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Four Years at the Mount

Arbor Day Memories

The Family Tree

Michael Kenney Jr.
MSN Class of 2019

(4/2017) "Family, like branches in a tree, we all grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one." Unknown

A clothesline runs from the porch pillar to an oak tree standing beside it. The bungalow, the tree, and the flailing clothesline cast the only shadows in the wide-open field. The bungalow houses a family of nine and, on occasion, a vagrant cat named Colbie. Like its residents, the bungalow has charm and good character. In fact, the parents established the bungalow near the tree because of its nostalgic character. It marked the spot of their first date, his proposal, and their wedding ceremony. It has become a part of their identity and the pride and joy of their property.

Three of the children now run around the house and Colbie curls on the doormat, batting his tail and huffing an occasional yawn. The doormat reads "Home." The girls race to the oak tree and tag it. The tree towers over them, its limbs entangled and outstretched in every direction. A tire swing dangles from one limb, and one of the daughters grasps hold of it. She sways from side to side. It begins to rain. They watch the raindrops pound the world around them, and they giggle at their mother who fervently tries to salvage the laundry pinned on the clothesline. They see their father and two brothers dash across the yard and make it into the house. The girls huddle together as the rain patters through the breaks in the leaves. They crouch down and curl against the tree. It is their safe haven.

Soon after, the girls scurry inside, and the rain comes down with heightened intensity, and a violent storm ensues. The power shuts off and the lightning frightens the children. Lightning splits the tree, sending a number of limbs hurling towards the house. The limbs crumple their roof and smash into the living room. The family screams as water pours into their home. They cling together, and they watch their beloved home flood for hours.

The next day, the family gazes at the tree, but they no longer recognize the strong, wily-armed oak that promised adventure and refuge. Instead, the twisted limbs and snaked roots remind them of their chaos. The drooping branches manifest their misery. The big shadow looks like a sepulcher for the house beneath it. For months, the family copes with the emotional and economic costs of the tragedy. Their home, they decide, will never be the same.

Time continues to move on. The leaves on the tree turn from a verdant green to a dead orange brown. They drift to the ground, one by one by one until one day the father decides to remove the fractured tree. For weeks, he hacks away at the tree, hurling his anger into every swing. Splinters dig in his fingers and callouses cover his palms. He hacks and hacks and hacks. Months go by, and he continues hacking and hacking until, one moment, his grief overwhelms him, and he ceases hacking. He crouches down and cups his face in his hands. He curls by the stump. Its removal is his therapy.

The father uproots the stump and yearns to transform his pain and the lumber into something beautiful. He contemplates the piles of lumber. He imagines them as a desk and a shelf and bed frame. He whittles some twigs into an intricate cross until he decides to turn the lumber into a dining set.

He sands the trunk until it becomes a level table top. He leaves one spot portion of the trunk rough, however, because it is an etched in heart enclosing the words: "Charlie + Eleanor 1982." He sculpts the limbs into sturdy legs, each one carved with the same ornate design. He uncoils the smaller branches and contours them into chair spokes. Months go by and finally, the father finishes the dining set. He wipes his brow and stands apart from his work. It is durable and meaningful and beautiful. The father strokes his hand against the table and weeps. He crouches down and curls against it. It is his redemption.

The father plants the set at the center of their kitchen. They endow the table with a range of purposes. It becomes the center for game nights, happy birthdays, family prayer, and late night homework. Most importantly, it is the setting for family dinners each night. Every evening, the mother decorates this table with the same ornate precision as her master carpenter. She unfolds a table runner and drapes it down the middle of the table. It is topped with five dripping candles and surrounded by eight chairs. The family eats and talks, and they relearn to laugh. Family suppers provide them with a context to articulate their opinions, express themselves, and engage in substantive conversations. General pleasantries turn into hours of giggling, storytelling, and brave new memories.

The dinners allow the family to learn about and better appreciate one another. Overtime, it becomes apparent that the table grounds a new type of tree -- a family tree. It is nurtured much like any other tree. The family sows one another with confidence, hard work, good humor, faith, grace, integrity, and -- most importantly -- love. This family tree grows and grows with in-laws and grandkids, but no matter how large the family gets, there is always enough room for another at the table.

Like the tree that birthed it, the table is the family stronghold, a place for love, life, tears, and redemption.

Read other articles by Michael Kenney Jr.