As an only child, sometimes I admit to being envious of people with siblings, especially later in life. How great it must be to grow old with someone who has known you almost from the start.
Sure, I was always affectionately called “the baby” who never had to share presents, clothes, or a parent’s attention while growing up. As I made my way in the world I didn’t have the burden of someone else’s image to fall short of or someone else’s ego to overshadow. But, I also never had anyone to help split chores, escape discipline, or stand up to a fight – or sort out the complexities of family over the years.
And, as we age, we only children become the lone dancer in the ceremonies of parental care.
Gratefully, I have created an extended family of Sister-Friends – Black, White and Hispanic – who have become my fellow travelers for several decades on this journey of Race and Change experiences in America. Now we also share another bond linking the first wave of Boomers. I have joined them as part of the growing sisterhood of motherless daughters as the baton is passed our way.
Our generation seems to be mastering the routines of end-life caretaking with varying degrees of grace. Some are daily ministers, wiping foreheads, squeezing hands, and holding on tight until the end of their loved one’s journey. Some are healers of the past, dabbing away resentments and sipping some sweetness from those final hours. Others squirm – at sitting still, at placing their lives on hold for someone else. They may avoid phone calls or wish their duties away. Those with resources call upon them; but most just get up, face the music, and resume the rhythm again the next day.
The only child may have to assume all those roles at some point, to some degree, and may carry the sense of loss alone. But when the mother-stone that sharpened her edges is gone, the motherless daughter gets to create our own ritual of remembering.
That’s how I found myself recalling the stately grandmother tree and my mourning of its demise a decade ago.
I sat relaxing on the back patio of my church on a Sunday looking out at the clearing where the tree had been recently removed. I had taken her for granted for so many years. When the humid Florida morning would send others inside for after-service fellowship in the cooler air, I would accept her offering of a canopy of shade.
It was easy to see how she got her name. Like a perpetual sentry she stood, full grown and mature long before most of us were born, formidable in size. At least 10 sets of human arms could link around her trunk comfortably. Deep roots curled up around it like cords of muscle circling a leathery thigh. Cracks and spider vein scars formed crevices hollowed by time. Moss, like a grayish tangle of matted, uncombed hair, dripped copiously to the ground from branches broken in places but reaching for the sun, sprouting hope with each new leaf.
It took one of the strongest storms in recent memory to topple her. Or maybe she was finally ready to give up. Either way, after many months, scores of hands, and thousands of dollars, her remains were disposed of – but her legacy remains.
What a graceful way to grow old when the time has passed for dancing alone in the wind, I thought then, staring at the space she once held. That’s what I will continue to remember for the remainder of this journey alone.