My grandmother will die today. I stand outside and look up at the giant old oak tree in the front drive and I remember how I used to play beneath its branches. I remember the old clapboard house with the porch along the front where my grandparents would sit each evening to watch me play. I remember the plum trees and how I used to eat all the green plums each year (Papaw never seemed to have enough red ones for Mamaw to make jelly). And I remember the shed out back where my cousins and I tried to dig our way to China one summer.
Every memory of my childhood derives its origin from that old place. I lived there with my mom, my brother and sister and my grandparents. All of my aunts and uncles and cousins were close by. There was always someone there to talk to or play with. My grandmother would tell us stories about her childhood and my grandfather would sneak us a piece of “Three Musketeers” candy when no one was looking (there were so many of us he’d cut them up into tiny little bite-size pieces so we’d each have a taste). And my cousins and I would spend our time outside beneath the branches of this old oak tree.
For years this tree stood guard on the little house and its occupants. It never once betrayed us during a storm. Never did we worry that it would crack or break as we went about our daily lives. It was strong and sure and always there; rooted deep, its branches reaching to the sky.
It’s my grandmother’s face I see as I stand beneath the tree, tears making their way down my cheeks to drip onto the roots. Like the oak tree, my grandmother stands tall and strong in my memories. Sitting on the porch beneath the tree, her family surrounding her, she would shell peas or beans from the garden. She would scold me when I needed it and encourage me when I felt down.
It’s good to be allowed to say good-bye. When my grandfather died it was sudden and quick and I couldn’t be there. I learned about his death in the middle of the night after it was over. We all expected him to live forever and with him gone this old place was never the same. But my grandmother remained. She was still here and I knew that there was always a place for me to go when I felt down. There was always a place where I could find the encouragement I needed to make my way in the world.
Now so much has changed. The house is gone that stood beneath this old tree. In its place is a trailer, moved there by my aunt and uncle who came to take care of my grandmother when she was diagnosed with cancer. I’m told the old tree is to come down soon, too. There will be nothing left now, but my memories; of a love between two people so strong it continued after my grandfather’s death, of a family where nothing you could have done would have made their love any less. Memories of a childhood rich in knowing someone would always be there to pick you up when you’d fallen.
As I walk back inside to face the reality that she’s gone from me forever, I feel the tears falling. I will miss her. I’ll miss this old place. But I will always remember what she’s given me. The knowledge I needed to form a strong bond with my own children, the strength I need to make my way in this world, and a gentle love I’ll always be able to hold in my heart.
The family is gathered around her as I make my way to my mother’s side. I think she will be the most affected by my grandmother’s death. She is the only girl out of 15 children born to this family. She was always so close to her mother, as girls usually are. I know they shared a special bond and I will do what I can to help her through this tragedy.
We have all spent the past week taking turns at her side. My mother and I never left. I knew when I received the call that this would be a chance for me to repay her in some small way for all she’s done for me over the years. I bathed her. I held her hand. I talked to her. I took what little sleep I needed by her side. And now the time has come. I take my mother’s hand and we both watch as she takes her last breath.
The grief is overwhelming. I know that she is in a better place, but I’m selfish. I still want her here with me. I kneel at my mother’s feet in the chair she has taken, holding her in my arms as she cries. I feel her tears mingling with mine. There is weeping all around us.
My mother dries her tears and rises from her seat. I rise with her and accompany her as she begins to make preparations for the funeral. Others must be notified and her final resting place must be made ready. My mother and uncles choose a simple, beautiful dark wood coffin with white satin lining. The body has been taken to be prepared. No one will sleep tonight; we’ll all sit around reminiscing about our favorite memories. Mine are many and I will share them gladly.
When my mother finally lays down to rest I sit with my own thoughts to keep me comfort. I pull out an old box of photographs from beneath my grandmother’s bed and fall back to days gone by. Here’s one of my mother when she was very young. And here’s another of my grandfather in the garden. A black and white of my mother holding me as a baby and several more of my brother and sister and me when we were small, my cousins, my aunts and uncles, and some I don’t remember; all have been carefully kept in this box.
My mother has asked me to read a poem at the funeral. It seems everyone agrees that I’m the logical choice for I’m the one who is forever telling my tales to any who will read what I’ve written. This will be a difficult task for me, but something I will gladly do.
I fall asleep in a chair and though it does not offer much in the way of comfort, I sleep fitfully on and off most of the night. When I awake I know that I must begin to say good-bye and I put off the task as long as possible. But soon the noises pull me from my slumber and I rise to face the new day. My mother is already up and probably has been for some time. Relatives are arriving from far and near to pay their respects to the woman who filled all our lives.
I dress carefully; my grandmother always liked for us to look our best. It’s time to leave for the funeral, but I must find a florist before I can enter the little church. I want to lay a rose in the coffin for her to take with her. Her favorite rose is purple, but they are rare as she was a rare woman, so they’re not available here in this small town. I must settle for a deep red.
As I enter the church I walk down the aisle toward the altar where she is laid so peacefully upon the satin pillows. She looks as if she sleeps, dreaming of my grandfather and the wonderful life they had together. I lay the rose in her arms and a single tear falls to settle on the pillow next to her. I whisper “good-bye” softly in her ear and turn toward my seat.
The church is filled with family and friends. The service begins and I feel the tears begin to course down my cheeks. I thought I had cried all I could, but more seemed to be stored, ready to fall. When it is time I make my way to the pulpit and slowly read the poem.
I begin to cry midway through, but I stumble on and feel her presence as I finish. I know in that moment that she will always be with me. When the funeral is over I return to stand again beneath the branches of the old oak tree and run my hands over its rough bark. I know this is the last time I will see this old friend as well. But now when I look into the branches high above my head I realize that no matter where I go, I will always have the strength that my memories provide.