Seeing the past with the grateful eye of the soul

(Julie Arvold)
(Julie Arvold)

by Joni Woelfel

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"Thank you," I wrote to my dying dad in 1976. "Thank you for raising me on the farm."

We never talked about feelings in our quiet, gentle family and since I did not know how to tell Dad in person, I wrote it in a letter. I had Mom give it to him and she said he cried when he read it.

Now, all these years later, I think of his tears, knowing they were the good kind that came from feeling loved and appreciated. Soon after, when my sweet dad had to go to the hospital for the last time, Mom said that as they drove out of the yard, Dad kept looking gratefully around at the beloved farm, knowing it was the last time he would see it as he let go.

The last time I saw our family's four-generational farm site some 20 years ago, the original pioneer homestead (built by my great-grandparents, Steffen and Marie from Norway in 1879) was gone, as well as Grandma and Grandpa's tall white house. The cathedral of the farm, our beautiful, magnificent barn, was dozed down.

Now when my husband and I go for drives through our Minnesota heartland, we see trees growing up through the middle of silos. Barns cave into piles of rubbish, while some, still barely standing, have splintered holes that you can see through, letting the light filter in. It makes me think of what it is like to spiritually see through the present into the illuminated past, when small family farms were vibrant, alive and commonplace.

A craggy tree still stands on the grassy rolling hill of the pasture, overlooking what used to be our farm. The tree shelters a baby's grave beneath, who was our Great-Uncle Louris. Many times my siblings and I visited the grave and as I grew older, I began to imaginatively think of Louris as guardian of the farm, our patron saint of Nothing Lasts Forever.

Loss is universal. We long for past golden days, our parents and family members who have moved on to heaven. The metamorphic nature of time leaves nothing untouched, not even our heritages and cultures. The era of the small family farm is mostly gone now, which seems impossible. Yet those of us who lived that way of life carry the memories forward and new, alternative ways evolve. History overlaps, passed down to our children and grandchildren who embody and integrate the spirit of that language of the land into their own modern lives.

The image of that ancient tree still standing on the hill overlooking the grave reminds me of all the storms it endured through the years, the high winds that blasted its leaves away and the brutal winter ice storms that froze its branches to brittle skeletal sticks.

Yet year after year, like us, the tree persevered and each spring came back faithfully to witness the daily unfolding of life on the farm and our dreams and prayers drifting across the fields. It stood before God, alone, its roots sinking deep into the soil, sheltering the grave while its foundation stood firm, just as 1 Peter 5:2 invites us to "stand fast in the true grace of God."

That enduring tree serves as a metaphor of what it means to allow hope to wait as a sentinel with us as we experience this earthly mystery of transition. At the conclusion of the children's book The Giving Tree, written by Shel Silverstein in l964, the boy sits in companionship with the tree that sacrificed so much, and the tree is happy. While the story ends there, I like to imagine that when he grows up and learns to see through the eye of the soul, the boy experiences gratitude for what was and thanks the tree and God for unconditional love and presence.

In Seasons of your Heart: Prayers and Reflection, Macrina Wiederkehr writes about an autumn tree experiencing a new kind of beauty through loss and the sacrament of waiting. When our family's gnarled tree falls someday, its vigil of waiting ended, we will remember its timeless message that called us to seek the gifts in letting go, as my dad did so long ago and his parents and grandparents before him.

When everything is gone and nothing is left, love still stands eternally in our souls as we say goodbye. No wonder Meister Eckhart's words, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough," resonate so deeply.

[Joni Woelfel is the author of six books and has just completed a novel, Guardians of the Heartland, about growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s.]

A version of this story appeared in the Aug 28-Sept 10, 2015 print issue under the headline: Seeing the past with the grateful eye of the soul.

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