“Every year it will come out again, sweetie. The blossoms may be shy and secretive, but they have a weakness for spring, because they like seeing a warm, cloudless sky, just like us. So don’t despair once the tree is bare, because next year it will be back, lovely, alluring, and delicate. So dry away your wistful tears, and know even though all that’s left is wood, before you know buds will shoot out again.” Gram said, maintaining her steady rock in her favorite chair. Her voice was soft, yet it filled every nook and cranny of the room, brightening the room more than any light. Most people make words sound generic, robotic, and like they are being forced out of their lips. But Gram made it sound like a melody, floating out of her mouth. And that is what brought me out from underneath my blanket every year. That is until March 21, 2003.
I was in the tree at the time, rejoicing in the few months I had with the beautiful, rosy blossoms. I was resting on a moss covered branch. The sun glimmered through the leaves. I felt ecstatic; once Gram returned back from yoga class I would show her the flowers, and we would have a picnic in twilight’s dull, purple glow. Then I heard it. It was a shrill shriek, very out of place with the chirps of birds and rustle of a breeze. Deafening sobs pounded my eardrums. I leaped down from my perch on the tree, and ran inside our dim house across the street. There in the kitchen was my mom, leaning on the counter, tears tracking down her cheeks. She tilted her head upwards, like she was cursing God. This memory will haunt me forever: to see my sleek, composed mom collapse in pain.
Gram told me that she was fine, that a weak heart was an insignificant matter. She would live to a ripe old age, and not leave me. I learned another appalling fact that day. Gram is a liar.
You can’t walk down to the breakfast table without recalling Gram. Memories of her flicker like slides, one after the next. That she had to pray to God about all her worries, before being able to sleep soundly. That she always slept in flannel nightgowns with angel sleeves. And the memory that strikes me most often: her love for the cherry tree.
I exhale, staring out the window pane at the durable, broad tree, the tree completely unaware of the horrible deed planned for this afternoon. I dash down the stairs, hoping to escape the poor tree. No luck though. I shake cornflakes into my ceramic bowl, trying not to think of Gram doing the same thing every morning.
My parents talk about the tree in hushed voices.
“I don’t know how they can chop the tree down! It’s been there for over a hundred years, it’s like chopping down memorials from the Civil War!” my mother says.
“Children love playing dangerous games on it. Kids will miss swinging on the branches, and teenagers will miss the enclosure that enables them to smoke without interruption, but parents despise the tree. They fear for the safety of their children,” my father says, shaking his head while scanning the newspaper. “Personally, I think that’s ridiculous. They’re cautious about letting them play on the tree, because of the danger of falling from it? Well, if they believe that, then how about getting rid of that bright yellow eyesore, that they call monkey bars. It’s just the same elevation as the tree’s height!”
“But folks have so many spectacular memories! Having picnics under the canopy’s shelter, sitting on the branches and enjoying fireworks on the 4th of July, or just breathing in the fresh scent of the cherry blossoms and knowing that spring has begun.” she says indignantly. “Remember that time we hosted that tea party? And we spent hours baking those almond scones, only to find out that somebody had a deadly allergy to nuts of all kinds?” My mom snorted, embracing the memory with a peaceful look on her face. “It was supposed to be civilized - we were supposed to wear lacy, embroidered dresses, with our napkins in our laps and sipping our tea daintily. But at the end everybody went wild and started swinging like Tarzan? That was one of the best days of my life. I wish it could go back to that.”
Then they are both silent, and sip their coffee, their minds drifting. Maybe they are thinking of lazy summer days, when we only moved from the tree’s shade to get a glass of iced tea or lemonade. Or maybe they are thinking of when I was a toddler, and we hosted a triumphant birthday party under the tree. Or maybe they are remembering what I am; Gram sitting contentedly at the base of the trunk, beaming up at the sky.
Almost every night I walked in on Gram kneeling down and praying. Mostly I crept back out of the room, not wanting to disturb Gram. Occasionally I just gazed at Gram in the living room. She always sat in the center of the room, with her head bowed down, ignoring the tottering piles of books, vases of wilted wisteria, and striped antique furniture. Only once did I interrupt her, when I was too little to know that Gram treasured those peaceful minutes.
“Gram, what are you doing?” I remember saying.
She looked up, smiling me in my ratty Hello Kitty pajamas. “I am praying to the Lord, darling, in the hopes that he answers my requests.”
“What are you praying about?”I asked, not realizing that I was intruding on something special.
This time Gram hesitated, and looked me up and down. “I am praying for you, sweetie.” She smiled at me, an understanding smile, not expecting me to realize why she was using up all her alone time to ponder about me, to dwell on my secrets and pray for me to strike a mine of joy.
“Oh.” I said. I remember wondering, why on earth was she praying for me? I was a well-treated child, with loving parents who spoiled me. Why wasn’t she praying for stray cats, who need to dig into trash cans to find small scraps of food? Why not kids who see, disappointed, that the refrigerator is empty again? Why not people who wander around on the streets, jingling old soup cans, hoping for a few quarters?
She smiled at me again, knowing that I had no idea why she was bending down on her knees praying for plain, boring, me. “Good night, honey.” she whispered and stroked my sloppy curls.
“Good night Gram.”
The tree is a miracle. Here for over a hundred years, chestnut streaked with brick red with many branches arching from the tree, and adorned with clusters of light pink blossoms. And now in ten minutes it will all be gone, just like Gram. And just like with Gram they will leave a meaningless keepsake. We’ll be left with a stump, just like we were left with a weathered stone to represent Gram. I’m going to make the rest of my life the best of my life, was engraved on it. Gram would have hated it. She can’t make the rest of her life the best, because she is gone! Just like this tree, that people thought had lingered too long, and that a boutique movie theater would be a great substitute! Incorrect. People were starting to gather around now, delight etched in their faces. They wanted this tree to be gone. They wanted to demolish nature and replace it with a stupid building that would rot kids’ brains.
And then just like Gram’s melody, words floated out of my mouth.
“Stop. I don’t expect you to listen to a twelve year old, but I want you to consider something before you destroy this tree that has been around before any of you. This tree doesn’t just house sparrows. It holds memories of kids playing tag, of meaningful conversations, of laughter, and tears. And with one chop you are going to dismantle millions of memories.” My courage mounts. “I know a grandmother who would frown down on what you are doing. And this grandmother is giving me the bravery to speak to you all. When I was five, I walked in on my grandmother praying for me. I wondered why, up until now. I am a shy girl. I don’t raise my hand in class. I sit alone at break and watch the popular girls who don’t even consider inviting me to jump rope with them. That’s why my Gram talked to God, to bless me to have the courage to speak right now. So if you won’t save this tree for all the little kids who love playing in it, do it for Gram, a lady who tried her best to make sure that this tree was safe.” I stop, my face flushing. I tune out the applause and the cheers.
I focus on one voice, coming from above the nine planets and billions of stars.
You are so brave, darling. I am so proud of you. Her high-pitched melody sings again in my head. I know I’m not imagining it. She is peering down at me. I am so proud of you.
Nora Wagner is an 11 year old attending San Francisco Friends School in San Francisco, California.