My grandmother had a beautifully exquisite theory of the human soul and its similarities to trees. Months ago, Mammy and I sat at the dining bench, a cigarette between her fingers that scarcely touched her lips, and she said, “People are trees, my dear.” I looked at her with wonder, her glimmering being capturing my insatiable desire to know her mind, to absorb her knowledge.
“People are trees. Their roots are their ancestors, their stump is their life, and their branches are all the things their peers associate with their character.”
Mams had always been infatuated with family lineage. She could draw expansive maps linking our heritage back to beautiful Irish landscapes. Her heart was enamored by the stories of who we all once were.
“As the person grows older, the stump gets longer and more branches can develop. There is so much growth to be done throughout a lifetime.”
She was convinced our lives should be filled with movement, with expansion, with bettering ourselves for the sake of the stories told in our absence. We were not destined for the paths of those before us, but we must acknowledge where we came from to ensure we go farther, grow taller, create more.
“Hanging off of each branch are twigs and leaves of traits. There will come a time when your branches get so full of leaves that others say, wow look at all of that beauty. All beautiful trees are filled with the lovely colors of leaves. All beautiful people are filled with love for other people.”
Mammy had a gentle heart and raging love. Her soul was filled with passion for others, for protecting those she admired, for giving to those who deserved more.
“Then winter comes, and the leaves fall off, and the tree dies. Sometimes people get unlucky and winter comes early. Don’t let that discourage you. Even when the tree dies, its roots stay in the ground. A kid will remember climbing on it, sitting under it. Even when I die, the people around here will remember me, and that’s the most beautiful thing anyone could ever wish for.”
It is a balancing act of sorts. We must be one part past but more parts future. I wonder how we should find this carefully balanced proportion between acknowledgement of who we were … where we came from, and motivation for where we can go … who we shall become.
I wonder how we untether ourselves from the faults of those who planted our roots. Can we grow on shaky ground? And who is watering us? What if we live in the shadows of other trees; what if we fail to gather enough light?
There is a permanence associated with roots, a tied down, never-moving, stuck-in-one-place connotation that contrasts the need for movement and change in the pursuit of growth.
But there is a significance in the recognition of where we started. We can grow tall and wide but it is all relative to where we began. Our roots stick us at the starting line, and it is our purpose to define how far and how fast and how often we will choose to grow.
If our trees grow taller, if our branches become more expansive, then the strong hold of our past becomes weaker, and soon we can sway freely, untethered to who we were, pushing onward to who we are becoming.