The grave is but a covered bridge Leading from light to light, through a brief darkness!” Henry Wordsworth Longfellow
Daddy’s red truck bumped along, edging into the woods where we would work. It was my first day to help with the branches, and I was excited. My older sister and brother doubted that I would produce – even I knew that. I’d heard the chuckles and whispered words like dreamer – and worse – behind their hands. Though I knew some of it was deserved because I often disappeared into the truck to read and ponder things, I wondered if they were jealous of the freedom I felt in my secret thoughts.
The fragrance of the cedars that wafted through the slightly open window carried me high above reality enabling me to forget some cruelties of life. Well, not forget really, as my lowered eyes took in the metaphor provided by the myriad ground coverings beneath the trees. I would still know what lay below the layer everyone saw, but, in the safety of the forest, I could cover the memories with fragrant beauty and choose to look at that instead.
I’d seen adults refuse to forget the ugliness of anger and hurts. Returning pain for pain or going without speaking to one another for weeks or months. I did not know then that it was possible with God’s strength to release the bitterness that coated such unhappy hearts. For now, the possibility of covering the sad thoughts of my mind with a fresh layer brought hope. Inhaling the fresh scent revived my soul in the same way as when I saw a flower rise up in town – right out of a crack in the hard cement.
My older brother would go from tree to tree and chop branches, and my sister and I would gather the freshly cut cedar branches. We would set them on top of the form – a wide X-shaped wooden frame with sticks rising up at each of the corners like arms, raised in celebration of life. Four sticks for the four stages: birth, youth, maturity, and then death. The frame seemed to be reaching up to welcome the branches and to celebrate the completion of the journey.
These fragrant arms of love that God put here would be placed over cold graves, giving a final warm evergreen hug to the earth from which each soul had been made and covering with their beauty the life below it. I pictured our branches placed over the hearts of those in the grave, silently thanking God for His branches on my heart like a grave blanket, covering … protecting. Covering the secrets of a life that others might never know. There were good secrets, yes, but many more sad ones – all covered.
Except from God.
We stacked, turned and angled the layers until a soft green cascade was formed, then tightly bound them together with twine that got hidden among the branches. An older brother or sister’s strength was needed then, to pull up the finished grave covering, releasing it from its wooden cross-like container. With each one I released a sigh of satisfaction and the thought that I had helped create that beauty.
Other Memorial Day’s I’d marched with others down the rows of the cemetery, admiring the soft curves of the living greens that graced the hard flat place of death. I almost felt like part of the forest knowing that even in the tree’s death it had provided this gift of comfort, like a mother tenderly covering her sleeping child. Death, it seemed, was thus a natural part of our life, and in some ways appeared more peaceful and desirable than the ever-present scary realities of my life away from my green cathedral. How many dark thoughts I had released here in the forest! Released and traded for soaring hope that one day I could be like this fulfilled tree, finding my purpose by honoring those gone before, and feeling reunited with my ancestors who’d walked these paths before me.
A Native American prayer I heard later brought back these feelings as they invoked the Great Mystery – the creator of all things: “Who holds in Your right hand the years of our lives and in Your left the opportunities of each day. Brace us that we may not neglect our gifts nor lose in laziness the hopes of each day and the hopes of each year.”
If I was to embrace life as these branches embraced death, I must work hard to find the hope and opportunities in all of life – even the hard things. I’d experienced from my hero Daddy, and my big sister especially, that love covers a multitude of sins. Thinking of the soldiers who also gave themselves for me, I imagined their love of country and freedom crowded out the hate, filling our country’s heart with seeds of hope and new life to all that it touched. I soaked up the love I felt in the forest, believing if my heart filled with love it would have no room left for bitterness and hatred.
Layer after layer covered my heart, just as I’d learned that Indians covered themselves – especially in special battle array. I had not known that their preparation was the same for any imminent physical danger – not just in war, but illness or injury even in times of peace, in case the result of the conflict was death, so they could be ready to meet their maker with the best possible presentation. Perhaps, I thought, that God was showing me to focus on His goal for me, and not so much the path. Last things first.
I was determined to endure what I was sure was the work of honoring death amidst life– trimming the branches, properly stacking and holding them for tying into arrangements for the Memorial Day graves – and, to be honest, I was doing it as a means to visit my beloved forest again. What I did not know was that the forest with its lessons was waiting as eagerly for me – already prepared by Abba-Father.
So many questions to be answered yet, Daddy had counseled, and even the answers had questions, so I would always be learning. Black Elk, an Ogala Sioux, said to look for wisdom from those who are worthy of old age – who have seen their days and proven themselves with the help of the Great Spirit.
I loved to learn, and felt connected to God under the canopy of forest life. His trees, creatures and creations of the forest talked to me and taught me, as did the stories and history of my Daddy and our ancestors.
My heart squeezed with grief since then. Friends matured into soldiers and sailors – going off to wars. Some came home. Many I have loved have not. I’ve seen and felt the cost of freedom, and the smell of cedar makes me cry.
My heart enlarged with respect and does so every Memorial Day for all those who stand in my place, securing a place of safety generations after themselves.
I salute and honor their courage and great sacrifice, grateful for their protection, and for the creator of those values and virtues who also gave His child for my eternal security.
Under His canopy I feel safe. Covered and tenderly held with an eternal hug.