Photo Credit: Courtesy
The author at her wedding with her relatives.

Last week my husband and I celebrated our thirty-something wedding anniversary. There was a teeny tiny part of me that wanted to watch our wedding video, but logic trumped nostalgia and I shooed that teeny tiny sentimental snippet away and reminded myself that there was a reason why I had never wanted a video in the first place.

Although I got married young, I was still mature enough to be able to look into the future and know that one day I would watch that video and the layer of family and friends just above me would no longer be alive. I decided back then that I didn’t want a video at all, that I only wanted pictures; that I wanted to remember the not-yet-dead in my own way, in my own mind. I wanted to be able to embellish, to detract, to recreate scenes that existed purely in my mind, out of memory and whimsy. I didn’t want to be faced with the stark reality of what had actually happened, and I certainly didn’t want to see the dead come back to life in 1980’s glory.

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But I lost my campaign not to have a video and so it sits, as predicted, unwatched, collecting dust with the kids’ old Barbie movies; and one day, when no one owns a VCR anymore, I anticipate that someone will be brave enough to toss it.

Moments after my daughter was married, a family friend hugged me tight and whispered in my ear, “Did you feel your father’s spirit under the chuppah?” I had not, because another friend had given me the very excellent advice to try and stay in the moment during the wedding so that I wouldn’t have the entire event pass me by in a dreamy haze. My friend looked at me expectantly, her eyes shining. I knew what she wanted to hear, and in the longest second ever, I weighed the pros and cons of truth versus lie. Truth prevailed and I let her down easy, soothing her with some well-worn platitudes and thanking her for feeling my father’s absence.

In the month leading up to our anniversary, we had two family weddings, one from each side. It was inevitable at each simcha to note the leaves that had fallen off the family trees, the gaps in the branches. My mother walked down the aisle flanked by two of her grandchildren; my brother-in-law was escorted to his chuppah by my father-in-law and an uncle. During both of these ceremonies I was an observer, not a participant. I allowed my mind to drift a little – unlike at my daughter’s wedding – and a small finger of melancholy tapped me on the shoulder. I quickly brushed it away along with the tears that threatened to spill over and ruin my makeup. I concentrated instead on the crystals woven into my niece’s hair and on my daughter who was not at the wedding because she was home taking care of her newborn baby.

My brother-in-law is the family’s genealogist. He prunes the family tree, adding and subtracting names and finding relatives in the most obscure places. On paper the imprint of our lineage bears no resemblance to an actual tree. It’s an intricate maze of lines and dates and names, dizzying and complex. My husband and his family are descendants from the tribe of Yisacchar, who our forefather Yaakov compared to a strong boned donkey that can carry a heavy load. Pushing aside all jokes about obstinate donkeys and family traits, Rashi explains that the burden referred to in this pasuk is that of the Torah; and after being part of the Miller family for so many years I can attest that this is a burden they carry with honor and great strength.

When I sit at my kitchen table I face a window whose view obscures any hint of modern suburban life. All I see is trees and foliage and a white picket fence; and if it’s early enough in the day or late enough at night, the silence belies the existence of the two minor highways that sandwich my street. I don’t know much about dendrology or xyolology; my thumbs are not green but a decidedly dingy shade of brown. I once managed to kill a ficus even though I was assured that it was indestructible. I am however an avid tree watcher; I’ve discovered that their life cycle outside of my window echoes that of the mortal realm.

The tree on the left has leaves shaped like oversized almonds which start falling off the branches in late August. Each year their premature descent never fails to shock me and I hear their silent screams. “Too soon, too soon,” they shriek as they are wrenched off the branches. It is achingly painful to lose leaves early and I grieve bitterly for every single leaf. Even though I know intellectually that they were programmed to have only the briefest sojourn on this earth, each one lost is a piercing wound.

Thankfully, the other trees behave predictably, as nature intended. They turn crimson, amber, and marigold. They stay that way for a while and the rest of the yard bows to them, admiring their beauty and basking in their reflected radiance. The air chills; icy diamonds cloak the leaves with a blinding shimmer. The leaves wrinkle and fall gently to the ground, surrounded by all the other leaves whose time has also come. I am sad but not inconsolable because I know that trees are strong, resilient; although the leaves fall, they are ultimately replaced. Branches don’t stay bare forever. In time, tiny buds flourish into rich green foliage and the fallen leaves become nourishment for the roots. Even the tree on the left miraculously resuscitates itself and for a brief while the backyard is complete again; lush and verdant; perfect.

Shortly after my grandson was born I happened to look out at the yard from an upstairs window. The view from atop was slightly askew compared to my normal perspective, and I noticed a flash of scarlet on one of the evergreen trees. It was early September and the leaves had not yet begun to transform, and for a brief second when the sun shone just so I thought the tree was on fire. I tilted my glasses a little for a better view but the sun was so bright I couldn’t make out the edges of whatever was there. I looked away to recalibrate my vision and saw a cardinal hopping around on the grass, also an unusual sight at this time of year.

Later in the day after the sun had journeyed to another part of the sky, I looked out of the window again. The swath of color that I had seen turned out to be a clump of red leaves. How it had gotten there was a mystery; was it growing aberrantly from the tree or did a bird drop a bunch of loose leaves there and somehow they had entwined themselves in the evergreen? Either way, the tree was not on fire and my imagination had run amok. The next day just to entertain myself I looked outside again at the same time of day from the same window, and sure enough, I was fooled into thinking the tree was on fire again. And the cardinal was back, too. It doesn’t really take much for me to take the leap to the supernatural, and I was sure that the red burning leaves were a sign from my late father; perhaps acknowledging the fact that his new great grandson was named after him, perhaps just winking at me. Dad was a leaf that lived long enough to turn color but not long enough to shine. He was taken from us in the late afternoon of his life; certainly it was no coincidence that the leaves now burned in the late afternoon. After a few days of this, the sun changed its trajectory and the leaves lost their fire. The cardinal disappeared as well, and although I don’t think it materialized through happenstance, I have yet to ascribe meaning to its mysterious appearance.

It turns out I was wrong about my wedding video lying around with the Barbie movies: I can’t seem to find it at all. I also wanted to go back to my friend and tell her that I had encountered my father.s spirit, although not where she thought it would be.

It’s almost winter, and thanks to the evergreens my yard still looks pretty good. Here’s another fact about that tree on the left that starts losing its leaves early: it is such a bountiful tree that it is still dropping its leaves at this very second. This seems like a good omen, kind of like the unexpected cardinal.

My daughter sent us a video of our grandson cooing at his toys. We watched it at least a thousand times which made me feel a little bad about losing my wedding video. My brother-in-law became a grandfather again and added another leaf to the family tree.

After the clock changed I went to the upstairs window to see if the sun would once again work its magic on the red leaves. But the light was all wrong and even after adjusting the tilt of my glasses a million times I saw that the clump of leaves was gone. Were they ever there at all, or were they just a mirage, a wishful illusion?

It came to me then in a rush of understanding, a thought that had been simmering, just beneath the surface of consciousness. I was reminded of Moshe when he encountered the burning bush, the bush that was on fire but miraculously not consumed. Hashem spoke to Moshe then and told him what his mission was, and Moshe’s response was, “Who am I?” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks commented that it’s not just a question of worthiness that Moshe posited, it was also a question of identity.

Who am I?

From the very first moments of birth, we are all able to answer this question. At the very least you are a son or a daughter. Perhaps you are also a sibling, a grandchild, a niece or nephew. Your family tree is your first identity. Later, other appellations will ensue. Wife. Mother. You ask yourself if your career defines you; you wonder if motherhood counts as a career. Your grandparents die, two leaves fall, and you ask, “Am I still considered a grandchild?” A father dies and you can’t imagine why the tree doesn’t just shrivel up and turn to dust; you are happy that you never watch your wedding video because the sight of his smile would be utterly unbearable. But life marches on and your father.s death emboldens you to unleash your creativity in a way that would have made him swell with pride. You become a great aunt who knits tiny hats because every family tree needs a knitter to keep those tiny heads cute and warm. A young man shows up with your daughter and starts to call you mom

If I step ten feet closer to my kitchen window, the view outside is totally different. Artists call this phenomenon “perspective,” an apt moniker for the skill of being able to see the big picture. Weeks before our anniversary we welcomed a tiny new leaf onto our immediate family tree. A sister becomes an aunt; a parent is now a grandparent. The generations shift into their new positions to make room for the littlest leaf, a leaf that burns like fire and whose mere existence cloaks the family tree with an incandescent glow. The tree is once again lush and verdant; perfect.

 

* “The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about that country’s soul…
A culture is no better than its woods.”
― W.H. Auden

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Dr. Chani Miller, the mother of two daughters, is the chief optometrist at Park Eye Center, a private optometric practice in Highland Park, NJ.