My grandmother is the closest thing to a saint I have ever known. She is good and kind. She gives herself away until she is all but spent. She has always worked hard and loved harder. She prays and goes to church. And I’ve only known her to cuss when it thunders.
But like many of the medieval saints, her sanctity is crowned with a halo of fire. A furious love that seeks not its own and suffers long, yet suffers no fools. They say that God watches out for children, drunks, and fools. But if they forget her love is hot around the edges, a full three-thirds will acquire their own holiness through blisters.
I’ve felt the warmth of her love on more occasions than I can recount. And I’ve encountered the burning sensation in my backside that comes from spurning it more times than I care to remember.
Grandmother had about a dozen prized dogwood trees scattered about the yard. She said it was worth enduring a bone-chilling winter just to see the blossoms smile at the sun in early April. She liked to get up before dawn and have her coffee on the porch so she could watch the dogwood flowers stretch their necks upwards towards the first overtures of morning.
As far as Grandmother was concerned, her dogwoods had captured the heart of the sun. He came every morning to see those immaculate white blossoms. He lingered for hours stealing glances from behind a wisp of clouds. Always at a distance. Like he was promised to the moon and this was a forbidden love.
While my grandmother is not a gullible woman, there are some notions she has chosen to believe without relying on anything as flimsy as evidence. Like the resurrection of the body, the medicinal properties of chicken soup, and the sacred history of the dogwood.
The popular myth called the “Legend of the Dogwood ” (popular at least among the purveyors of kitsch paintings and sentimentalist poetry) is something she accepts as readily as the legend on a Rand McNally road map. The legend runs thusly: “Once dogwoods were among the noblest and tallest trees; they grew straight and strong. Their timber was in high demand, second only to the famed cedars of Lebanon. But on a fateful day, a dogwood was felled to a nefarious purpose. One of the mighty number was hewn down and split into two heavy beams. Those beams would be joined in the middle. In the middle would hang a man. A man who was also God.” The Fable continues, “Christ acknowledged the humility and shame of the dogwood tree and decreed that no future member of its family would be conscripted for such an evil purpose. From henceforth, they would grow bowed and bent before heaven, and in their blossoms a cross.
So hers is a pious affection for the twisted tree. She sees in them something of the contorted beauty of Calvary, the ultimate transfiguration of disfigured things. Perhaps this is why Grandmother is able to appreciate the comeliness of broken things; the loveliness of every limping step toward Holiness; the eloquence of a halting prayer; the peculiar gracefulness of a man upon his knees.
Most of that was lost on me. I sometimes wonder if I am a decent man, but I know I was really good at being a boy. Grandmother’s yard was my magical kingdom. As the days grew longer, my adventures got bigger. In the Spring I wasted most of the sunlight chasing bluebirds and robins with a salt shaker in my hand. Granddaddy told me that I could catch any bird I wanted if I would sprinkle a little salt on its tail.
Eventually I gave up bird hunting, but that was only to free up more time to pursue more pressing impossibilities. This is as it should be. It is better to spend one’s youth trying to catch a dream in a dip net than to accept the myth that dreams are the product of brain gasses rather than evidence of the oldest form of magic. Hope only dies due to atrophied imagination.
But one never knows exactly where imagination might take a boy. I reckon I was around eight or nine when I decided to get into the pulpwood business. Somehow, somewhere, I had come upon a hatchet. I probably lifted it from my Granddaddy’s shop while he was carrying on with the important business of napping.
Grandmother found me in the evening. She hadn’t bothered hunting for me before then. In the days before Game Boys and iPads, kids were let loose outside shortly after breakfast until some matriarchal figure hollered us back home at suppertime. By the time the biscuits were ready I had reduced the dogwood population by half.
“What have you done?” she yelled.
“I was pretending I was a logger,” I said, shocked that she didn’t understand what great fun it had been.
“You’ve likely killed a fistful of my dogwoods” she said. “Them’s the Lord’s own trees and you’ve hacked and chopped at em’ like they were some ugly ole pine knots!”
“Where’d you get that axe anyhow?” She said as her blazing eye fixed on the hatchet in my hand.
“Borrowed it, huh? Well, I’m about to borrow me a hickory switch and blister your behind!” she roared.
“Better yet,” said she, “Why don’t you take that little axe over yonder and chop off your own switch and bring it to me.”
With my bottom lip dragging the ground like a bulldozer blade, I headed over to the tender sapling to fetch a switch. I was already crying by the time I delivered the cruel limb into her hands.
“What possessed you to whittle on my trees with that there axe?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I said through sobs.
“You don’t know?” she said, feigning bewilderment. “Let me see if I can’t refresh your memory.”
Then we did this little dance in a circle where she held me by one arm and I led while she switched. We danced to music made by the rapid tapping of the hickory branch against my backside. First a waltz, then the Foxtrot. It would be a few years before I knew that the artful move at which I was most adept was called a pirouette.
Grandmother has always held that knowledge and wisdom are the sort of things that can be received at either end of a child. Sometimes the best route through a hard head comes by way of a soft rear. Contrary to modern ideas, this is a form of love. A love that refuses to leave one to their destructive ignorance. Love that will not leave you to your own devices.
Her love has rattled every tooth in my head at one time or another. Love has fed me no less than ten fat bars of Dial soap through the years. Once, love even broke a tomato stick across my backside. In reality, these small judgments are big mercies. Such tough love keeps us close enough to the Strait and Narrow that we don’t veer off too far towards perdition.
Perhaps most importantly, Grandmother has helped me understand that when the Bible says “God is love” and “Our God is a consuming fire,” it is saying one thing, not two.
Such obstinate love eventually prevails. Those who encounter it find their foolish pride melting under its heat, their stubborn wills bending beneath its immense weight. It is in this posture, bowed and humbled, that they remain. And it is here that they flower and flourish. I guess Grandmother was right about the Legend of the Dogwood after all.