Transmutation

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Peat Bakke/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Peat Bakke/Flickr (CC-by)

My mother died fifteen years ago. The last time we spoke she revealed to me confidentially that she had once had two daughters. All I could think of was King Lear.

After her death my sister cremated her and scattered her ashes in the Pacific Ocean; she wasn’t sure where, she said. The night she phoned with the news, my mother traveled to me in a dream, shrouded in white. She wants me to make a memorial for her in New York, where she was born, I decided. But it was too late for an urn. I needed a grave-marker—not necessarily a headstone—but at least a place for her in my head. My daughter-in-law, a botanist with the New York City Parks Department, had a tree planted in her memory near our apartment in Manhattan. My mother had also been a plant lady, who seemed happier raising African violets than her own children. I didn’t tell my sister about the tree. She wasn’t exactly sentimental.

Finally my mother had a place to anchor her spirit after it had drifted aimlessly around in the Pacific. But the pink dogwood, Cornus florida, survived only into its first winter. The sapling was splintered and uprooted by a vandal, leaving only a blotch of bark behind. It was New Year’s Eve. That spring a second dogwood was planted for her behind a park fence for protection. She had another home now.

The new tree flourished, producing its first blooms about a year later. In tribute I bought a bouquet of baby’s breath and tossed the sprays singly into its heart. It responded that fall by producing a second floral display. My daughter-in-law, of a more scientific temperament than my own, explained it as a natural phenomenon. The tree had hoarded some of its spring buds for an autumn encore, she said. But I preferred to believe it was with my mother’s connivance. A fanciful idea no doubt, because she usually didn’t thank people for anything. The dogwood repeated its performance the following fall. Its branches were beginning to grow horizontally now, providing a haven for small creatures, a maternal instinct my mother hadn’t shown much of when she was alive. After a sudden cold snap I inspected the tree to see if it had been affected by the weather. The leaves appeared to have changed almost overnight from green to bronze, but flower-like bracts enclosing clusters of tiny red berries clung tenaciously to the twigs. Chattering little birds nibbled on the berries and a few squirrels were camped around the trunk. I shivered as I watched them. A nervy squirrel scampered up to me begging for food, but I didn’t have any.
The tree continued its biannual growing cycles for several years, until I returned from vacation one summer to find most of its leaves brown and shriveled. It had been exceptionally hot and because it lacked an umbrella of taller trees to shade it, the dogwood must have succumbed to the heat. I hoped after the winter it would come back. It didn’t. It remained barren throughout that spring and summer, almost hidden behind its abundantly-leaved sisters.

It never came back. Soon it couldn’t even be seen from the other side of the fence. Now and then I checked. No change. One day I couldn’t find it at all, so I climbed over the fence to see if it had really vanished. It had. Parks must have finally given up on the stunted trunk and carted it off. The saga of the tree seemed to profile my mother’s life. But recently when I stopped by the spot where it used to be to watch a few birds pecking at a budding ground-vine, it hit me. Although the Cornus florida was gone for good, my mother meant to stick around, assuming whatever shape she needed.

pencilAfter retiring from teaching Art History to undergraduates for twenty years, I signed up for a memoir-writing class. I’ve been at it ever since. A piece I wrote on teaching English in the Peace Corps in Somalia, “Girls’ School,” appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo (Travellers’ Tales, 2011). Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

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