(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
After the storm that hit the area last summer, I drove through town and stopped across the street from the house on the corner with the enormous tree on top of it. I used to babysit the two dark-haired little girls who lived there. Whenever I was in that house as a teenager, knowing that it was the one my grandfather had built for my grandmother, I’d try to imagine what it looked like back when it was theirs. I know that my grandmother loved the house because she often talked about the years she spent there. She would describe in detail the living room rug and the furniture in the dining room. She laughed over the ghost a child (my mother, perhaps?) had drawn on the back of a bedroom door that kept reappearing no matter how many times the door was painted. As I sat there in the car watching the commotion across the street that day, I was glad that she hadn’t lived long enough to see what I was seeing.
The young, willowy Scandinavian girl and her handsome boy with the twinkling Irish eyes married during the Depression and raised two daughters, bookends and place holders for the son lost in the space between them. Another little ghost. By the time I made my entrance, they were in their middle years. He was a Mailman and she was a Homemaker…with a capital H. Through the years, they traveled, and bickered, and grew old together. He attended Mass weekly. She made Sunday dinner. When she beat him playing Gin Rummy, he’d accuse her of cheating. When he ate too much maple nut ice cream, she accused him of not watching his insulin. He taught me to reach high. She taught me how to do the really important things, like how to turn a house into a Home.
He would live long enough to hold seven of his grandchildren on his lap, and attend some of our high school graduations. He would see two off to college and one walk down the aisle on her wedding day. He loved nothing more than telling us stories. Once, when asked how he came up with the crazy situations his characters found themselves in, he replied, “I don’t know! I just start telling a story and the characters take over!” The misfortunes of poor, homely Egghead and his friend, McGillicuddy and the adventures of the quick thinking Indian Princess Pruneface, who regularly caught her evening meal by diving into the Bowstring River to catch snake pickerel with her teeth, are just some of the characters who kept us mesmerized as children.
She would live long enough to attend more high school graduations, a couple of college graduations, three more weddings, and meet her first five great-grandchildren. She loved shopping, berry picking with her sister, Florida, and all of us. She worried about who would plant flowers at the cemetery on Decoration Day after she was gone. She believed in making herself useful and was very rarely idle. Her blueberry pies are legendary in our family. And nobody could iron a basket full of clothes faster than she could.
We are who we are, in large part, because of who came before us.
The two young people who said “I do” and then did long ago created something extraordinary. A Family. Their two daughters raised seven children. Those seven grandchildren grew up and have parented twelve great-grandchildren. One of them is a newlywed with a daughter of her own. This summer, there will one wedding, two college graduations, and a high school graduation for the Eagle Scout in the family. They are all pretty great as far as their grandparents and parents are concerned. Their great-grandparents are just characters in stories we tell around the kitchen table on warm, summer evenings up at the lake. People they never knew.
Some of them are tall and long-legged, like her. Several of them have the same instinctive sense of fashion she had. A lot of them have the same, wild, throw your head back and laugh until tears squirt out of your eyes sense of humor that he did. Even the five of them who bear no genetic link to their great-grandparents take after them in many ways. This is, in my opinion, living proof that nurture will trump nature every time. They all value many of the things the people in the faded photographs did. Learning, hard work, time together. Family, most of all.
Two people built a house on a corner lot a long time ago. And now, the house is gone.
Two people built a Family.
There’s no wind in the universe, no tree big enough on the planet, to shake that foundation.