The Grandmother Tree
“So Grandma is in that tree?” Boston asked his mother.
“That’s what she said dear,” and then in an imitation of her late mother-in-law Caroline said, “When my time comes I’ll join all the other grandmothers in the old tree.”
Boston was sitting on the painted steps of the front porch, his arms around his bare knees, his mouth open. It was mid summer, and the sweet evening breeze swept through the yard, dancing with the leaves on the high maple tree. Caroline touched her son’s hair gently. Grease on her fingers meant he needed a bath. The little boy enjoyed the touch of his mother’s hand, but he wasn’t thinking about that, he was thinking about the tree.
“Why did she want to go into the tree?” he asked.
“Well,” Caroline started. “Your grandmother believed we all came from the earth, and that we all return in the end, and a tree is a part of the earth.”
“But why did she want this tree?”
“To be close to us silly,” and Caroline squeezed her son’s sides. “Come on inside now, get washed up.”
Boston followed his mother inside the house, thinking about his grandmother and the tree, and the earth, but his grandmother mostly.
After he ate supper, Boston had a bath, and then he went up to his room and sat by the window, looking down at the tree until his mother came in and tucked him into bed. The dark night was warm and still. A dog barked several times down the street, and the crickets were twitching and chirping in the thickets. Boston laid in his bed, nicely tucked under the thin sheets, his head on a soft pillow, the room small and dark with a bluish film of light coming in the window, and he was thinking about his grandmother.
Virginia had been a very sweet grandmother to Boston. She always smiled when he came into the room, and spoke nicely to him, calling him ‘Boss’, and she always played on the floor with him, shooting marbles, or building blocks. She tickled him sometimes, and he tried to tickle her, but she wasn’t ticklish. Boston tickled her all over one day, her belly, her ribs, her feet, her armpits, her palms, her knees, her neck, but none of those places worked. She just wasn’t ticklish.
When his parent’s told him that his grandmother had passed away, Boston was unsure of how to feel. He was undecided for a while. Until one day when he took out his marbles to play and began, quite unexpectedly, to cry. He was no longer uncertain after that; sadness felt right, felt good somehow. But his tears dried, and with the dryness came a new feeling, one much worse than pure sadness. Boston hadn’t said good-bye to his grandmother, and this he regretted. It was this pain of regret that caused him to slip from his bed and sit quietly, remorsefully, by his window. Looking out he saw something vanish into the tree. It happened quickly, before he had had a clear view, but he had seen the wisps of a white garment, like a cotton nightgown.
“Grandma,” he whispered, sitting by the cool window in the blue moonlight.
With that thought he crept from his bedroom, down the hall to the stairs, down the stairs to the front hall, and out the door into the night. Standing in front of the ancient maple, the moonlight shimmered in his tracks through the moist grass. The house behind him, large and white, was dark and quiet. The tree breathed gently in the night. Boston had his hands in the pockets of his pajamas, and he looked down at the thick roots of the trees. He imagined his grandmother lying somewhere in them, wrapped up in bark, part of the tree somehow. He stepped next to the wide maple, resting his hand on the thick bark.
“Grandma,” he said, his voice small but sharp in the silent night. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
Boston leaned forward and wrapped his little arms around the tree as best he could. He drew a deep breath against the tree and said, “Goodbye Grandma.”
A spot at the base of the tree just above the soft earth sank in, and like a door there was a framed opening. Boston heard the sound of the bark twisting and contracting and stepped away. The passageway was small, but real, and there was a thin set of stairs leading down into a realm of darkness. Boston bent over and peered into the dark tunnel. There was a hint of light at the bottom, a flicker of warm orange, and the faintest touch of voices chattering.
The night drew on, thin clouds shifting across the dark sky, and Boston remained fixed on the passageway. He was bent at the waist, staring with wide eyes into the darkness. Something drew him forward, he didn’t know what, but he was taking a step suddenly. And then another, and then he was walking down the narrow stairs, and looking back at his distant house out in the night.
The flickering of orange light grew and became brighter and more yellow, until it was a full glow, colouring the walls of the underground lair. The voices that Boston had heard became more defined as well. They were old voices, but quick and wild. There was much laughter, and bursts of hoots and howls. Boston was scared, but his legs continued forward. At the bottom of the stairs there was a short hallway and then an open room. The light streamed from the far room, and Boston saw women in white gowns rushing back and forth across the doorway like floating nimbuses. The ground was laid with wooden planks, wet with soil raised up around them. The walls were pressed dirt, great, hard mounds of black earth, with a series of wooden planks placed against them. Boston went along towards the incandescent room.
The women he saw were all very old, their skin was wrinkled, and their hair was gray. Some of them had long, drawn faces, others had small squashed faces, but all of them shared the same excited, youth-like glow as they danced and whirled about. They smiled and laughed, and carried cups of tea in their hands. At the far end of the room there was a table covered in teapots and cups, and little white plates, and platters of banana bread and muffins. Some of the women were singing, or whistling, or humming tunes. And all were dancing. Boston stopped in the doorway. There was a sign erected on the far wall that said, The Grandmothers Club. Boston smiled.
Then the singing and the dancing stopped, and they all turned to the little boy standing conspicuously in the small doorway.
“Can we help you dear?” asked a very tall, long faced grandmother.
Boston teetered back, but grabbed onto the frame of the door. He didn’t want to speak.
“Hello,” said another grandmother.
“What’s your name?” asked a third.
“Come on in sweetie,” said a short, round one.
Boston took a step forward. He was very small. His sailboat pajamas were sky blue in the warm light.
“I’m looking for my Grandma,” he said hesitantly.
The grandmothers, standing in a tight crowd, made noises of interest at his statement.
“What’s your grandmother’s name?” they asked.
Boston was quiet, watching the old women. Suddenly he realized that this was where his grandmother had gone, inside the tree with all the other grandmothers. She had to be here. He set off from the doorway and sifted through the crowd, searching for her familiar face.
“Grandma,” he said excitedly. “It’s me Boss, it’s me. Grandma. I wanted to say goodbye.”
The grandmothers watched him, their eyes shifting and tightening. Boston took another step forward, moving in amongst the old women, calling out for his grandmother. But no one answered. He came out on the other side of the crowd and looked around.
“She’s not here dear,” the tall grandmother said.
“I’m sorry,” said another.
“But she went away,” Boston said. “She went away to the tree, to be with the
earth and the other grandmas, to the tree, this tree.” “What was your Grandma’s name sweetie?” “Her name? It was...Virginia.”
The grandmothers lowered their eyes to the floor. None of them wanted to tell him. Finally the tall grandmother came towards little Boston, lowered to her knee, and looked straight at the sad little boy.
“Virginia has past on dear,” she said. “That’s why she’s not here.”
The tall grandmother pulled Boston into her arms, but the boy struggled free. “I know that,” Boston said sharply. “This is where she came, to be with all the other dead grandmothers.”
The grandmothers looked to one another alarmingly, as if to check if they were alive or not. Boston watched them with a sour face. The tall grandmother drew away from the boy and then said, “We are not dead dear.”
Boston was perplexed. “You aren’t?” he asked.
“No, not at all,” said the tall grandmother.
“We’re more alive than ever,” said another.
“Why are you down here?” the boy asked.
“Cutting loose,” said a grandmother from the back of the crowd. Others giggled. “Dancing,” explained the tall grandmother. “Getting away from the care centers.” “They’re terrible.”
“And they don’t permit dancing.”
“Say it could hurt us.”
They all laughed. Boston was silent, thinking. “So you’re not dead?” he asked after a while. They all laughed.
“But my Grandma said she was going to join⎯”
“Virginia did join us for a while,” said the tall grandmother.
“She was great.”
“Lots of fun.”
“Could dance like the devil.”
“It’s a terrible shame.”
Boston was looking at them all, hearing many voices, he felt dizzy. “Why did she come down here?” he asked.
“All grandmothers come down here at some point,” explained the tall grandmother. “It’s The Grandmothers Club.” “But why down here?”
“Because of the fresh air.”
“It’s rich down here.”
“From the roots of the tree.”
“There is fresh air outside,” argued Boston.
“The oxygen down here is concentrated,” they all explained. “It makes us feel twenty, thirty years younger.”
“Are you always down here?” the boy asked. “Heavens no dear,” said the tall grandmother. “We come down once or twice a week.”
“But we always come back.”
“We have to see our grandchildren.”
“Oh,” Boston said, but he didn’t know if he understood. All he knew was that these old women were not dead, and that his Grandma was not there. He was sad.
“I wanted to say goodbye,” he whispered.
“What did he say?” asked a grandmother from the back.
The tall grandmother repeated what Boston had said, and the others nodded. “We all wanted to say goodbye,” they told the little boy.
“I hoped she would be here. I wanted to say goodbye,” Boston was angry. “Well we can say goodbye!” Said a short, thin, narrow faced grandmother, stepping forth from the crowd. “Sure we can say goodbye. Why, Virginia is right here with us, dancing away, isn’t she girls?”
The grandmothers exchanged glances. Then the tall one exclaimed, “Of course, how silly of me to forget,” and the others went along.
Boston lifted himself a little and came towards them. He was excited suddenly. They had forgotten. And his grandmother was there. They had just forgotten.
“We can say goodbye, of course we can,” said the thin grandmother.
“Yes,” Boston said, “Yes, we can say goodbye. But where is she?”
“Over there!” the thin grandmother shouted, pointing towards the table of tea. “Where?” asked Boston.
The grandmother pointed again. Boston struggled to see. There was no one standing next to the table, no one on that side of the chamber at all. He spun around to face the crowd of old women.
“I don’t see her!” he nearly shouted.
“She’s there,” the thin grandmother persisted. “Don’t worry, you have to look really hard.”
The other grandmothers were lost, and they nudged their thin bodies friend to know what was happening. The grandmother turned to her friends and shrugged her shoulders. She didn’t really know what she was doing either. Then the tall grandmother spoke up, insisting that Boston look harder and deeper.
“She is there dear, trust us. You must look for her.”
Boston strained his eyes on the far end of the room, the table littered in teacups, and the plates of banana bread and muffins, and the bare dirt wall behind it. There was no one, nothing. The grandmothers waited, tensely, unsure of what they had started. Then suddenly Boston gasped. The grandmothers looked wildly at the far wall. They saw nothing.
“Grandma!” Boston shouted, and he raced towards the table.
The grandmothers stood still, silent, watching the little boy as he galloped into an empty space beside the table and proceed to hug the rich, oxygen filled air. They nudged each other, whispering this and that, surprised and confused, and wondering all so much.
“I think he might actually see her?” the tall grandmother whispered to her thin bodied friend.
But the thin grandmother was smiling and watching the boy, and didn’t hear her friend’s remark.
“I truly think he does,” said the tall grandmother more to herself than anyone else. “It’s so sad,” said a voice from behind her.
Boston was hugging and squeezing, and then he laughed wickedly, pulling away from the air as if being tickled, and then jumped back, and his smile hurt. Then after a while he calmed himself, and stood with his hand forward, as if the air were was holding it. He was staring straight at the wall, not moving, not blinking. Then he leaned forward, hugged the air, and said, “Goodbye Grandma, I’m going to miss you.”
For a moment the air seemed a little thicker, a little lighter, a little less like it normally did, and then it was the same again. Boston came back towards the grandmothers, his face was simple, satisfied.
“I’ll think I’ll go to bed now,” he said.
The grandmothers nodded their approval. Boston turned and went away through the doorway and into the hallway of dark earth. He climbed the stairs, leaving the light, and the oxygen, and the grandmothers behind him, and went across the yard in the blue of the moonlight.