I’d envisioned the planting, therefore, as something beyond a simple attempt to beautify her yard; it was a symbol of continuity, a reincarnation of her youth, a sign that death and loss are only temporary. That’s why I wasn’t terribly upset when (due to my grandmother’s repeated changes of opinion about where to put the tree) my husband Paul left me for the Kubb event he’d been anticipating with as much excitement as I had the tree. (Kubb is a Scandinavian sport that involves tossing wooden dowels at wooden blocks. While I find it an entertaining enough pastime, I clearly don’t have the drive that Paul does. He’s begun making elaborate wooden ships to hold the Kubb sets, pointing out that he might be able to make some money selling them to avid Kubb-ers. I think he’d keep on building the ships even if all Kubb fans proved too penniless to purchase them. The man loves a challenge, and refining techniques to steam thin strips of wood into perfect boat-shaped arcs seems to meet his masculine needs.)
Anyway, after some significant indecision about where to put the tree, Grandma and I settled on a sunny little clearing behind her garage (formerly a barn). It seemed an auspicious spot and had conveniently friable soil, so I was able to dig the hole, plant the tree, and pick up the watering can before Grandma had time to say, “Maybe we should put it a little more over THAT way.”
Sacred moment or no sacred moment, we were both hot and thirsty, so it didn’t take much to convince her that A) the spot was just fine and B) if it wasn’t, we could always move the tree later. She obligingly posed by the tree with her watering can and, picture-taking complete, we retreated to the blessed coolness of her house.
It would be another three hours before Paul returned, so she lay down on the couch, and we talked about her life. I’d heard hundreds of her stories, but every conversation turns up another previously unexcavated gem. My favorite new piece of information that day was about the set of Harvard Classics she kept. I’d been vaguely aware of their presence all my life, but I hadn’t given their provenance much thought.
That day, though, I learned that she’d grown up with them. Her father, John Augustus Kimball, had purchased the books in the flush days before Grandma was born, when he and her mother were still young, in love, relatively affluent, and had only two children. In the years to come, the couple would fight bitterly and ultimately split up when John Augustus sealed his career as a womanizer by impregnating his secretary.
As a result, my grandmother grew up fatherless and desperately poor. I’d known about her poverty: how the grocer sold her mother the mealiest flour and moldiest salami when the relief checks came to her, how her older brother had politely asked their mother to lick up the crumbs dropped by their youngest brother after he’d finished his slice of dry bread, how their house was devoid of furniture except for the bed-bug infested mattresses and a decrepit piano. (Their mother had burned the rest for heat.)
What I didn’t know was that despite everything, even in the worst desperation, the family had cherished their Harvard Classics. My then-child grandmother had pulled the blank flyleaves out of the books so she could learn to write—it was the only paper available to her—but the books themselves were never sacrificed to drive off winter chill. They served as Grandma’s blocks, and she would spend hours building towers out of them, but always the books were left (but for the flyleaves) intact.
Her oldest brother, also named John, would read stories from the Arabian Nights to the family, then take one or two of the other classics to his job as a night-shift gatekeeper at a local company; the great authors kept him from sleeping through his lonely midnight duties.
The books had followed my grandmother from job to job, East Coast to Midwest, marriage to widowhood; like the mulberry tree of her youth, they were one of the few constants in a tumultuous life. And to think that all this time, I thought they were just books.
The planting of the mulberry tree was a success, I hope, although it has yet to break dormancy and send out new leaves into a stormy world. My husband—generous as he is manly—had been intending to dig the hole for me but was called away by the Siren Kubb. I’m glad I dug the hole and planted the tree myself, though, in my grandmother’s presence. This tree represents my heritage—her past and my future—and it seemed right that the task should fall to me.
In the years to come, I’ll watch the tree grow and read my way through the Harvard Classics. In every leaf of tree and book, I’ll feel my grandmother’s presence.