The Mother Tree

My grandfather dressed up as Abraham Lincoln every Halloween. He thought they looked alike. They didn’t.

He was a lifelong fan of the architect Gaudi, so when he built a cabin high in the mountains in the 70’s, he was determined to make all of the rooms round. There is a big stained glass window of a tiger climbing out of a river in one of the multiple domes. When I was younger, I used to kneel in front of this tiger and talk to it, hoping that it would give me advice and comfort.

He got a pet rooster and would let it roam free in the forests on his property, which he called “Chipmunk Gulch”, after all of the animals he would feed. Of course, letting a rooster walk around in the Colorado mountains was not the best idea, and 4 days later Rue the Rooster was no more than a few feathers in the stomach of a mountain lion.

He was fascinated with double exposure photography. In each of his photos you can see two worlds merging: a waterfall and a bouquet of pink flowers, a serene ocean and the golden face of the Buddha, an old man smiling and a picture of a mountain goat in Nepal. Every time you look at a double exposure photograph you see something you didn’t see before. He loved the layers in these photos, and though I’m not sure how well they sold at the arts fairs he attended, he was unapologetically proud of his work.

He was the first bizarre story in my life and when he passed away, it was one of my first experiences with death. The quirks are the things I remember about my grandfather. He had a very distinct smell, would play monopoly with me and turn into a sore loser when I beat him. Every morning he would go onto his lower deck and feed the chipmunks and weasels that had burrowed in his woodpile. He lived his life with a knowledge of who he was in every fiber of his being, and never cared for a second what anyone thought of him.

The night after my father found Grandpa Jimmy’s body, surrounded peacefully by his beloved cabin, the neighbors said there was the biggest storm they had ever seen. It rained torrentially and strong gusts of wind pushed over deeply-rooted trees — one of which toppled on top of the main pathway, blocking the entrance to the cabin. An electrical outage swept through the nearby mountain town and shingles slid off rooftops. It was as if the forest had taken one night to weep for Jimmy.

He had made it clear he was to be cremated and have his ashes scattered around a massive tree wrapped in prayer flags and called “The Mother Tree.” For some reason, in a mess of hundreds of sprawling trunks, he had seen something special with this one, and he wanted to become a part of it.

The Mother Tree seems to stretch hundreds of feet upward, and if you try to find the top you will inevitably crank your neck. Tiny rodents have burrowed into the roots, taking comfort in the large crevices. When my grandfather was alive, he strung buddhist prayer flags around the trunk, replacing them only when the weather stripped them of color and tore them against the bark.

A week before his memorial, we realized that the older relatives coming would have nowhere to sit in the middle of the forest. When a family friend cut up a trunk to make log benches surrounding Jimmy’s favorite tree and final resting place, my father was overcome with gratefulness that caused tears to spring from his eyes when he returned home to explain to my mother and I our friend’s act of kindness. It seemed as if the whole world was coming together to remember my grandfather.

But after he died, I had learned more about the things I had seen as simply “quirks”, such as his warm familiar smell, which was legalized in my state a couple years later. (We were sad that he never got to see that.) Grandpa Jimmy notoriously could talk someone’s ear off for hours, with terribly inappropriate political opinions. (We are glad he never saw politics today.)

He had been my living hero, but in death I watched my memories be replaced by the grievances of my family members.When my dad and his two siblings stayed with him in the summers, he never gave them a penny. Though my dad mostly spared me the details of just how bad of a father Grandpa Jimmy was, one of his other children sat me down the day he died to hash over the harm that my beloved grandfather had caused them. I walked away devastated.

My dad had chosen to forgive his father while he was alive, and though they would fight when Grandpa Jimmy would fly off the handle and rent out his cabin to someone who was clearly an escaped felon, they mended their relationship as much as they could, mostly through table tennis. But others relatives did not have this healing repair, and as a result, his death probed their resentment.

We waited until the summer to have the memorial ceremony. About 150 people gathered to celebrate Jimmy’s life. A bag piper and a tibetan flutist led a procession to the Mother Tree, where my grandfather’s loved ones shared memories. Most were funny, some were bizzare. One unknown man shared a fun anecdote of how he and Jimmy took LSD in the sand dunes a few years earlier. Another mountain woman got up to share that though she had never met Jimmy, she felt his spirit in her soul. I shared a poem I had written, my voice and fingers trembling. Everyone felt compelled to speak.

After that day, I realized that every relationship is different and we decide how we are influenced. I have ultimately decided that with all of the faults I discovered, I get to choose how I remember Grandpa Jimmy. Just like his double exposure photographs, everyone has their own experience of which image they see. It’s hard not to revise my memory, but I would rather remember him as the quirky grandfather who would always dress up like Abe Lincoln and get mad at Monopoly. Because there is no use in being mad about someone who for the moment is melding into a tree and who named his house after feeding small forest animals.

As I visit the Mother Tree every so often, I kneel and tilt my head to admire the canopy of tangled branches and falling leaves. Though I hope not all of my grandfather’s quirks were passed down to me, I feel grounded by this tree, and it has become a symbol for me to carry through my hectic schedule. When I find myself getting swept up in my plans and goals, I go up to the cabin, sit by the roots, and I reconcile with the present.

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