We were walking downtown, my grandmother and I, to watch an artist paint a mural on the side of the Ross building in Asheboro. It was 1976, a bicentennial year, a year of commemoration. I was six years old.
We held hands, and every so often, my grandmother swung her arm, lifting me slightly off the ground. I squealed and we kept walking, her sterling-silver charm bracelet tinkling against our wrists.
Maybe because I was eye-level with it, I remember everything about that bracelet. How it draped across the small bone at the base of her hand. How she kept it polished, wiping each charm with Wright’s Silver Cream. A dozen charms dangled from the bracelet, each one in the shape of a silhouetted head, each one engraved with a name, not just grandchildren, but all her family, all of us, everyone she cared about.
My name was on one of those charms: “Elizabeth Ann” written in tiny, delicate script. I found it soothing to trace my fingers across those charms, not grasping, of course, the significance of so many names permanently etched, something that would, one day, be evidence that we were here, that we existed, that we were loved.
That bracelet belongs to me now. It’s too small for my wrist, but when I hold it, the charms still clink together, and I remember.
I thought about this the other day when I was walking in Greensboro’s Tanger Family Bicentennial Garden, the memory triggered because the park was created in 1976, a bicentennial year, a year of commemoration, or maybe it was because we were working on this issue, one devoted to love and anniversaries.
I was lost in thought — oh, for someone to reach down and swing my arm, lift me off my feet just for one moment — and then I passed by one of my favorite spots, a small grove behind the azalea and camellia bushes. Here, there’s a towering American Beech, completely covered in carvings.
I sat down at the base of the tree and started reading, tracing my fingers across the smooth, silvery bark, trying to make out the letters, the dates, the names.
So many names.
Must be 100 or more cut into this tree. Tracey and Jay. Mark and Trish. Megan and Russell. Angela and Sean.
Lucy. Anna. Ed.
E.B. + S.K. BW and MC. W+K.
Five hearts, maybe more, carved into the bark. In one place, the carving reads, “I am sorry.”
I wonder about that one.
Beech trees can live up to 300 years, and I think about how long this one has been wearing all these names, how long these etchings have been in place, proof that someone was here. That someone existed. That someone was loved.
We all hope for permanence, don’t we? And we do what we can to make it so, leaving our messages in places where others might see them.
I see these messages all over this state, declarations of love, of affection, even of apology. They’re carved on trees in Greensboro’s parks, on Asheville’s trails, in Southern Pines’s woods. They’re scratched into the sand with a stick at Emerald Isle, at Ocean Isle. They’re painted on the sides of boats in Beaufort, in Oriental, in Swan Quarter. I see wooden benches with bronze plaques mounted to their backs and commemorative bricks set in pathways in Fayetteville, in Jacksonville, in Salisbury. And everywhere I see fields of stone markers — smooth, silvery granite — names and dates and etchings of affections, each one a permanent memorial, but something more, a message to all of us that someone was here. That someone existed. That someone was loved.