A young girl was standing at the stove stirring a pot of something steaming heavily. She turned to look at Meredith and there was no recognition in her blue eyes, only a solemn question. They were her father’s eyes. The only Sterling child who had received them, as all the others had varying shades of brown, like their mother.
“Claire,” Meredith whispered, but the girl only looked at her gravely, like she would a complete stranger who just entered her home.
“Clairey, this is Meredith,” Fanny prompted. “She is home for a visit.”
“How d’you do?” she said stiffly. A lump formed in Meredith’s throat. This child, her youngest sister, did not even know her.
Meredith turned quickly to Fanny. “I must see Ma,” she said hoarsely.
“Of course,” Fanny said.
Her mother’s bedroom was dark, and at first it was hard for Meredith to make out the shadowy form of the bed against the wall. Fanny came in behind Meredith and walked across to the window, pulling the blanket which was draped across it aside, and casting the room in a warm glow from the sunshine.
Meredith approached the bed to see a shrunken woman tucked under the heavy blankets. Her long dark braid was streaked with silver and it draped across her tiny chest, which was rising and falling with each rattling breath the woman took. Slowly the woman opened her dark, sunken eyes and turned toward Meredith. She blinked a few times, before finally her face crumpled in a cry of recognition.
“My girl,” she said, her voice cracking, and reached a frail hand out to her daughter.
Meredith ran to her mother’s bedside and flung herself into her arms. She sobbed as her mother gently stroked her hair and repeated over and over again, “My girl, my Meredith.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Meredith cried, her voice hitching involuntarily.
“Oh sweetheart, I couldn’t. You and the boys were so much better off. And now look at you.” Meredith sat up and her mother wiped a tear from her daughter’s flushed cheek.
“You’re all grown up, and turned into a fine young woman,” she said softly. “Meredith, I am so proud of you.”
Those were the words that Meredith had longed to hear for so long.
“Don’t worry, Ma, I’m going to move back home and take good care of you,” Meredith said urgently, but her mother shook her head.
“No, dear, that is exactly why I forbade your sister or anyone from telling you. You are now able to make something of yourself. You are going to be able to do so much more than I could have even dreamed possible.”
Even though she hated to admit it, Meredith knew that what she spoke was true. Now that she had a valuable education, she would be able to provide much more for her family than she ever would have been able to otherwise. She could send money home, to help them get by, until Henry was big enough to run the farm completely on his own. He was tall and strong, and had managed to keep some crops going throughout the years, but he was still so young. It was difficult to provide for a family at his age.
Meredith had two weeks before her post started in Pennsylvania. She helped Fanny where she could around the house, and even went fishing a few times with Henry, but the majority of the time was spent at her mother’s bedside. She read to her for hours, bringing out her precious books to show her mother, who touched them reverently, caressing the engraved covers and feeling the rough paper edges.
The day before her train was to leave, Meredith decided it was time to pull out her poems and show them to her ma. She was afraid of what she would say, imagining that she might think it was frivolous to spend her time dreaming and writing. She read through them, one at a time, until she finally reached the end of her portfolio.
As Meredith finished the last poem, she looked up, shy and embarrassed. A single tear was tracing down her mother’s cheek, spilling onto her nightdress.
“You wrote these? My girl wrote these?” she whispered.
“Yes, Ma. I hope to be published someday.” Saying it out loud was scary, but somehow made it more real.
It took several minutes before her mother was able to speak. Then she finally said, in a tiny shaking voice, “They are beautiful, my child.”
Before Meredith left to start the next chapter in her life, she made her way out to the old white oak in the woods, where her father’s life was cut short on that stormy night so long ago. The tree still stood, damaged and rotting on the side that had been fractured off so dramatically, killing her father in the process. But the other side looked remarkably well. There were still scars from scorch marks in the flesh of the tree, where the other half had been ripped off, tearing through great chunks of bark. But underneath that bark was smooth, white wood, which looked impossibly pristine. The branches of the tree were still laden with supple green leaves, offering blessed shade in the heat of end of summer. Meredith approached the tree, touching the rough bark, caressing the smooth wood underneath, and plucking a beautiful veined leaf from a lower branch. Life had moved on. Despite the trauma of that night, the old white oak had found a way to not only survive, but to flourish.
Meredith had been in Pennsylvania for two months when she learned of her mother’s death. To the end, she had continued to write to her daughter every week, but this time her letters were more introspective and full of the love and blessings she wished Meredith to have. Meredith cherished those letters beyond anything else.
When she arrived home for the funeral, her Aunt Lucy and the twins were also there to say goodbye to the mother they could barely remember. Meredith was pleased to find that Henry had taken a piece of the old white oak and made two separate markers for her parent’s graves, which lay side by side. They were unique, however, in their shape. Henry had carved two crosses, the shapes suggesting two trees standing tall and straight, each with a branch stretched out to the other. Where they met, the branches were intertwined until you could no longer make out where one started and the other ended.
Meredith thought of how far their family had come. Their trials were heavy, there was no doubt. But there was also hope. Like the oak which was ripped traumatically in two, their family would step away from the damage and grow in spite of the searing pain. As Meredith looked at the entwined branches of her parents’ hands, she knew that she and her siblings were included within the intricate braid. They were all connected eternally, even though they were now separated in this life. Words came flooding into her heart, easing the ache of loss and turning the bitter to sweet. One last gift to her parents, the verse was inscribed into the old white oak.
Ripped by death, the heart is torn,
Separation deems the soul forlorn.
Again in death the souls unite,
Nothing left but sweet respite.
Yet brightly dawns the beaming ray,
A tender start for each new day.
A new bud opens, tendrils extend,
Hearts entwined, the soul to mend.
My hand in yours, our roots run deep,
Fervid soil feeds our eternal sleep.