My grandmother never cut down the dead trees in her back yard.
I never found this strange until after I’d reached an age when reason
started coming at more regular intervals.
I was probably thirteen or fourteen when I realized that the hulking trunks
that lay just beyond the grass were dry husks. I walked to them when I noticed
their dry fingers stretching upward and tried to figure out why they remained.
There were five of them, all hollowed and gnarled. They must have been 200 years
old or more from their girths and only the upper branches showed, the rest
drowned in a sea of vines. Great loops and cords of wisteria shimmied up the
thick trunks and found passageways through the bark and the termite tunnels.
Hard twists draped from the upper boughs, spirals around spirals, and lounged as
if exhausted from the climb. The deep green leaves whispered and fluttered in
I visited my grandmother during the late summer, almost never during any
other season. Often she would put on her gardening gloves and draw out wicked
looking shears, then she and I would walk the half-acre to the border and the
trees. I would sit cross-legged in the clipped grass and stare up at her as she
tore at them. I sat quiet in the grass and slapped mosquitoes or stole bright
cherry tomatoes from her overburdened vines.
My grandmother never cursed in my presence, but I could sense her
frustrations as she hacked at the gnarled beasts in their wisteria
costumes. She chatted with the mammoth husks and yanked and chopped at the
cords, tugged at the roots, shaped what she could. The entire bulk of them
towered over her. But she loved them, even while she hacked. When done, she took
the clippings inside and wrapped them in wet newspaper to give away as gifts…
this wisteria. It was all a mystery to me.
She would withdraw large cords with wispy roots dangling with mossy earth
then ask me if I would like to take some home. I always said no, I didn’t want a
plant. That was just too boring, I never imagined that plants could hold my
Sometimes she would come to me, look at my hands and then show me hers. “We have
the same hands, you and I.” She showed me the clump of roots and earth
in her fingers, then crumbled the dirt gently away from them, revealing clean,
strong roots. "My hands have always loved the feel of dirt.” She turned
the dirt in her fingers. I held my hands underneath to catch it in handfuls
then let it drop.
I smiled back up at her with blissful ignorance of her meaning. I just loved
her, I never sensed anything deeper..
My grandmother wasn’t a tall woman, I used to joke to myself that she was
as wide as she was tall. But she was one of the most loving women I’ve even
known. She’d gone through many years of being practically a baby factory for a
bastard husband she loved, raised eleven children, and managed to make each of
her 27 grandchildren feel that each one was her favorite.
I always felt like her favorite.
She died in May the year I turned twenty-five. I went to the funeral and sat
with my huge family as we held each other and remembered our collective
centerpiece. The graveside service was on a hillside of our family cemetery.
They buried her next to my cousin, Aaron, who died of leukemia. We stood in the
bright sunshine and listened to the minister speak of her in terms of mother and
grandmother - terms we all understood and knew to be beautifully true. She had
never aspired to be anything more than what she was - because all of us were
enough to keep her sane and blissfully happy.
Afterwards we went back to her home, ate fresh baked ham, chips, drank
sweet tea and talked loudly - as my family is prone to do. I walked
outside to be alone.
It was strange to be in that place during that time of the year. It was warm
but windy, and my black tie flapped at my neck.
I went to the dead trees.
The wisteria was mammoth, a beast. The leaves spread out in the wind to
absorb the warm sun. The tentacles from the base wrapped tight over the entire
structure, and the boughs were filled, overflowing, with flowers. They looked
like blossomed grapes, heavy and purple. The air was laden with scent, full and
strong in my face. I moved forward and saw that there was no opening in the
trees, nothing but green and purple everywhere.
I stood for a long time trying to find some way to see those trees as dead,
but I realized they were completely alive now, transformed by the same thing
that had probably killed them years before. I was in awe of them - they were
I walked forward and found a long sprig that had recovered from last years
pruning a hundredfold, then broke off one end, as well as I could, and then pulled it carefully from the ground. The roots came up with a clump of moist,
black earth. The rough bark left my palms scuffed and scratched.
I stood looking at the vine in my hand for a long time. I realized,
then, how good the cool, moist earth felt in my fingers as I crumbled the dirt
in my hands.