The Mourning Tree

Omaha, Nebraska


October 3, 2009. It starts here like this with your back against a tree looking up. For days you come, learning the green corona of its spread, leaning on its sun-laved bulk, and you think about how the tree is a piece of star that has taken root, dense, stalwart, here and still here, absorbing the vacillations of your grief. And also you think of sunflowers that are planted to clean radioactive soil, pulling up toxins through their roots, and so you wait for the tree to do its work, leaching grief from fingertips caressing craggy bark. And after more than two months of sitting days and touching days and listening days, you bring your camera and you begin to take pictures. You will photograph the tree every day for a year, not a lofty or original goal, but something to see you through from cavernous now to some future, and the tree will be like the bridge you walk across to get there, a steady footpath to a place removed, a place without grief. The tree is a star and a sunflower and a bridge—all of these things—but it is more essentially itself, a tree.




October 21, 2009. The tree, a massive silver maple, drops yellow leaves in astonishing profusion. You never knew there were so many leaves up there. For days you rake. For days you clean the car windshields of leaves, chase them from the house. You think about the one who died. She was very old and was more a part of your deep past—your childhood—than of your present, but this just means that you’re prone to retreating to the past as you sit with the tree. Taking pictures brings you back. The photographs take the place of words, because there are no words for your grief. Every word is a cliché, uttered countless times, an inadequate repository for your unique suffering, but every image is a creation, a new way of seeing. So every day you take pictures and sit mutely with the tree that needs no language, dropping its leaves as it has for decades, unaware of your presence. But then there is also relentless now—a toddler and preschooler to care for, a dissertation to defend, a husband with uncertain employment—ever shifting, unfixed. And there is a single leaf on the hood of your minivan, fixed.




November 9, 2009. Photos of the tree are more than photos of the tree. In this one, your children and husband are eating dinner inside, and you are standing alone in darkness, at the bottom of the yard, looking up at the tree and the house and the lights. In the photographer’s mind, there is always more in photos than is evident—that which is obscured, that which has been cut from the frame. When you return inside, you will speak with your husband about his current contract ending, about his potential transfer to another account. Names of places will be thrown around. California. Connecticut. Minnesota. Texas. You will look at cities on a map and think about the tree. And because you know this will happen, you linger outside in the cold, and the tree seems to crouch close to the house as if to ally itself with the people inside—with artificial light and chatter—and not with you, silent and in darkness. But back inside, you will look at the tree out the window as your husband speaks, and you will see that it is of an entirely different species from you, a silent being in darkness.




December 24, 2009. The iced branches grow heavy in the weak winter light. Houseguests arrive, but even amid the hubbub you miss her more, because Christmas was her time. An extravagant gift giver, she was the central player in your earliest memories, the one who made Christmas happen. And later, after you moved away, still she sent boxes of lavish gifts. Still she made Christmas happen. This year, it is your job to make Christmas happen in this place you will not stay. You have moved so many times that suddenly you’ve developed a full-blown obsession with trees, those beings that never leave. You wish you could learn to never leave. But already, you have broken the rules of the project, taking your daughter on a three-day trip, leaving your husband with the camera and instructions: photograph the tree. It felt like cheating, even though the purpose of the trip was to look at trees. And the night of your return, five hours past bedtime, your daughter rushed to your room in a panic. “Mom, you forgot to take a picture of your tree!” Not quite five, she has invested in this project with a seriousness that rivals your own.



January 2, 2010. Your husband left this morning, driving to a new life over a thousand miles away. You have ample reasons why you must stay: your dissertation defense, your daughter finishing preschool, your tree. Your husband keeps looking for a job here, but already you know that he will come back only to visit, and finally, to move you out. The question is when, but instead of answering questions, you take pictures. Because when you hold the camera between yourself and the world you become an observer, not a participant, and the only decisions you have to make are about position, angle, what gets included, excluded. Every day the stock of words is the same, exhausted, but the light is new, and the tree bathed in light is new, and the seeing is always new. What you have learned: you cannot capture the entire tree in the frame, for something is always in the way—fences, houses, other trees. Something is always missing, cut off, unrevealed. What you have learned: height—about 100 feet; circumference—14 feet; crown spread—80+ feet. What you have learned: winter sunsets are jewels tucked into the horizon crease. The tree has witnessed thousands.



February 6, 2010. Snow is everywhere. You shovel for days, weeks, with no help. When it is too cold for the children to be out with you, they press their faces against the picture window and watch you. Roofs collapse under the burden of snow, and men with roof rakes canvas the neighborhoods, scraping snow from roofs, chiseling at ice dams in gutters. The tree, your companion, seems unaffected by the “consecutive days of snow on the ground” record that will soon be broken. When it is too cold even for you to step outside, you take photographs through the window. On some days, like this one, the photo is the only record of what you saw, what you thought about, what you made of the world. Of some days these images are all that remain. With your photos you pluck these moments out of time and horde them, a squirrel’s acorn stash, against the cold, lean times ahead, against your own inevitable destruction. It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine, your photos say, like your two-year-old son, grasping at objects until he can’t hold more, yet still reaching, even at the risk of dropping all that he already holds.



February 25, 2010. Somehow your grief has been transferred to the tree, sapped from you and drawn into the very cellulose, the sapwood and heartwood. Leaving this tree now will be like leaving the site of her grave behind—for this seems more her grave to you than the niche in a mausoleum wall in California where her cremains have been placed. You have embedded her here—not just her spirit, but your own acute mourning, which is becoming less rending. You’ve handed your grief over to the tree, and it holds it aloft, snared in its branches like the moon, that choice prize. Sometimes it holds the sun, thunderheads, planes, birds, and once a rainbow. And you don’t know enough about the tree’s relationship to the sky, but you know that it’s witnessed enough skies in its life to astound you. You could stay here and watch the tree and watch how its limbs frame the mosaics of pink and gray and lavender skies, the branches like lead, the sky like glass in an ever-shifting leaded glass display. The tree is your church window. To remain here would be enough. It would be more than enough.



April 23, 2010. In your final month, you take hundreds of pictures. And even before you leave, you begin to mourn your mourning tree. You make a study of minutiae, but there is not enough time. You could spend a year on the bark alone, and what of that which is hidden, unknowable? What of the spread of roots below, the slow constant pull of sap, the rings at its core that reveal its age? What of all the life it harbors? It harbors you. You have not peered closely enough; every shred of bark is a topography to be learned, a continent. Last month, you defended your dissertation. Your daughter calls you a doctor of words, to differentiate you from the kind that can set broken bones, but instead of writing words, you continue taking pictures. Your daughter too is in an artistic frenzy, creating variations on the same theme: Mommy Saying Goodbye to Her Tree. In crayon, marker, pastel, watercolor, you and the tree are rendered again and again. Always you are reaching for its bowed branches with tears the size of apples coming from your eyes. You never meant to pass this on to your children.



May 4, 2010. In three days, you will be hooded, and what you will remember most is not the ceremony, but the coming home afterwards. You will step out of your gown, allowing it to slip into a pile of samaras, an unneeded skin, and you will climb onto the roof of the house for another vantage point—because though you have a Ph.D. there are yet important things you don’t know about the world, and some of them can only be learned by climbing onto roofs. Such as: what does the tree look like from up there? How many of the winged maple fruits have accumulated in the rain gutters? What do they contain within their veined shells? How far do branches give in the wind? This will be your next education. But today, the leaves are spring green against blue sky, and even as your children run and laugh in the wind, and even as the tree’s susurrus fills your ears like the roar of a sea, you feel the pang of this tender green-tinctured mourning. The green will be the color of your leaving, the color of new loss. A tree, you see, can be a friend.



May 14, 2010. You take pictures until the final hour of your final day. You have had three seasons with the tree, yes, but you are missing the whole humid green summer. This most simple task—to visit a tree daily for a year—remains forever unfinished. And now, all you have is 1,736 photos. But there is also this: in those final days, as the movers swarm the house, packing everything in sight, the tree releases a sudden deluge of samaras until you are awash in them. On their final day, the children wade in them in their galoshes. And later, when you open moving boxes to start your new life, the maple seeds reappear, springing out of pots and books, hats and toolboxes. You have brought the tree with you, or it has come of its own volition. This, you think, is how trees move. This is their genius. And finally, there is this: your daughter has squirreled away fifteen of the samaras in a ceramic music box that was left to her by the one who died. Now eight, she swears to you she will keep them always, until the day she dies, and you believe her.


Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Orion, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Parcel, Fourth River, Bayou Magazine, and elsewhere.