The land out back is vacant, all flood plain. Nobody will build behind us, so we’ve got an acre of grass, native flowers, and Russian thistles, who get my daily attention.
It’s wide open, the horizon yawning out for miles. When the river comes lapping up at our back door, which it has, we make sure the sump pump runs. But we like it here.
Nary a tree in the back, but then this is the only corner of the state where white settlers, my own great-grandparents among ‘em, cut up sod for building materials. There was no Home Depot. Out here, trees had to fight to stay alive. Most lost. Good dark sod there was in abundance.
The wind blows free and fearsome in all the treelessness—today from the northwest, yesterday and the day before from some place so far south it carried intolerable heat. I’m overstating, but it’s not wrong to say that for a goodly chunk of the year the wind makes the place almost hostile. Hot or cold, it can take your face off.
A month ago I made up my mind out back to let a couple of volunteers live–a five-foot green ash and some kind of bush. I mowed around them as if to create someday a little sheltering bower, even though we’ll be in the Home before any shade spreads out over the grasses.
For the last few days, that little tree and its buddy bush were permanently bent over, enslaved to mad winds. They’re kids, and I worry about them. I know the intent of the passage has nothing to do with a baby green ash, but the blessed assurance Matthew insists the Jesus he’s following is doing to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy springs to mind when I watch those two try to stand upright: “A bruised reed he will not break,” or so Matthew repeats.
That’s what I tell myself when I’m out there trying to keep my hat on.
“Promise?” I ask God.
I don’t get an answer. He’s got bigger fish on the line. But I can’t help but think he smiles because he knows a green ash is a joke, fast-growing, short-lived. Hardly a noble project–seedy, dirty, no striking beauty.
Still. In our winds it hurts to watch those two bend. The north wind laughs at that sad little tree’s temerity. “This is grassland, kid,” the wind says, “an ocean of it–moves in waves, see? Go find a river bank.”
For some lousy reason the two trees brought to mind two great aunts I never knew. Just the way those two get blown around out back brings those great aunts to life because they were shaking too, a bundle of nerves back in 1904, when their little brother, my grandpa, newly ordained, took his very first call from a country church—their church–just outside a town named Bemis, South Dakota.
Grandpa’s older sisters, who’d married brothers who worked farms around there, trembled at the thought of their little brother and his brand new helpmeet stepping off the train way out in the country because his tender young missus was the daughter of—if you can believe it!—an actual professor. In all likelihood his young wife had never been anywhere near rural South Dakota, had no idea what real frontier was like or how she’d get along when the closest burg was in every possible way a one-horse town.
Did she know how to garden? Could she raise chickens? Could she butcher ‘em? Would she have to? Or would they? And what would she think of them, her country bumpkin sisters-in-law? Would she turn up her nose? And what about boiling summers, deadly winters, grasshoppers, good crops maybe, maybe not. Would she learn country ways? Those two sisters were shaking in the wind of their own fear, worried sick, as well they should have been.
For some odd reason, I see those two great aunts in the two little trees trying mightily to stand straight. And for some reason “A bruised reed he will not break” comes to mind. Where on earth did I get that from?
Well, what of that Bemis story do we know? I know my great-grandfather the professor made it clear in letters I have in my drawer that he would keep working to get his beloved daughter safely back to Michigan, to civilization. His own little girl out there somewhere with the Indians–it was unthinkable.
I don’t know why things happened the way they did, but the records are clear. Despite having two older sisters right there at the Bemis church, their little brother and his prim wife stayed there for only two years and high-tailed it back east.
And those two aunts?—at least they could breathe again, you know? They had to have been sad to see them go, but no more worrying meant they could throw back their shoulders and not live on pins and needles.
The professor had to have been delighted to have his daughter out of the wind and all that hardscrabble country. Must have been a joy to pick them up off the train, get them settled in a place called Reeman, another country church. Back. Safe. Smiles all around. Joy.
But it wouldn’t be five years later and their oldest child, a little girl, would die from some odd blood thing no doctor understood in 19-aught whatever. She was three, maybe four. Grabbed my grandfather’s heart right out of his chest. I’ve got that letter too. My aunt told me that for a week her dad, the preacher, lay face down on living room floor.
But it’s evening now, and the wind has settled; those two little creations are working at righting themselves once again, as we all do.
“A bruised reed he will not break.” There’s so much comfort in those words, isn’t there? Even when sometimes it seems silly, or worse, a painfully shallow promise, it just feels right to say it again, to let hope play in your mind and heart and through all the open fields of your life: “A bruised reed he will not break.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.