I grew up Southern Baptist. I lived at the church not only on Sunday but I was there for Wednesday night suppers, Tuesday night Royal Ambassadors, Thursday night witnessing, and on Friday or Saturday there were often youth activities to attend. I was religious. Some of my friends were Catholic, which for us Southern Baptists in those days was one step away from a cult. Methodists were okay but misguided, Presbyterians needed a good dunk, Episcopals were half Catholic and half Protestant in other words mixed nuts.
So you can imagine when one of my best Catholic friends ask me to be in his wedding, I was very curious how the pagan rite went. John, my friend, and I played football together and I hung out at his house a lot. John, as a teenager, was a bit awkward with women. In fact I believe if we had not set him up for his first date he would have remained a bachelor. But we knew he liked this girl so we arranged for them to meet and have a date at a party. We chose an open setting because we were not sure how he might act. He was the same guy, as I laid on his bed, who came into the room with bulging cheeks and said, “Look I am popping a pimple” and pressed his cheeks and spit out mayonnaise all over the place. We had sincere doubts that his sense of humor would be understood by any woman.
So at the party we introduced John to his date and they sat down together in uncomfortable silence for a while. I encouraged him to talk to her. He looked very unsure of himself but finally mustered the courage to speak. He reached out and touched her on the thigh and said, ‘You have fat thighs”. We all looked horrified. Of all the awkward things he could have said this was not even on my list. But, she, to her credit looked at him and said, ‘Your hair is way too kinky”. And that was the beginning of John’s dating life.
In fact John was the first of my friends to get married. He joined the Army and became something of a ladies’ man. And it was his Catholic wedding I was invited to be a groomsman. The wedding would be lead by two ministers a Catholic priest and a Baptist minister. His fiance was Baptist. So on one side sat the Catholics and across the aisle sat the Baptists. Now among my unchurched friends I quickly became the ‘expert’ of when to stand and sit and how to behave. The only thing was that I knew nothing of the Catholic ceremony and traditions. Of course the Catholics do everything wrong. They sit and stand and even kneel more than is appropriate. So during the Catholic section you would see the Catholic devout rise smoothly up and down. On the Baptist side we were watching the Catholics to see if we should be sitting, standing or kneeling. Needless to say the Baptist side was always one or two beats behind the Catholics. They were standing, we were sitting. They knelt and we struggled with the prayer bench banging it to the floor. And so the whole comical scene went on through the service. At last the Baptists sighed in relief for their awkwardness when we got to the Lord’s Prayer. We all knew this one. Except that the Catholics do not have the last line of the prayer as we do. So when the Catholic side stopped the Baptist side continued until they realized the Catholics and their priest had stopped. Now each Baptist was on their own. Some kind of mumbled to an instant end. But a few of us decided ‘what the hell’ we will continue to the end but by the end there was only about three or four of us left. So the crowd of 200 had turned to see when the three stragglers would stop. Some Catholics probably were worried that the Baptist version had no end.
But the ceremony did end. We had the reception. The Baptist minister did not attend because the liquor flowed too freely. The priest, to my shock, was fully engaged in the flow of alcohol. But the thing that made the reception so unusual was John wanted to celebrate with his new Michigan family by playing football. Some of us in the wedding party realized now why we had been chosen. We were his ex-teammates and he wanted to beat his new horde of in-laws. So out in an empty field John and his party waited for the arrival of her brothers, cousins and such to arrive for the big game. I was thinking it would be a nice friendly touch football game. I was also thinking since they were from the North it wold be a civilized game. Then they arrived in overalls with no shirts and flaming red hair. Each over six feet and none under 250 pounds. And it was announced this would be a full contact game.
An hour later bruised, bleeding, and aching in every part of our bodies we returned to the reception. I felt bad for the bride as we carried her crippled black-eyed groom to her. We won but most importantly we had bonded in the mud with his new family. I have to say I enjoy Catholic weddings.
Nature has so many surprises to give us. The beauty of colorful places. The majestic sites of mountains, waterfalls, marshes, and beaches. The awe inspiring skies. The diversity of life. Cold winds and warm breezes. A sun bath or a rain drench. Snow or mud. Volcanic eruptions or hurricane winds. Quiet or sounds of birds singing. And we simply sit among it sharing its grandeur.
Occasionally, there are moments that are beyond holy. The quiet cold morning on Jekyll Island when my youngest and I were wrapped in blankets sat on the beach watching her first sunrise together. Dorothy is the quiet observer in the family. So moments like these are enhanced by her presence. You can feel her appreciation in the almost electricity that flows off her body and by the ever so quiet sigh of joy.
This is why she probably has magical moments I do not when we are in Nature. Nature approves her quiet appreciation more than my bursting out in eulogy. Once on a boardwalk in Francis Beidler Forest, she was walking with the rest of the family. She was fifteen yards in front of us when suddenly we saw her stop in her tracks and look over the fence to a cyprus tree. Sitting on a limb on the tree was an owl. It was no farther than four feet from her. It was eye level. It studied her. She studied it. The rest of us stopped in our tracks mesmerized by the two. They were separated from us by an invisible wall. Dorothy turned her head slightly and the owl followed. She whispered to it and it replied even once letting out the classic who. I do not know how long they stood there together, after all it was a moment of eternity which cannot be measured. Dorothy turned to us with the biggest grin on her face.She was welcoming inside her world. She turned one last time to look at the owl. The owl took flight over her head as it flew by she could feel the wind from the owl’s wings. She shared no words about the experience but the glow around her said it all.
At the end of the trail is a hollowed out, several stories high cyprus tree that you can stoop into and look up and see the sky through the tunnel of the tree. Dorothy was the last one in and she looked up at the sky. I asked her, after she had come out, if she had seen anything so amazing. She looked at me with patient eyes and said an owl Dad an owl. And this is the story: I am always on to the next adventure and she keeps her eternal time.
Trees were an important part of my life. I have through the years tried to instill this same feeling in my children. There are certain trees that have fared me well in these ventures.
There is an old oak tree that lives on Oatland Island (Savannah’s Zoo it is sometimes called). It has a few native Georgia animals, an old heritage home site, a marsh boardwalk, and native woodlands with trails. It is run by the local school system. There is one tree we encountered many years ago that now sits in front of the wolf observatory. Back then it was an oak tree along a path that led to the wolf compound. It had a limb that stood out at about my chest height. It was the perfect limb to sit my son and then later his two sisters. We took pictures of each on that limb every time we were there. As they grew older they no longer were content with my placing them on the limb but now insisted on climbing to the spot. It was our tree. At least I thought it was. But through the years that limb began to develop a distinct butt impression from all of the other children who had obviously been hoisted or climbed to that exact spot. It was obviously its own exhibit for many children over the years. Because of erosion the tree is shorter; it is more the height of my hip now. My children who are much older now still insist on sitting there. Regretfully, it looks as though in another ten years, although they have taken measures to preserve it, this tree will be gone. But it will not leave without living a full life of beauty and charm for several generations. Who could ask more from our friend?
There is a circle park that lies between the kindergarten through eighth grade public school and our home. Both of my daughters attended every year there. The park has two benches, grass lawn, a few smaller trees and five huge oak trees. The park is quiet for the most part. But for two hours after school it becomes the release valve of joy and play for many children before they go home or go to their various sport or ballet practices. There is no playground, only grass and trees. So for many of the children it has been the place where they first learn the fine art of tree climbing. There is one oak tree that is the favorite. Its big broad limbs reach almost to the ground. The sight of the smaller children hoisting their friends up to the limb is both charming and comical. My two daughters each have spent many an afternoon in that tree climbing higher and higher into the massive tall tree. It is a parental lesson for conquering your fears for your children as they venture higher and higher into the tree that appears at times to touch the sky. As a parent you battle your desires of how high should you let them climb without you being able to help them. This desire is balanced by the desire to be the parent who does not teach fear or stunt their natural growth. Every day the children push higher into the tree and every day the parent stands at the bottom trying to encourage and yet fighting the urge to say slow down. The cycle of life lives out at the circle park every day.
There is an old cedar tree that reaches out over the Skidaway Marsh in Skidaway Island State Park. It is a tree that begs you to climb and stretch over the wet marsh. There is risk in that if you fall you will be wet or at least muddy. But the tree has that wonderful scent of cedar and cragginess of an old tree. My children love to sit and rest and view the marsh here. We had a wonderful picnic on that tree once. A memory etched in my heart forever. My oldest daughter, who now goes to Georgia Tech, took a photography class and wanted to incorporate the tree into her portfolio. She returned to take the picture of the tree; it was gone. The recent hurricane had taken it with it. Hurricanes are one of life’s chaotic binges that can change our lives forever. My daughter returned to Georgia Tech once again as she grows more and more independent. But there is a memory of a tree that once shared its life with us. There are moments of time that are frozen within that can never be totally lost. A tree that we thought would be with us for many more years of our life was struck down. Sadly it was struck down before it could be memorialize.
Trees are our companions along this life. They as the different people we meet have lessons to teach and memories to give. I honestly believe that trees are part of the village we need to raise our children. The trees of my children are more than these three but for now we rest the pen and smile and remember.