In our (former) backyard, we had a Japanese maple in a huge pot. “Juanita Tree,” it was called, because we bought it with the money that my paternal grandmother Juanita sent us for our anniversary a few years ago. I knew she would have liked the idea of using her gift on something permanent, something with legacy.
She was generous—the most generous person I have ever met in my life. This generosity seemed to be in stark contrast to the frugality with which she and my grandfather lived, though now I realize that it was their frugality that fueled their generosity to begin with. Her generosity always had purpose and was often anonymous, too, like the time she bought a tractor for the man who cut the grass at my father’s Bible college. Blessings take many forms, but a tractor given to a small college in a town on the outskirts of Vancouver, British Columbia, is fairly odd. Yet, it was a specific need that could hardly be justified in the budget (of course, small Bible colleges are not lucrative endeavors); the man could not have been happier, and neither could my grandparents.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother lately. Sarah Bessey called it “a homesickness for those we have loved” and she couldn’t have described it better. I read her post sitting at the kitchen table. My grandmother’s youngest great-grandson and only great-granddaughter were playing in the living room, and through the patio doors I could see the wind blowing the leaves of the trees in our backyard.
Blowing the leaves of Juanita Tree.
The tears were such that my daughter came into the room. She climbed onto my lap and whispered, “I love you, Daddy. Why are you sad?” Jesus held me close, using the arms of a three-year-old girl in flowered pajamas.
I visited my grandfather during our great, terrible drive east. He was lonely, and I was ashamed to see how bright his face became when we walked in. It is expected for one to mourn the loss of those we have loved, yet it remains all too easy to forget those who remain, who sit in a lonely, quiet room with only the hope of the ring of his telephone to break the silence. It is easy to miss the blessing of what one has; in my case, I have only lost a quarter of the amazing legacy that I have in my maternal and paternal grandparents. Like the old commercial said: all i have to do is pick up the phone to reach out and touch someone.
I recently worshipped at the Church on Morgan, a small Methodist community in the heart of downtown Raleigh. It was really quite fun; both hip and yet delightfully southern. It is a new church birthed out of one of the oldest congregations in Raleigh, and yet no one blinked an eye as I walked through the halls lined with older men in fine suits and women dressed in what can only be described as their Sunday best. I stood out in their main building like … well, like you might expect, what with my shaved head and multiple tattoos. At the close of worship, we were led in the Doxology and suddenly, there was her voice, just as I remembered it from all those years as a boy visiting what I thought at the time was her boring old church. But not just her voice; of course, it was both of my grandmothers, singing along in my memory. As a boy who was being raised in newer, louder “praise songs,” I had to follow along carefully in the hymnal. But they didn’t need a songbook; the words rested in their spirits. The legacy of these two women—what they gave to my father and mother through the years …
Juanita Tree now lives with my brother, so my grandmother’s other great-grandson can grow tall under its careful watch. Moving trucks are no place for trees, of course, to say nothing of storage units. But I was still sad to see it go, to lose this piece of my memory that was dimensional, that I could touch and see and smell. I think that is why God had His children build alters, so that our fickle and flighty minds could see and touch and be reminded to remember what had happened there and Who had caused it to be. It is why places like the Vietnam Memorial are so powerful, because we can walk right up and see and touch the true and terrible cost.
Juanita Tree is a celebration; it is life that remains, not a grim reminder. But even it, which began as a gift and became a living memorial, is no real substitute for the ethereal memories that I hold close in my heart. It is those memories that bring both joy and sadness, and so I hope that as the cool Washington breezes blow the leaves of Juanita Tree, that the rustle of the branches bring a smile of memory to my family, a smile that inspires a story recalled, and laughter that fills the hole that loss always leaves.