The most beloved of visitors graced our guest room, our table 3 times a day, and every corner of our lives over the long weekend — Grandpa Sal. Grandpa Sal who, if you are keeping track in all the wrong ways, isn’t technically father or grandfather to anyone who lives here, being the 2nd husband of Rob’s mom who passed away a little over a month ago. But as you know, sometimes the most treasured family members are of heart relation, not blood — as is the case with this wonderful human being who is dear to us in thousands of ways and about as fatherly and grandfatherly as one can be. We are lucky people. Lucky people who lost someone special this summer.
Grandpa Sal’s visit offered us an opportunity to continue the grieving process by way of holding an intimate Tree Planting Ceremony in honor of Carol, Rob’s mom and Sal’s wife of 21 years. We decided to prepare the ground and the ceremony details during morning hours so everyone could participate, but to hold the ceremony while little Orlis took a nap, so the 3 of us could take things at a slow pace and be as present as possible for the simple but profound ritual of planting a tree in someone’s honor.
Right there in our front yard was an unsightly patch of dirt that we hadn’t quite figured out what to “do with” since we moved in. As is true, sometimes, in the best cases of procrastinating, the most beautiful solutions to any problem show up when you give them some breathing room.
The most striking part of a traditional Jewish burial is something called “filling the grave” — when the mourners, starting with family members, individually take turns dropping three shovels of dirt into the grave. The sound of the dirt as it hits the coffin is a thud that you feel reverberating in your whole body, and this tradition is the most painful part of the burial, but I think for many people, also the most healing.
As I thought about what I wanted to prepare for Rob and for Sal with this ceremony — two men who lost someone so very dear to them — I was mindful of the grave-filling part of the Jewish burials and how cathartic it is to get close to the earth in remembrance. I also wanted to bring breath and life — the memory of Carol’s life — to our home. We made simple preparations — a candle, a bowl of water to both cleanse and nourish, a few painted rocks with her name and other titles, and a couple of poems. I also wanted each of us to bury something of ourselves with her — something that would, over time, integrate with the slow movement of the soil as the tree rooted Carol deeper down in our memories. We each wrote something on a piece of paper we personally wanted to let go of…something that we felt was no longer alive for us — and placed those slips of paper in the ground as we lowered the tree into her rightful spot in our front yard.
We took care to pat the earth gently and to to offer aloud some appreciations of the woman that Carol was. We also took care to listen to each other as we held hands and sang — in homage the Jewish tradition, “The Shema” — confident that this magnolia tree is duly loved and will certainly thrive in her honor. Like anything else with life or death, we can’t promise, but we’ll do our best.
What was once the embarrassing bare patch of dirt on our front lawn now hosts what I’d like to think of as the Queen Tree — the one with the painted rocks around it that say “mom” and “Carol” and “grandma”; the one who is young and vulnerable and has a lot of rooting and reaching to do, in both directions; and the one who holds, in the short entanglement of her young roots, a little secret from each of us. Of course, if you knew Carol you’d know, the symbolism in all of it abounds.