Trees, Familial

Trees, Familial by Ali Rachel Pearl

I found myself one summer in a pool of water at the bottom of a gorge called Old Man’s Cave. I was on the cusp of turning twenty-five. I was in my underwear. Behind me, local kids were doing backflips off a cliff into water so shallow it only skimmed the underside of my breasts as I stood upright at its deepest point. On the shore were my adventure companions: my best friend of many years and a photographer I had only met the day before. In the water at the bottom of the gorge, I was sandwiched between the rocks behind me and the shoreline ahead, surrounded by everything my grandmother knew as a child growing up in Ohio.


I found myself that summer in a pool of water at the bottom of a gorge called Old Man’s Cave because I’d once made a list of twenty-five things I wanted to do before I turned twenty-five; on that list, I’d written, visit the town in Ohio where my grandmother was born. But I didn’t live in Ohio, had never even been close. My grandmother lived with my family and me in Colorado, the place I was born, the place where she helped raise me, the place where she died, and Ohio was just a state in the distance, a past life that did not belong to me. My words on that list were full of good intentions, but devoid of practical planning. I wanted to be the kind of person who went chasing after her roots, but in reality I was the kind of person who went chasing after impossible love and imaginary futures.


The impossible love I had spent several years chasing ended just as everyone in my life predicted it would. Broken heart in my hands, I fled the city where I was living out west and ended up on an air mattress in my best friend’s living room in Columbus, Ohio, two days before my twenty-fifth birthday. At dinner I met her friends, and they kindly made space for my hurting. Several cocktails later, a few of us ended up back in her apartment piled on a bed, strangers becoming something that felt like family in the span of only a few hours.


Why did you come to Ohio? everyone whispered to me in the dark. To see the place where my grandmother was born, I lied. It’s not that I hadn’t thought of my grandmother when I decided to make the trip out to Ohio, it’s that I hadn’t remembered my list until I got there. Everyone was drunk enough to believe me, and a decision was made: the next day after the sun rose, we would drive to Logan, the farm town just south of where we lay with our legs entwined, the farm town where my grandmother first came into the world.


By morning, it was Sunday. I phoned my mother and asked her to dig up any addresses her mother might have left behind in the Colorado house where we’d all lived together. She gave me some street names, some numbers. What about that lake grandma used to talk about? I asked her. She told me about Old Man’s Cave. My mother told me that she’d been there only once as a child, but that it was well known in the area. At breakfast, I asked my new friend, an Ohio-born photographer, if he’d heard of the place. He smiled and we loaded up the car and made our way down Highway 33 to Hocking Hills State Park.


Everything collected in that pool of water at the bottom of the gorge called Old Man’s Cave. Rivers. Fallen leaves. Tourists. Me. My best friend. My new adventure companion who had encouraged this trip in the middle of night only seven or so hours before we got in the car and headed south. The pool rested at the lowest point in the gorge where water spilled over rocks and settled. It had a greenish-blue hue that glittered in sun. The pool felt like a secret, even though it was filled with strangers. It felt like a memory, even though I had never been there before.


There is a photograph of me from that day half naked in the water. In it I am glancing off to the right, giggling. There is a girl in a red bikini, mostly submerged, swimming behind me. There is the stilled trickle of a small waterfall. There is a trail of light in the shape of an S that swims from the bottom of the photo to the top, tracing something invisible. You can’t tell, but it is raining. You can’t tell, but I am pretending to be my grandmother. I had never truly believed I would come to this place, but once I was there, it felt as if everything in my life had been leading up to that moment. Two and a half decades of vacillating between wanting to know where my family was from and wondering why anyone cared where their family was from. Two and a half decades of loving people who couldn’t love me back. Two and a half decades of trying to decide what it means to make a family—whether it is blood or choice or circumstance—and settling on no easy answer.


The Sunday of me in my underwear in the rain in a pool at the bottom of a gorge started long before I ever began to wrestle with the idea of rootedness. It started in the winter of 1925 when my mother’s mother was born the fourth child in her family. Maybe it was the third child. These are things I should know, but don’t. My grandmother spent the end of her life tracing our lineage through generations dating back to ancestors who fled Spain for Italy in the 1400s, before the country in which she and I were born was even considered anything other than the land that lay under the people who were here first.


My grandmother was likely not the person I remember her to be. She spent the final decade of her life living on the first floor of our home in Colorado after the husband she didn’t really love passed away. Someone in our family later told me that the man my grandmother really loved was a man from India, about whom I knew nothing. My grandmother was always a strong believer in not airing one’s dirty laundry, and if she weren’t a pile of ashes in an urn, I imagine she’d be rolling over in her grave knowing I spill myself all over every corner of the internet unapologetically, recklessly, and usually without shame. Her granddaughter, forever on display.


Here are some facts about my grandmother:

  1. She always ate Chips Ahoy! chocolate chip cookies for lunch.
  2. She kept a bag of Starburst candy in her dresser drawer.
  3. She forgot her coffee mugs half filled with cold coffee in the microwave.
  4. She washed every rock in our backyard by hand one summer, using the hose to shower each stone before placing it back onto newly laid landscape fabric.
  5. She saved spare change in a glass cup in her desk drawer so that she could one day send my cousin to college.


Before the gorge and the rain and the pool in Ohio, there was my entire life, which was filled almost exclusively with a desire to sever my roots. Rootedness required a narrative of which I wanted no part. Inheritances I didn’t ask for. I did not want to be who my grandmother told me I was. A loner. Better, brighter than the kids who bullied me into invisibility out of sheer jealousy (something I never believed). My grandmother gave me this identity, formed mostly out of what she saw in what she presumed was the mirror of herself. One way we cope with feeling misunderstood is to understand others in place of ourselves. Maybe. This is only a theory, but one I stand by considering my grandmother’s projections of herself onto me at six years old crying into a bowl of cereal, me at twelve writing poems about being utterly alone, me at seventeen, the age I was when she died, being stubborn (both of us), unrelenting (both of us), and looking for a way out. You are a loner, she said, misunderstood. The other kids are just jealous. You are unique. You aren’t like them. You’re simply an old soul. She spoke these sentences as if they were gifts and not traps, as if she were talking about me and not herself.


1929 was the year the economy sank into the Great Depression. My grandmother was four. Two years later, she lost her father. Six months after that, she lost her mother. Of all the children, she was the only one left behind. Her brothers were old enough to care for themselves; her sister—a mere baby—was young enough to be desirable to a barren couple. My grandmother was six and a girl. She was no kind of currency.


The gorge with the pool and the rain and me in it rested just south of the highway that ran through the town where my grandmother was born and abandoned. The day of our adventure, after the rain settled, my best friend, my new friend, and I walked our way out of the cave and up to the parking lot. The asphalt was releasing steam like ghosts rising up all around us, our bodies hot with soggy summer air. I put my dress back on over my wet underthings and we headed to one of the addresses on my slip of paper, an address that used to belong to my dead grandmother’s dead brother’s living daughter and her living husband and her living children.


I’ve never liked the tree metaphor for a family. It implies that a family is an ever expanding, living thing that just grows and grows. It doesn’t account for the way some relatives wither and die. It disavows those who can’t claim blood connections, unless, of course, they’ve married into the tree and become a permanent part of its branches. This doesn’t take into consideration divorce. Remarriage. What happens to a branch when her husband beats her to death and the children disown their father and walk away, never to be seen again? Who are the leaves and who are the roots? Are we each of us our own individual trunk of our own individual trees? Or are we always someone else’s branch, forced into a family we did not choose?


My grandmother was a maker of trees. Or cultivator. She planted a spruce in our backyard when I was young, and it grew from the size of a six-year-old me to the size of our house. Under it rests the ashes of our dog in the garden my grandmother used to weed. And then there’s my grandmother’s other tree, the family tree, bound in several three-ring binders, filled with narratives of people I never had any interest in meeting until I found myself at their doorsteps decades later. As a kid, I helped my grandmother type this information into our family computer. Helped her print the pages that eventually wound up in the binders that hold our history. To me, these people were always strangers. From somewhere in the Midwest. Their stories had nothing in common with the life I lived at the base of the Rocky Mountains.


When I later told friends about how I went looking for my long lost relatives in rural Ohio, they asked me how I knew my relatives still lived at the address my grandmother had listed in the binder. The answer is that I had no idea what I would find, but I also had no idea what I was looking for. Maybe a relative, but, more than that, probably a story or an adventure. If nothing else, I wanted to say that I’d tried. That I’d gone and done the thing we’re supposed to want to do, which is find the people who populate the branches of our family tree.


Before showing up on a potentially unfamiliar doorstep, my best friend, my new friend, and I—my wet underwear from the gorge soaking through my dress—went to lunch at a nearby BBQ restaurant. They asked me what I would say to my relatives if we found them. I wasn’t sure how to answer, so I told them I’d ask my relatives where the rest of the family was buried. I’ve always been more in love with the dead than the living. Open-ended narratives test me in ways I prefer not to be tested. If someone was still alive, they might make assumptions, might have expectations I wouldn’t want to meet. I presumed we’d never find my living relatives anyway, so I hadn’t considered the adventure to be open-ended. Knowing we’d fail was the only thing that got me into the car that morning.


But I was committed to the idea of checking my goal off my list—visit the place in Ohio where my grandmother was born. And I was committed to at least trying to fulfill my familial obligations, obligations my grandmother implicitly saddled me with when she made a narrative out of our family history and gifted it to me as a teenager. As if to say, here is a map for when you eventually need to find your way back to yourself. A map I didn’t ask for. So we got back in the car and drove until we parked at the address I’d carried with me all morning, an address somewhere on the outskirts of Logan, Ohio.


Here’s how I introduced myself to the woman I didn’t know standing in front of me on the doorstep: Hi, I don’t know if you know me, but my grandmother was Vivian Lopez and, if you are who I think you are, then you’re her niece. I’m her daughter’s daughter.


Here’s what she said: Hi, Ali.


If there’s anything that challenges my sense of control more than an open-ended narrative, it’s realizing that I’m part of a larger puzzle I didn’t know existed. When I was a kid, my grandmother and I spent weeks putting together puzzles of Thomas Kinkaid paintings, of Christmas scenes, and grand American landscapes. Once, she introduced a puzzle that wasn’t the traditional rectangular shape, but instead had a border that followed the contours of the image pictured in the puzzle and I lost it. How were we supposed to complete a puzzle for which we couldn’t clearly see the frame? I like to know the size and shape of the box and what’s in it. So standing face to face with a stranger who seemed almost to anticipate my arrival, something that had been a spur-of-the-moment decision only the night before, felt like someone breaking the rules. And as much as I hated the rigidity and confines of a family tree, I somewhat hypocritically took solace in the rules that had always carefully shaped my world.


Here are some things I’ve been told about my grandmother that I hope are true:

  1. As a nurse in the 1940s, she got to witness some of the first penicillin treatments.
  2. She loved a man from India who loved her, too.
  3. The last thing she said before she died was o-u-t, out.


Having a grandmother around my entire life was a gift that I sometimes mistook for a curse. She was a third parent, always scolding me for procrastinating on my homework, but also always caring for me when I stayed home sick from school, forcing me to drink liquid Jell-o before it solidified, insisting that this would cure my nausea. Another adult to impress. Another adult to disappoint. I loved her like I loved my parents and I resented her much the same. She taught me how to hunger for words, how to read and spell, but she also taught me how to act like a martyr rather than admit my own mistakes and how to passive aggressively shield myself from conflict. I never quite figured how to reconcile her strengths with her weaknesses.


An hour had gone by with my friends and my newfound relatives in a house on a road in Logan before anyone told me that my grandmother’s sister, the one who’d been adopted so many years ago, lived just ten minutes away on top of a hill on one-hundred acres of farmland she owned with her daughter and son-in-law. This news was shocking not because of the proximity it implied, but because it raised the dead. All these years, I’d presumed my grandmother’s sister was no longer alive. No one spoke of her. She was an oversight, hidden in some lush corner of the rolling hills of central Ohio. My grandmother, reincarnate. Discovering that my grandmother’s own sister was still alive took everything I thought I knew about my sense of family and turned it on its head. These people I didn’t care about suddenly gave me a destination, a reason, the possibility of absolution. My friends and I walked to the car, and, as committed as we had all become to this adventure over the course of the day, I remained quiet during their expressed excitement at the sudden turn of events.


I wasn’t present at her deathbed, I suddenly blurted out. Then I explained how my cousin and I were the only family members who could not bring ourselves to see my grandmother in a state so embarrassing, so finalizing. The day she died, I lay in my boyfriend’s bed all morning and afternoon, hiding from school, from classes, from people whose family members weren’t dying. Her final moments were told to me second hand. Something for which I’ve never forgiven myself. My brother is the one who reported to me her last words, though he didn’t witness life leaving her body either. O-u-t. Out, she said. He had visited her the day before she died, but at the moment of her death, he was with me, working backstage at our high school production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a musical based on the novel Dickens never completed before he died in 1870.


On the way to my grandmother’s sister’s house, we stopped at the cemetery on the side of the very same highway where my grandmother’s mother died in a car accident, the death that left my grandmother orphaned. The death my grandmother witnessed from the backseat of the car alongside her baby sister, Netty, who I’d just learned was in fact not dead like my grandmother and everyone else, but who was very much alive.


At the cemetery, I gave my friends the names of my family members, and we wandered together, squinting at faint letters etched in old stone. The fading daylight cast long shadows of our bodies across the grass and, if I hadn’t know any better, I might have imagined those shadows were kin, knit together by the absence of light that spilled out in front of us. These people, one a close friend, the other brand new to me, had their own trees, their own families buried in other cemeteries a lot like this one. We’re like a forest, the three of us, I said to them as we walked, a forest of family trees in search of some roots. But it was only my roots we were tracing.


We found the headstones of my great grandparents, side by side. They’d fallen askew in the grass. There were maybe fifty graves in total. Not a soul in sight aside from the three of us. Just a sheet of metal that read “Do Not Trespass” hanging from a chain suspended above the dirt road that ran alongside the cemetery and disappeared into the trees.


On the drive from the cemetery to Netty’s, every barn we passed seemed a viable candidate for my grandmother’s childhood home. I knew from the small account my grandmother wrote of her own life in the family tree that she’d lived off the same highway where she lost her mother, the same highway that ran alongside the cemetery where I found her mother lifetimes later, bones under dirt in the ground. Every time we crested a hill and saw a new barn I said, That was my grandmother’s house. Next hill. That was my grandmother’s house. Next hill. Next. Next. That was my grandmother’s house. And each time I believed it. They were all my grandmother’s house, this town was my grandmother’s town, the cemetery, the highway, the gorge, they all belonged to my grandmother and the story that was her life, a story that read to me always like a Grimm’s fairy tale, the kind that had to be rewritten to suit audiences who demanded something other than devastation from their endings.


When we crested our final hill, we pulled to a stop in front of yet another farmhouse. A man drove around the side on a small tractor to greet us. My grandmother’s sister’s son-in-law. Using a phone number given to me by my newfound relatives earlier in the afternoon, I’d called ahead from the road to warn him of our visit. He greeted us kindly and then led us cautiously inside.


The woman who stood in front of me was my grandmother. It had to be. I hadn’t witnessed her death, and my punishment was that I wasn’t allowed to know she was still alive, shipped back to the town that bore her. Of course this isn’t true, but it might as well have been. I carefully wrapped my arms around the Twilight Zone version of my grandmother. Her frail body felt familiar in the hollow of my embrace. She even spoke like my grandmother: Tuesdee, tomatuh. Later, during moments of exasperation, she lifted her hands in the air and shook her ten bony fingers, a surrender, just like my grandmother would do when she’d had enough of us, enough of raising children who played all day in the dirt and hit each other with sticks and never came in when the street lights came on like we were supposed to.


When my grandmother was six and her father died of pneumonia, it was because their family was poor and access to medical care in rural Ohio was limited and modern medicine wasn’t all that modern. It was winter. There was nothing to be done. When my grandmother was six and her mother died in a car accident, her brothers moved on, her sister was adopted, and she was passed around from family member to family member until she was old enough to enroll in nursing school. Some of them abused her. Some of them taught her things she would eventually teach me. How to use a dictionary. How to do math without a calculator. How not to lose things. There was no one to make her come inside at the end of a summer day. There was no one to tell her she was unique, that she was an old soul. She went from home to home to husband to a bedroom on the first floor of my house where she spent the rest of her life raising a new generation. She bore five children, who bore five grandchildren, and then, seven years after her death in a hospice bed that I didn’t even witness, I was welcomed into her sister’s house without question, best friend and new friend in tow.


We went outside. My grandmother’s sister’s daughter gave us a tour of the property. We stood under the large oak in the front yard. Unlike my grandmother, Netty has lived to an age where her mind is failing her in equal measure to her body. I asked her about Ohio. About the Barker family who adopted her and raised her and kept her from my grandmother and her brothers for all the years of her youth. I didn’t ask her about her son who killed himself—or maybe this was also something I’d simply been told. She kept forgetting who I was during the course of our conversation. She looked at me, my dress still soaked through with water, water I’d like to imagine as the same water that sat in the bottom of the gorge where my grandmother used to swim as a child.


I went to the pool of water at the bottom of a gorge called Old Man’s Cave on the cusp of turning twenty-five because, after discovering how close I was to the place where my grandmother was born, I realized I wanted to know what it felt like to live as she had lived. As if stepping into that water would bring her back just long enough for me to say the goodbye I never got to deliver. But instead of finding my grandmother in a gorge, I found her on a farm, probably not unlike the farm where she was born. And instead of getting to say goodbye to her, I got to say hello to her closest living approximation. There was so much I wanted to ask this woman who was and was not my grandmother as she stood atop the hill at the center of her one hundred acres of land. Did you like growing up in Ohio? Did anyone ever get hurt back-flipping into the water at Old Man’s Cave? Which farm was actually yours? How did you end up here? Do you forgive me? But I held my tongue. You remind me of someone, Netty said sheepishly, as if she couldn’t quite remember why we stood there together.


Ali Rachel Pearl is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Southern California. She is a writer, scholar, and teacher whose work appears in Cosmonauts Avenue, Hobart, Redivider, DIAGRAM, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Most of the year, she lives and teaches in Los Angeles.