Five days ago, the city had cut down my sister’s tree, and I’d known immediately that it would be the final straw—the tipping point in my sister’s grief. There are many elms in Florence, but the elm in Spring Park by the bend in the creek had been Mendi’s tree. After our grandmother died, Mendi had called me every three nights or so to cry and listen to my overly rational and futile attempts at comfort. But when the city cut down her tree, Mendi’s calls became a nightly occurrence. She would cry. I wouldn’t. It wasn’t how I handled things. And if it was how Mendi handled things, it didn’t seem to be working.
So after five nights of Mendi’s uncontrollable sobs, I’d decided enough was enough.
“Mendi,” I’d told her, “we’re going to the nursery.”
Now I pulled into the parking lot of the local plant nursery, keeping my eyes peeled for Mendi’s dilapidated red Corolla—a hand-me-down from our grandmother—an old clunker that should’ve been replaced years ago. I spotted Mendi by her parking job; her car took up two parking spaces. Shaking my head, I pulled into a spot next to her. I exited my car, taking care not to appear too irritated with her. She rolled down her window. I noticed immediately that her eyelids were heavy, and her eyebrows swept upward, like curtains framing her eyes with concern.
“Mendi, you can’t take up two spaces,” I said.
Mendi didn’t answer. Her glum eyes drooped a little lower under her curtain eyebrows.
“C’mon, let’s go inside.”
“Why are we here, Gordon?” she asked me.
“To get you a tree.”
Mendi’s eyes flashed. “A tree?” She seethed through clenched teeth. “I know exactly what you’re up to, Gordon, and I hate that you’d even think about doing this to me!”
“You don’t know what I’m up to,” I said with as much false authority as I could muster.
“Oh, really?” Mendi got out of the car, slamming the car door behind her. She stood on the very tips of her toes, her angry eyes boring into mine. “You’re trying to replace Grandma’s tree, and I won’t.”
I sighed and put my hands on Mendi’s shoulders, pushing her gently back to the soles of her feet. “I’m not trying to replace your tree—”
“It’s Grandma’s tree too!”
“Fine. I’m not trying to replace Grandma’s and your tree.” I challenged Mendi’s glare with my own calm stare. “I just want you to have something to care for. Something that isn’t you.”
Mendi huffed and looked away from me. She didn’t say another word. I was surprised when she followed me into the greenhouse.
Enola’s hands cupped Mendi’s. The young child’s eager fists fit perfectly in the weathered palms of her grandmother.
“Pack the soil in,” the older woman said. “That’s it. We want our tree to grow strong and tall and live a very long time, don’t we?”
“A very long time,” the girl echoed. “Older than you and me!”
Enola laughed. When the pair had finished packing in the soil around the roots of the baby elm, the older woman gripped Mendi’s hands and helped her to her feet.
The elm sapling sat stoutly, now grounded firmly to the earth, small and bare compared to the well-established oaks and firs nearby and throughout the park. Enola smiled.
“We did it, Mendi. We planted our tree!”
Mendi pulled on her grandmother’s sleeve. “Let’s show Gordon!”
I watched Mendi swallow a lump in her throat as we walked through row after row of saplings sitting neatly in buckets, waiting for someone to buy them. She must have been remembering the first time she did this with our grandmother.
“What kind of tree shall we pick?”
“I don’t want to pick a tree with you,” Mendi snapped.
The way she said you felt a little like an attack. I wasn’t going to return the punch.
“Well . . . why did you come?”
Mendi didn’t answer. I was surprised when she followed me out of the greenhouse and into the open-air courtyard. Out there the nursery owners grew the more mature saplings with larger root systems. They formed row upon row of different shapes, sizes, and colors, like a patchwork orchard.
Mendi’s eyes grew wide at the maze of trees in front of her. She drew in a quick, pleased breath and quickly forced it out through her teeth.
I knew she didn’t care for evergreens, so I suggested to her that we should start looking in that area first. As I’d hoped, she swiftly replied, “No, Gordon.” She looked as though she’d shocked herself with the rapidness of her response. She softened her tone and continued in a small voice. “I want to look at the elms.”
“Grandma, hurry!” the young girl called, urging her grandmother to walk faster across the stretch of green—the only obstacle between the pair and their elm. The girl lugged a picnic basket along, both of her tiny hands gripping the basket handle until her knuckles turned white. She swung the basket from side to side, waiting for her grandmother to catch up.
“Slow down, Mendi. I can’t keep up,” the older woman said, chuckling at her granddaughter’s impatience.
“But I want to see our tree.”
“Our tree will always be there, Mendi.”
“Always?” the young girl questioned.
Enola smiled at her granddaughter. “Always.”
After I led Mendi through the first row of elms, she took the lead, and I followed a few paces behind. She gave a couple of short breaths after viewing every two to three elms. Every so often she paused and looked over a tree with interest. But each time I watched the blue of her eyes fade to gray. By the end of the orchard, Mendi and I had looked at hundreds of trees, tens of elms—but none to Mendi’s satisfaction.
“Well, want to look in the indoor section of the nursery? Or maybe the greenhouse again?” I ventured.
Mendi frowned, and she tried to look angry, but her eyes were slowly filling with tears. She blinked them away. “I don’t want to go back.”
“Back where? The greenhouse?”
This answer bothered me—no—confused me. I didn’t know what to say.
“Gordon, she’s gone,” Mendi said. “I thought that if—if our elm was still there, then . . . so was she.” Mendi gazed over the orchard with sad, yet almost fond, ocean-colored eyes. Quickly they glazed over and hardened into stone. “But even the tree is gone now.”
What I wanted to tell her was “Then buy a new one.” I did not. I knew from the beginning that our grandmother’s death would hurt Mendi far more than it would wound me. Enola was my mother’s mother. But to Mendi, she was more than that. I was beginning to understand what Mendi meant whenever she told me, as she often did on our nightly calls, that the tree could not be replaced.
“The tree is gone, but the memories aren’t,” I offered stupidly, moving to put my arm around Mendi and expecting her to shove it away. I was surprised when she didn’t.
“Memories can be rooted just as deeply,” Mendi said pensively. I nodded solemnly. Women confused me. I’d heard a long time ago that whenever a woman says something strange, a man should nod in affirmation. But at that moment I wondered if what Mendi needed was affirmation.
I surprised myself when I pulled Mendi into a tight, long overdue hug.
Mendi watched with rapt attention as her grandmother eyed the deep, trail-like grooves striping the elm’s bark. An ugly combination of sickly yellow and brown blended across its leaves.
“Grandma, what is it?” Mendi watched her grandmother’s face shift from curiosity to concern.
“It’s a disease,” Enola said quietly.
“Not our tree!” gasped Mendi. “Is—is it . . . dying?”
Enola cast a sorrowful look at her teenage granddaughter. “I’m afraid so.”
I held Mendi in a tight embrace in the middle of the nursery courtyard for what felt like an hour. She stood huddled against my chest without uttering a single word. She didn’t move an inch or even shift her weight. I felt her steady breathing slowly heave and heave and heave until the inhales became deep, deep, deep enough to mean—
“No, don’t cry, Mendi.” I squeezed my arms around her and shut my eyes as tightly as I could.
“Well, I think sometimes it’s okay to cry,” Mendi managed softly. She wriggled herself free from my arms, stepping back to look me squarely in the face. The sheet of tears that coated her eyes made them shine like diamonds. “I think now’s an okay time.”
She waited, as though she expected that I would say something. She’d done the same thing when we’d received the call: Grandma is in the hospital. What did I have to say? Nothing. And then Mendi gave me the same sad, starry eyes when the test results came back: Grandma has cancer—What words could I offer? None. The day of the funeral, when I’d had to physically pull Mendi away from the gravesite, she’d looked at me with that face, that waiting face. I hadn’t said a word but “Let’s go home.” And now, looking into my little sister’s inquisitive, imploring eyes, I finally knew what to say.
“I love you, Mendi.”
My voice cracked when I said the words, probably from falling out of the practice of saying them. I was surprised when Mendi didn’t laugh at me. I was more surprised when she started to cry. The tears were few and slow, and they carved crooked, silver paths down her cheeks.
“I love you too, Gordon.”
Mendi took one last look at the open-air portion of the nursery. She smiled. Then she shoved her hands into her pockets. “I’m going to go home now.”
“Wait—without a tree?”
Mendi nodded. “Without a tree.” She paused and wiped the tears from her face. “After all, I’ve already made it five days without one.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. There was my silly little sister’s humor again, at last.
Mendi walked toward the greenhouse exit. She stopped abruptly, turning to face me again. “This was nice, big brother. We should do this more.”
“Yeah, well, try to only take up one parking space next time.”
Mendi laughed a very light, shimmery laugh that I hadn’t heard in many months. Then she looked forward, took a few steps, and was gone.
I still stood in the same spot where I’d hugged my little sister. My feet felt anchored—no—rooted to the spot. The trees sat snug in their rows, waiting for me to move. I had a sudden instinct to wipe the sweat from my face.
It wasn’t sweat.
After an hour of reflection and some deliberation, I finally left the nursery, too, with an American elm in my arms.