We sat together under the cottonwood tree enjoying its shade as the late afternoon sun sliced through its sturdy branches. Situated between our neighbor’s cabin and our little lake home, the tree had sheltered us from heat for almost 50 years. My mother loved her cabin at Summer Haven Lake and it gave me great joy to bring her to one of her favorite places, now that she no longer drove.
The little ripples on the water lapped the shore gently marking time. We watched the fluffy white clouds float across the dazzling blue sky. We listened to the cottonwood leaves rustle in the wind. The shadows of the dainty leaves danced along the sand and I pictured my mother as the lovely ballerina who with beauty and grace had twirled and leaped across many a stage in her youth.
My mother reached toward the sky and pulled a leaf from the tree’s friendly branches.
“Your grandmother showed me how to make a fairy purse out of leaves,” she said, “and her mother taught her how to do it.”
“First, you fold the right side of the leaf to the middle and then you fold the left side to the center,” she explained using her teacher voice from the years when she taught 7th grade English.
She smiled as her age-spotted hands, which had held life tightly for 80 years, deftly brought the veined greenery together.
“Next, you fold the bottom of the leaf up to the middle.”
I heard the words once again and I remembered listening to her careful instructions years ago as a child. Then, as now, I watched her, intrigued at the simple process that created whimsy out of imagination coupled with nature’s gifts. Like origami, she formed the leaf to her liking just as she had fashioned the years she had been given.
Her hands, now gnarled like the senescent cottonwood tree, had held the hands of four small children and led them through a delightful childhood. But when the time came, she willingly and lovingly let go and launched them into the world to lead their own lives. Then with great joy, she welcomed and loved fourteen grandchildren, planting roots deeper than those of the tree under which we now sat.
The light winds stirred and I saw what naturalist and author Anna Botsford Comstock had observed about the cottonwood. “A gentle breeze sets the whole tree twinkling and gives the eye a fascinating impression as of leaves beckoning.”
Like the leaves, time beckoned. In the late afternoon breeze, my mother pulled her jacket closer to her as she attempted to finish her leaf project. I almost reached out to help her but hesitated. Despite the neuropathy in her hands caused by the aggressive cancer treatments, she managed the last step in her nature craft.
“The last thing you do,” she said, “is gently poke the stem through the center of the leaf, which makes a little handle.”
She smiled at me as she smiled at her creation, her eyes sparkling. Together we sat in the shade of the cottonwood tree. Like a sentinel, our old friend watched over us, the guardian of the concentric circles of life. We heard the happy crinkle of its leaves blowing in the winds of time. We listened to its whispers and I wondered if they called to her mind, like they did mine, the stories of the heart, the memories that run through our veins.
“A fairy purse,” she said as she handed the small treasure to me. I took it from her and held eternity in my hands.
Lori Rosenlof Drake is the mother of six grown children and the founder and former Headmistress of Roseleaf Academy, which was the only girls’ school in eastern North Carolina. Her writing has appeared in Mothers Always Write, San Diego Woman, Daily Nebraskan, Gaithersburg Gazette in Maryland and the Daily Reflector in North Carolina. The recipient of three Honorable Mentions in the Writer’s Digest National Competition, Lori is currently working on a book about her innovative school.