Someone else has been here. Someone else has remembered. From 50 yards away, I can see the plastic flowers at the base of the tree that shades my father’s grave. It has been a long time, a far-too-long time, but I recognize the oak’s downhill lean, the slope of ground falling off to the south. The cemetery is dotted with flowers and flags and wreaths, but I know the tree. I know which one marks my father.
The small knot of guilt in my gut suddenly grows. It has been an irredeemable interim since I last visited Daddy’s grave, an absence filled with a litany of excuses. The plastic bouquet at the base of the tree appears as an indictment. Spring flowers, lavender and yellow and white. My father has been gone a long, long time, but someone has visited in just the past few months.
I make my way up to the grave, a misty rain wetting my face.
• • •
We buried him at the base of a tree, a decision that has caused my mother no small amount of heartache over the years. My father loved the woods, and this was a good-size oak at the time, its limbs and branches dappling sunlight and shadow. But the tree is now 45 years larger, and its thirsty roots and deep summer shade make it difficult to keep grass underneath. My father’s gravesite these days is more bare spot than green patch, and my mother fusses over the pebbles and sand that sift over the marble marker.
I lean down to sweep away a bit of dirt and leaf duff. Knuckles of roots from the oak tree breach the ground near the headstone, and I know enough about trees to imagine the roots under my feet, encircling the casket, taking and giving, embracing my father. As I recall — I was only 13 at the time — he wanted to be buried in a simple pine box, but that’s not allowed in the regulatory confines of this municipal cemetery. Vaults are required. Massive structures that serve some inscrutable funereal purpose. I toe the edge of an oak root that snakes outward from the base of the tree and I can’t help but smile, knowing that all these years later, he got what he wanted, to be wrapped in the arms of nature.
As I brush off the headstone, the plastic flowers shower rainwater on the marble, and suddenly it hits me: I have brought nothing to leave. No flowers, no photographs of his grandchildren, no totem from past or present to serve as a marker of my own remembrance. I look around. The cemetery is a sea of leftover plastic Christmas poinsettias and ribboned wreaths tipped over by storms, flags and balloons and bouquets bright as hope itself. I shake my head. Another shortcoming.
But it’s the acorns that finally bring the tears. It is late winter, and the cemetery has been mown and raked who knows how many times over the past few months. Nestled against the headstone, however, are tiny piles of small brown nuts. Acorns from the tree that shades my father, from the very ground he nourishes. I pick up half a handful and stick them in my pocket just as a breeze picks up and I hear tolling bells: Someone has hung a pair of wind chimes in a neighboring oak. The chimes ring a sonorous melody of memory, and I am saddened by the fact that I am departing with a totem of this place without leaving behind any token of my respect.
“The soft ringing in the trees and the acorns on the ground are markers that point to the forgiveness I need to extend to myself.” photograph by Charles Harris
Kneading the acorns like a rosary, hearing the chimes, walking through the rain, I know instantly that I will write about this. It is all I have ever done — filter my life through the prism of a page. And as swiftly as I understand this, the thought rises that to write of this moment seems somehow exploitative. It seems to cheapen all that I am experiencing. Whoever left those flowers came and went with no notice of their gesture. They sought no acknowledgment. There was only the memory of my father to whisper a word of gratefulness as they paid their respects.
But I know I will write, cannot help but write, no more than this oak tree can fight the urge to lean south toward the sun. I stand up from the headstone, knees creaking, rain on my shoulders, and turn downhill toward the truck.
• • •
On the afternoon my father died, I walked home from school, making my way around the last, long curve in the road that led to our house. I first saw one car, then two, then three, parked in our driveway. Step by step, as I rounded the curve, more of the scene was revealed. More cars. People at the front door. People clustered on the back patio. Even as a child, I knew something was amiss.
I’ve thought often of that unfolding view, that incremental awareness as I walked around the curve in the road. I think of it again, now, looking in the rearview mirror as I pull away from my father’s grave. I watch a sort of reverse image unfold: Trees and shrubs intermittently block out the view of my father’s grave. I see it, then it disappears, then it is visible again. The rise of the hill soon obscures the slope of ground entirely. Somewhere along the drive out of the cemetery, I begin to make my way back home.
And that’s when it strikes me that, perhaps, this visit to the cemetery, this journey home to my father, might be, in some ways, a journey of grace. That the soft ringing in the trees and the acorns on the ground and the mist that masks my tears are markers that point to the forgiveness I need to extend to myself. Too many years have passed since I last passed this way. And, to be honest, I can’t say that too many more won’t pass before I return. But pulling out of the cemetery, I begin to understand that what I might leave behind matters less than what I carry forward.
I can only hope that this is the case. That perhaps my words are like those flowers in the rain. That perhaps these lines are the chimes singing from my father’s tree.
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One of the last old-school fish houses in Onslow County stands sentry on the White Oak River. Clyde Phillips Seafood Market has served up seafood and stories since 1954 — an icon of the coast, persevering in pink.