Martha and the Redbud

Redbud Flowers

My father’s mother was not ashamed of revealing her favoritism when it came to her children or grandchildren. Different though we were, neither my father nor I were among her favorites. My mom supposed that was because we didn’t need her as much as the other siblings or grandchildren.

She was equitable, though, when it came to her generosity, as far as I know. In her later years, she would send us all checks on her birthday. One year in particular she sent a check for $5000 with clear instructions: “I know your parents have taught you to save and to be responsible. But I would like for you to spend this on something fun, maybe even frivolous.” That was the last check we would receive from her.

After her passing, my husband and I bought a used pontoon boat for exactly $5000 and named her Martha. The boat was old and slow, which seemed proper, because even when she was younger, my grandmother was the type to pour a cup of coffee and move so slowly that the coffee got cold by the time it got to her mouth. It took what felt like hours for her to complete a sentence, at least from the perspective of her fast-paced, Type A granddaughter.

Despite her age, Martha waited at the ready for four years in our cove on Norris Lake, sometimes with months or even a year between our visits. She hauled family and friends, puttered through the dark on Independence Day so we could watch the fireworks, delivered us to our favorite waterfront bar and grill for karaoke nights, and towed my daughter and her cousins on a tube. Even when the weight of my football-playing nephew was more than she could bear, she still got us back to the dock safely.

One January we were hit by a series of winter storms. They weren’t severe by northern standards, but they dropped just enough ice and snow to keep the schools closed for two weeks. The weight of the snow, further saturated by rain and dammed by ice, caused the roofs of many docks to collapse. We heard of it on the news, but we lived an hour away from where Martha was, and the roads were impassable for weeks. When we finally braved the drive, we could get only as far as the ridge that hung above the cove. The roof of the dock had clearly collapsed, but from our perch high above her, we couldn’t be sure of our old girl’s fate.

A couple of weeks later my husband drove back to assess the damage, but the dock was unstable. With the water level still low, it was dangerous to get too close. All he could see from where he stood was the flattened roof. The only sign of Martha was a broken dock line.

Since countless docks and boats suffered a similar fate along the eight hundred miles of Norris Lake shoreline, we were told that the insurance process would be a long one. The neighborhood’s claim for the dock would have to be settled before the roof removal could reveal Martha’s fate. Ours was a small dock compared to others on the lake, so we would be last in line.

When the dogwoods and redbuds decorated the landscape, I drove up to visit Martha. The dock had been condemned; it was badly damaged by all accounts, and as I got closer to it, I could hear the moaning and popping of the roof where it dipped into the water on the backside. The metal, accustomed to being among the birds, was not content among the fish. I felt as if I were walking into a graveyard as I crossed the ramp to the dock. The planking creaked and complained, not accustomed to foot traffic since it had been wounded. I could hear a voice in my head, saying, “This is dangerous,” but I dismissed it. I had to see Martha.

The collapse must have been sudden, because the force of it pulled the cleat right off her bow and threw it onto the dock, leaving two cleats side by side with a shared line between them. The roof was so low that I had to drop to my knees to peer under it. She was not sunk, as we had thought. She had beaten the odds; she had stayed afloat. But she was most certainly crushed. Eight feet of height with her awning had been condensed to about twenty-four inches. I knew she was not salvageable. At her age, the cost of the repairs exceeded her value. I sat quietly on the dock in front of her. After a few moments I spoke.

“I’m sorry, ol’ girl. You tried. You hung on, waiting for us to come. It’s not that we didn’t want to help. It’s just…” My words fell off as tears streamed down my face. I was sitting at the bedside of a dying friend who had fought the good fight but didn’t know how bad it really was.

On my drive home, I passed some property that had been cleared to build a new home. Workmen were burning brush, and atop the pile was a redbud tree in its purple-blossomed glory. I burst into tears and stopped my car. I wanted to get out and yank the tree out of the flames. I wanted to yell at the men: “What are you doing to this beautiful tree? This could be moved! It could be saved!” By that time, unbeknownst to the beautiful blossoms, the flames were well onto the roots. So I drove on, taking care through my tears to notice all the other redbuds in bloom, and to thank God for His provision of just enough hope to get me home.

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