Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rosannah's Dogwood

Before Rosannah Counts Rutledge was 25 she had given birth to six children and would have three more after that. By the time she was 40 she was a widow with five of her nine children still at home. When she dies of malaria five years later in 1879, her youngest, eleven-year-old  Jack, my grandfather, will be raised by his older sisters a few miles away in Lincoln County, Smithland, Tennesse .   I can only imagine what this woman, pregnant with my grandfather had to endure reflecting on her circumstances in 1867 as she stood by a dogwood tree.

      Even as a sapling, the Cornus Florida L will flower and bear fruit.  As the legend goes the once tall, straight dogwood was once used as timber. But when the lumber was used to make the fateful crucifix, The Lord Almighty promised that it would never again grow large enough to serve that purpose.  As a symbol of that promise, in the springtime the Flowering Dogwood bracts individually bear the shaped image of the cross and nails of Calvary.  The full crown of whitened plumage provides a delicate respite of color among the forest evergreens. A small trail of like foliage is in the forest path but this one seems to have ventured farther toward the river.  Full grown it will stand fifteen feet tall and bow its head over the river. How this one dogwood was able to grow by the water’s edge could be left to divine providence.
       It sways in the breeze to the rhythm of the flowing waters of the Elk River.  By fall the flowers will be gone and replaced by the purple magenta fruit and leaves. Although its fruit is poisonous to humans, it is a sustaining force for wildlife. The downy woodpecker will thrive on its berries, and the trunk will hold a hidden nest.  As it grows, the rough, but thin bark becomes a healing elixir to break a fever when she boils it into a tea. Little does she know that the tiny holes made by the waspy borer is evidence of the insect’s urge to procreate, and at the same time condemns this tree to an early demise.
       It’s summer 1867. The house is on the other side of the river and the dogwood can’t be seen from the yard. Every day on the way to the Old Salem’s Emporium to sell her eggs, she has to follow the forest path toward the bridge to take in the sight.  The sounds of the surrounding forest invade her ears as a simple high pitched buzzing.  The summer flow could have been mild and pleasant if she did not carry such a heavy burden of thought.  The birds overhead in the pine trees sing warning songs to each other as she walks under their protected nests.  Crossing the bridge, she would glance longingly at the broken dogwood tree hanging over the river bank.  It was a comforting piece of agony that she held onto.  There was talk that the men would eventually cut down the dangerous eyesore, but she silently hoped that they would just let it be.  Why keep the reminder there?  She really couldn't explain it; she just wanted to keep seeing it.
      On this particular day, Rosannah stops at the bank of the Elk River, feeling the soreness of her back intensify as she stands longer. Why did she stop here? Was it just a year ago her world shattered?  No, it’s even been longer, but why come here now? Is it going to relieve her sorrow to see the empty space where that little one last stood?
      What a horrible year it has been. She thought she had seen her share of death. Her mother gone before she was 15. Two brothers destroyed by this horrible war that won’t seem to end. Those lost loved ones could be explained as the natural order of things, but Annis? Just a stupid accident. What had she done wrong?
      The river isn't even blue, but a murky muddy red instead. It's not as fast as it was that dreadful day, but its power is still there.  Evil power? Fateful power?  Or just a sad accident? No rhyme or reason, it just happened. It would have been so easy, so comforting to just give up and fall in.  But she has many other children to care for.  When has she had time to grieve by herself?  Annis was a bright child, but even at the age of 5 seemed so prone to a moody darkness like her father, Nelson.
       Nelson seemed to just plod on after the accident. Rose knew however that he was really frozen by the loss of his daughter, and was able to just keep his anger penned inside.  While she outwardly cried in every private moment she could chisel out of the day, it at least helped her release the pain of not knowing what the last moments of her little girl’s life had been...
       The thunder didn’t frighten Annis. She was used to walking in the soft summer rains, and in fact, loved the gentle little taps on her face and hands.  Her wet dress however was becoming heavier, and she knew she should leave her magic forest and get home. She would have to leave her mudpies decorated with the red fruits for the downy woodpeckers nesting above.  The thunder was more vibration than sound. She could feel the wet slippery ground quiver with each thunderous invasion, but to her ears it was little more than a soft thumping sound.
      Her mother’s voice calling had no chance of reaching her ears in the sudden summer deluge that surrounded her.  She continued to head for the river bank.  The lightening was something different. The bright strikes blinded her momentarily, losing her footing, she slipped in the red mud. She grabbed a lower limb of the dogwood tree, crying out for John or George, but they had long ago left her to her imaginary castle before the clouds even gathered. “Mommy! Mommy!! Help!”
      As it had aged over the years, the trunk of the dogwood had grown thicker, but the holes in the bark showed how the ravaging borers had killed it from the inside out. It was only a shell of its former self.  Still standing tall but weaker each day, she could not recognize it as the death trap it had become. It could not even carry her tiny weight, and the trunk cracks. Little Annis Rutledge falls onto the muddy bank’s edge.
      Her little fingers were holding tight to a root, and she pulled with all her might to try to stand up.  The mud just gave way to the advancing rain and became a small rivulet that pulled at her soaked smocked pinafore as it created its new path to the river.  Little hands are not meant to grip for long and in only a moment Annis was swept into the rising river and it carried her away. Water seared her lungs as it rushed into her mouth and down her throat. A huge water-soaked log rushed by her too fast to grab, and her head hit one of its outstretched limbs.  The cold comfort of darkness shrouded her mind and her body, and the fear and struggle was over.
      The familiar quickening in Rosannah’s abdomen shoved her mind back to the present. So many babies. Will it be different this time? Fevers, wars, accidents. It really doesn’t stop. But she won’t stop either. Life is for the living, and she resolves to press on. What little faith she has, she will hang on to it never really letting anyone know the dark hole in her heart. What purpose would it serve to have them turn on her if they knew she couldn’t believe in God’s grace anymore? Her God IS, but he doesn’t control her every move or thought, or anyone else’s in this world. She glances at the fallen dogwood.  The jagged trunk is wet. It weeps. Yes, God IS. HE too weeps with her.
     The men eventually come to the edge of the river to release the carcass of the tree leaving a nine inch stump. They may not understand that the natural capillaries in the bark will draw the sap and water through the roots and up the existing trunk even though it is no longer alive. Because the roots touch the bank of the river, the bark channels the water up the exiting trunk, and the stump still weeps.


  1. Intuition and an inherent kindness give your family facts their life. Intuition can't be underrated. We get a feel for the transgenerational truths in our families and the intuition comes to life. The freedom you use to expand the facts is awesome and your skill at writing makes it all come alive. I don't know which poet used something along the lines of: "...take the things worth keeping in my heart with you and with a gentle breath of understanding, blow the rest away." Who was it? My quote is almost completely scrambled and might be from two sources! I carry many family stories and appreciate the everyday, poignant things that most people won't touch, such as the story of Annis. Some of my people make things like this child morbid and almost creepy and diminish the beauty of life, no matter how sad. Your insights into the experience of loss are something I value very much. I've had much loss in life and it wasn't until I embraced it that I found comfort. I would rather feel than be shut down, as many are. It's often painful but a blessing - brave. I am better for it, though sometimes I can be construed as weak rather than possessing courage. Strong and honest feelings can unsettle people. Perhaps, it makes them feel vulnerable. You are a strong person and I thank you for this sharing about little Annis and about your great-grandmother. I still say blogging gives people the freedom and opportunity to share on an interesting level we never dreamed of when we were growing up. My goodness!

  2. “A friend is one to whom one may pour out the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
    ― George Eliot

    Oh Elise, You took the best parts of Eliot's quote! And that being said, you are the epitome of "Friend" Thank you so much for your comments. Your insight to my intentions validate what I am doing here. I have worried that I focus to much on death, but this me a chance to release the grief in a positive way. In her day and time, Rosannah may not have had the resources or the depth to come to those thoughts, but I agree that the intuition of a mother's loss is universal. Thank you for"blowing the rest away."

  3. It's interesting. We see those commercials for ancestry researching with people getting excited about a copy of a draft card or a census record. These things really do tell a story. I saw a copy of my grandfather's WW1 draft card and realized that he was 42 years old when he signed up. He had nine children and at the time, six were still at home. I once wrote a piece for a creative writing class and used these pieces of information for the paper. As the story it unfolded, I was able to incorporate family anecdotes (One goes: The train whistle blows to announce a stop and the girls rushing to get their work done before their dad walked in or one daughter complaining that the other wasn't getting the dishes clean, with the father replying, "What she doesn't wash off, you dry off."), descriptions of living conditions, visiting relatives and more. It was still "fiction" but not so much. What else can we do? What is important is that people aren't forgotten. I like yours where you bring the outdoors into the story. It's always obvious how you love nature by reading your work. Rosannah was dear and shouldn't be forgotten. The plight of women is still hard, especially in this economy. So many decide not to have children because of the expense or being alone. I remember my dad saying: "I never had a child or bought a house that I could afford." Notwithstanding life's troubles, he never seemed sorry.

  4. Thanks for your comments. I'm thrilled to know that others are writing their life stories. Yours sounds wonderful! What a treasure!

  5. It is heart-warning to see that so many people still value the strength and integrity of our ancestors. Unlike other family around me, I love hearing stories about the past, even of other's families. I was present at the home movies of friend years ago. When the lights were turned back on, I was the only one still awake in room of about 20 people. I say this with great pride! Keep those family stories coming.


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