, my older sister. She read Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” and she spoke about courage and choice, and how Mom had led a courageous life, finding her way through many uncertain, difficult times. She thanked Mom for teaching us how to be courageous in the midst of fear.

I followed with comments on joy, and talked a bit about Mom’s special day, Oct. 11th—a beautiful fall day in 1934 when she lived on a farm in Menominie, WI, and the family, friends, and time outdoors that day that made it memorable for her each year afterward. I talked about how Mom could find joy even in the midst of hardship, and I thanked Mom for teaching us how to reach for joy each day. I read from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence” and “Afternoon on a Hill.”

Then my husband spoke about how welcoming my Mom had been when he joined the family, and how fiercely she loved her daughters. He remembered playing games at the dining room table, and how my Mom would help my sister and me win, even when she wasn’t on our team. Then my daughter spoke, and she noted that her Grandma always put others first and never touted her own talents, yet they were illuminated nonetheless in her humble aspect. And then we circled back to George, who thanked the caregivers for their great devotion and attention, at all hours of the day and night. Soon the caregivers were sharing their stories, and there was laughter, there were tears, and there was fellowship as we shared our stories of this diminutive yet indomitable person who had been there for each and every one of us.

I think Mom would have been very happy with this service, and perhaps she was there watching. She had been adamant about not wanting a formal church service, and so we gave her this glorious moment under the sheltering box elder tree. Afterward we clustered around the tree for photos to fasten this moment in time.

Looking back on this moment, I realize that my sister and I managed to highlight two of Mom’s most enduring qualities—the ability to face the difficult things in life with courage and the ability to still find joy, even in times of trouble. My sister and I had not talked to each other about what we would say that day; everything was such a blur for us. I had already decided to read from Edna St. Vincent Millay but hadn’t decided on the topic of joy until that very morning. These two poets who wrote of finding courage and joy informed and brought solace to my Mom’s world for many years.

I was curious about these two poets and the poems we read from. They were contemporaries, and each won the Pulitzer Prize for their poetry; Robert Frost won multiple times between 1924-1943, and Edna St. Vincent Millay won in 1923 for “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.”

Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” came out in 1915 in The Atlantic Monthly. It captures a scene in a yellow woods, with two paths diverging, and the narrator must choose which path to take. They choose the path that looks less traveled, and head in that direction. Frost had lived in England from 1912 to 1915, but in 1915 he returned to a family farm in New Hampshire. I had always thought that he wrote the poem when he was living on this farm, but Wikipedia says that he actually conceived of and wrote the poem after walking with a close friend while he was still in England. I had always interpreted this poem to speak of a courageous choice, one that was not regretted, which is, I think, a rather universal interpretation. But apparently it does contain regret—regret for the path not taken, yet satisfaction as well for the path that is taken. It underscores the inevitability of choice. Frost claimed that he had written the poem as a joke for this friend, who could never decide which path to take when they went out walking together.

Edna St. Vincent Millay submitted her poem “Renascence” to a poetry contest when she was 20. The winning entries were published in 1912 in a volume entitled The Lyric Year, and while her poem won fourth place, it was widely regarded as the best poem submitted. It became immensely popular, joining the other ranks of poems recited by school children over the years.

Millay’s poem “Afternoon On a Hill” was published in 1917 in her collection Renascence and Other Poems. As I try to picture my Mom at 14 years old, delighted by that beautiful fall day and the loved ones she shared it with, I like to think that these opening lines capture the joy she felt that day:

I will be the gladdest thing

Under the sun!

My Mom was a poet as well. I had hoped to read one of her poems at the graveside service, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for beforehand. Here’s one that she wrote when we were moving from France to Germany. I suppose Mom and Dad had thought we would be in France all three years for my Dad’s overseas military post, but when President de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO, all American service men and women were reposted outside of France. My Dad was transferred to a base in Germany. I remember my Mom being fascinated with the phrase “ça va” while we were in France, and the many instances in which it was used, and the conversations she overheard that seemed to consist entirely of this one phrase and nothing else. When we were getting ready to leave, she wrote this poem:

We’ll say goodbye to Normandie

To Evreux and to St. Michel

Our au revoir to France will be

A gallic shrug—Ça va, farewell!

Now, a whole week has gone by since our gathering to remember Mom, and suddenly, the unexpected: severe weather, possibly a tornado, has ripped the perfect tree at my parents’ gravesite out of the ground. A caregiver has sent a photo of the lovely box elder lying awkwardly on its side, somehow narrowly missing the grave markers, its roots rudely upended into the summer sky. I am stunned and shaken—I had envisioned the tree providing shade and comfort for my parents many years forward, and this thought had provided me with comfort. And now it is suddenly gone, the grave markers laid bare under the hot summer sun.

But then other thoughts wade in, and I can’t help but think of this as a metaphor for lives well lived, lives that provided guidance and love and shelter themselves to many others, lives which must now rest and claim completeness. And I am thinking about courage and joy—the joy the tree provided and the courage we must draw upon to accept its passing.

As these thoughts form, in quick succession after seeing the photo of the tree on the ground, I remember reading about something similar many years ago in Sue Bender’s book Everyday Sacred. One of the stories in this book tells of a wedding, in which one of the guests brings along a beautiful handmade Hopi ceramic bowl. After the wedding ceremony, as the gifts are being moved to a different location, it falls and breaks. The newly married couple nevertheless express gratitude for the bowl—they note how the bowl witnessed their wedding vows, and that this sacred duty the bowl provided will stay with them always. And this is how I want to feel about the tree—the tree served its sacred function, first by providing my Dad’s gravesite with welcome shade for several years, and then by witnessing the voices of our grief and joy as we remembered and honored Mom last weekend. The tree has served its sacred function and has now lain down to rest, just as my Mom has, and my Dad some years before.


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