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Deep Roots

There was once a cherry tree that stood in a little front yard in Colorado Springs: Grandpa’s tree. I have a pendant made from its wood, given to me at a funeral. I used to climb that tree with my brothers; sit in its dark, spreading branches to enjoy the clear sun and sky of Colorado summers; and one afternoon we made jam from its cherries. Grandpa had planted flowers and honeysuckle around its base; he loved beautiful things, from the daylilies along his porch to the ancient wisdom of the psalms.

 Every spring the tree’s feet would be draped in green and gold and royal purple, like a guardian deity of their little garden.
Solomon in all his glory knew no such splendor as that twisting trunk. It was an old tree, and its roots run deep.

Five years ago that cherry tree was cut down and its wood was given away to a friend of my grandparents. By that time I was big enough to climb the stately old maple that also stood in their yard, but I was still heartbroken when I found out. I had left many memories tied up in those withered black branches and those drooping white blossoms, blossoms that excited so much childish wonder with their gauzy splendor, branches that had shepherded my arboreal escapades through thirteen years of my life. Such things cannot be replaced by aspens and pines, for all their crowns of green and gold. But grandpa’s tree had died from a sickness in its core, a fate not restricted to cherry trees.
We continued to visit my grandparents, although not as often since at that time we lived almost five hours away (four with no bathroom breaks, although the feat was unthinkable for my younger siblings until fairly recently). When we arrived, and after Maddie the little Cairn terrier could quench her enthusiasm at the presence of guests, we would settle in and get everything in order. Then, we would all gather around in the living room. I would perch on the green upholstered rocking chair in the corner (or on the floor, depending on the availability of seats) surrounded by Grandma’s beloved houseplants and Grandpa would sing us his old folk songs, sometimes alone with his guitar and sometimes with Grandma, singing:

“Old Zig Perkins bought an automobile
Old Zig Perkins’ whiskers were red
Old Zig Perkins lost the combination
And the darn little ford kept a chuggin’ right ahead.”

He sang songs about the love of his Swiss miss (“I miss
my Swiss, my Swiss Miss misses me”), about Mary and the
sweet river Afton (“Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dreams”), and beautiful K-K-K-Katie (“You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore”). They touched on subjects from his ancient, beautiful faith to the horrors of war to the shenanigans of young lovers. As much as anything I wish that I had learned all the words to these songs then, from him, rather than much later from listening to him on fuzzy recordings. He told stories about his childhood, about his adventures as a traveling evangelist, and about raising six boys in northern California, all tales funny and profound. These were precious gifts that he gave freely: my parents always told me that when Santa Claus wasn’t in the North Pole he lived in Colorado Springs, and that his real name was Grandpa Bud Powell. He gave these gifts of time and love and energy even though he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

 I know now that this would be the most precious inheritance my family and I could ever receive.

Four years ago, we were at the end of a visit and preparing to return to Casper. Grandpa hadn’t come up from his bedroom during that visit: he hadn’t the strength. When we went downstairs to say goodbye to him, Mom told me that this might be the last chance we would ever have to do so. I descended the steps, first wood ones, then to the lower level of their split level home, then a turn, and then down another flight of steps with their faded green carpet, down to the landing. To my left I could see into his office and library: the collection of a lifetime. To my right, I saw his bedroom. He was lying there on his bed, surrounded by blankets and old, beloved books. His white beard, once so full and curly, was now thin and patchy, ravaged by chemo therapy.
I went to him, hugged him, and told him I loved him. Fourteen-year-olds are very rarely gifted with heights of eloquence, but perhaps “I love you, Grandpa. Goodbye,” was all I needed to say anyway. That summer, the summer of 2016, my grandpa died. The first time I heard of it was my little brother crying when Mom told him. The reality of my grandpa dying never really sunk in for me until that moment.

A week before my fifteenth birthday, people came from all over the country for his memorial service: friends, family members, students. There were so many lives that had been touched by my grandpa and his love for things deep and old and beautiful. During the service old students talked about his passion for truth, cousins of mine talked about his kindness, compassion, and humor. His sons talked about his gifts as a pastor and a father. He had not one eulogy, but a dozen. He deserved many more.

It was during a reception when a woman approached me. I had been milling about in the big Presbyterian church where the service had been held; I had just finished crying on the shoulder of a childhood friend. While I didn’t know this woman particularly I recognized her as a friend of my grandparents, one that had received a gift of a dead tree. She came to me and gave me a little pendant strung on cream colored twine, although now it hangs on a rose-gold chain. It was shaped like a heart, and when I held it in my hand I could feel the grain of the wood and with my fingers I traced all the imperfections of that old cherry tree. They mapped a history of bright summers and gray winters, of golden springs and amber autumns.

 In the ridges and valleys of that little pendant, I read a story of climbing trees, of making jam, of childhood summers. But most of all, I read a story of love. My grandpa had a long life, and his roots run deep.

Somewhere, underneath tons of earth the roots of that cherry tree are down there, a memory of its past life. They twist and wind through the ground, carving labyrinthine pathways, but even after those decay and disappear, I will still remember that tree by the gift of my little pendant. Plants buried under the earth will sometimes turn to coal and then to diamond, memories once woven of twine turn to rose-gold, and while I may not have treasured and learned from my grandpa and his stories, songs, and wisdom as much as I ought to have in his life, his death taught me to appreciate deep truths I otherwise might never have understood the value of, and I trust that I will see him again one day because the things with deep roots last forever, and like a tree planted by a river, his roots run deep.

Katherine Powell

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