We gently slit open the bags and the contents slid out into the small hole. First Mom’s. Then Dad’s. Between the two there was enough to fill a gallon ziplock. I thought there would be more volume. This is it — the sum of a life.
I swallowed hard.
We paused at their chosen resting place, under the crooked tree.
Where to put the memories?
They’ve been gone for several years now. Dad, always the gentleman, went first. Then Mom went less than a year later, her heart too heavy to carry on alone. And according to their wishes, they wished to be cremated. They aren’t the kind of people who wanted a stone memorial for people to come and weep over. It wasn’t their style and they clearly stated the desire for simplicity.
For years, now their ashes have been in the two wood boxes, tucked on the shelf in the garage. It wasn’t disrespectful. It wasn’t weird. We just didn’t have a plan in place.
It was time to find a home. My brother hasn’t been heard from in years, his comfort found apart from the rest of family. So, the responsibility fell to the rest of us as we decided what to do with the ashes.
As we thought about, the decision was really quite easy. Mom and Dad moved to Lake Tahoe in the early 60’s, lured by the pristine blue waters and idyllic setting. Back then it was a challenging place for Californian’s to migrate to. There were few jobs and deep snow. But they made a go of it and stayed in this beautiful place for the rest of their lives. Their marriage wasn’t always stable, but still they powered through and lasted 63 years until death did them part.
We all decided that the ashes should be in a place that had a view of their beloved lake and the mountains they held dear.
The Crooked Family Tree
I went on a walk partly to find a place, partly to find myself. I took in the pine-scented air as my feet crunched the musky aspen leaves, still yellow with edges tinged with frost. There was a steady wind that rode the tops of the winds and caused the lake’s waves to crest white. It was the kind of day that you don’t easily forget.
I came around the corner of the meadow and I saw a odd, crooked tree. As a sapling it had been crushed by the weight of the snow. But with time, it found it’s course, pointing to this sky.
This would be it. The final resting spot.
Why an imperfect tree? Why not a perfectly manicured cemetery or immaculate location, something more “dignified.”
Well, I think they would be proud of this decision. You see, my parents weren’t perfect people. There are holes in their lives, dark places that they never let on to. There was loneliness and abandonment and doubt and agony. They made poor decisions at times. They lost their way, sometimes out of survival, sometimes out of choice. They didn’t always follow the right path.And as is the way of humanity, neither did I. Neither did my sister. Neither did my brother. And our kids are made out of the same stuff. It’s the inherent evil that we are all born into. Some seem to have it worse than others.
We have a proud and selfish streak that runs through us all. And the need to be right, even if it means we’re wrong in the end. I could name them, all the twists and the knots. But I won’t bore you with the details. You’ve seen it all before, no doubt.
A forest of imperfection
Like trees that are borne crooked, we spend a lifetime straightening out the bent wood, forging out a new pattern. It’s not easy. Some never change. The Bible rightly calls it a “a mystery” because it isn’t predicated on good deeds or checking off all the right boxes. It’s a grafting into the perfect tree, the same one that Jesus gulped his last breath on.
There are the doubters. The people who only remember the crooked years and want to point out that their life wasn’t one that hasn’t been straight from the beginning. And the doubters look at me and see the same pattern. I can’t hide. This is who I am. Like a gnarled old tree, it’s the past that makes us beautiful and usable. And God loves to straighten crooked trees.
There are those who think this God stuff is a bunch of mumbo jumbo. Still you are reading because you have tried everything else and you just cant untangle the tree that marks your past. You are a crooked tree born into a family of crooked trees and the pattern is carrying into the next generation.
There’s all kinds of theological words I could throw it to describe this experience. But none of that convinces you. It’s not supposed to be a head experience. It’s supposed to be in your heart and in your life. And somewhere in that unspoken silence you’ll see, you’ll hear and the floodgates will open.
The Grand Legacy
As our small family gathered to pour the ashes into the soil, we all smiled and cried. We spoke memories. We shared hope. My sister planted a few flower bulbs with hopes the snow would water them and then the spring sun would bring them to life, year after year. We want to always see the flowers, knowing the nutrients come from our family.
But really, that crazy tree will outlast all the flowers. It will keep growing past my generation and likely the next. The tree with the history that’s exposed for the world. The tree that’s pointed straight to the heavens.
I think when my days are done, I want my ashes to be sifted into that same soil, the dirt that surrounds the crooked tree.