An acorn is the fruit of an oak tree. Inside an acorn rests a single seed. Inside the seed rests an oak embryo. This embryo is produced by pollination. Oak trees have both sperm-producing and egg-bearing flowers that bundle together. Sperm-producing flowers, or catkins, are inflorescence clusters that look, in a way, like golden dusted corn stalks of October. Where leaves bud in the spring, these staminate flowers dance like wind chimes in the breeze. Their pollen travels across wisps of air. The egg-bearing flowers are incredibly small and hard to see with the human eye. However, where new leaves emerge, these small red blossoms have six ovules full of eggs – though only a single ovum will be fertilized to produce an acorn.
Seed-bearing embryos take about a year – sometimes less, sometimes more – to fully mature. But, when the embryo is ready, hormones in the parent tree allow fruit abscission. The acorn will fall to the Earth and find a new home in the soil. Most acorns will live in the shadow of their parent plant. They will rest and wait for water and their own rays from the sun. Not the acorn that produced this oak tree, though. This oak’s acorn traveled.
This oak tree, under which the six of us gather, is gnarly, knotted, and pleasing. Even more, this oak is isolated – standing humble and alone in a beautiful meadow. The soil that feeds the roots is nutrient dense and lives above Paleozoic aged limestone. The tree’s meadow is encircled by mountain ridges of Precambrian sandstone. The oak stands solitary and timeless in a cove that serves as a window through time. The acorn that produced this tree was moved here, likely by a feathered friend, to receive a full chance at the sun. The roots left the acorn to grow deep in the soil, while the shoot twisted and stretched in youthful growth to stand in a wisdom of, I approximate, about a century and a half. This tree may well stand and reproduce for another couple of centuries before it stops growing acorns of its own. Then, the oak will begin to die slowly. The tree will fully decompose into the ground, right from the place it originated. This slow decomposition will make the soil incredibly fertile. New generations will rise.
This oak is special. I remember from a passing conversation with my dad when I was in high school some twenty something years ago that he liked an old tree in the Cades Cove area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When I asked what he liked so much about the tree he responded, “Well, it’s a really nice oak tree all by itself with a great view.” With a smile and quickly hushed chuckle he added, “Maybe when I’m dead I can just be there.” We’ve found his tree on a beautiful spring ’22 day.
“We should all hold him,” my sister Christy says, tucking some hair behind her ear as a soft spring breeze quietly whispers through the meadow. The oak’s leaves gently rustle and flitter about. “I find it comforting to hold him.”
Brian, her husband, takes a brown urn out of his pack and hands the remains of our father to her. A choke builds in my throat as Christy and I make eye contact.
“You’ll be part of this tree now, Dad,” my brother Craig explains as he examines the magnificent tree. “Rains coming in tonight.”
Carole, Craig’s wife, rubs his back as he turns his gaze to the mountain view. Christy hands the urn to me. In the moment, I recall the days after Dad passed and instantly understand what she meant when she told me she felt different. Dad passed away on a Sunday morning back in February after a far too long, far too brutal, terribly invasive struggle with cancer. He found mercy in death. I’ve “talked” to him since his passing. Been wearing his old vest. But he’s been gone for three months now. I love my dad. He’s one of the most important people in my life. Now I get to hug him again one last time. I’m not prepared for how this feels.
“Wow,” I mutter. “Hi, Dad.” I find myself crossing my arms around him, like a real hug. “This is all that’s left. About fifteen to twenty pounds our so.” I squeeze the urn a little more and pass him to Craig.
“Cremated remains of Lloyd T. Mincy,” Craig reads the insignia before tucking Dad to his chest. “Well, the old son-of-a-gun got us all out to the Smoky Mountains together, didn’t he?” We all laugh in the moment as blue clouds roll over the mountains into the cove. The air cools. Rain will be here after nightfall.
“Should we all pour some of him?” Christy asks.
“I think so,” Craig answers. “That way there’s no questions, no regrets.”
“Who first?” Christy inquires.
“It’d be good if it were you, I think.” I look to Christy and follow with, “You’re his daughter.”
Craig hands the urn to Christy. We all work to open it and unfold the plastic from the ashes.
“This is the human body,” Craig says with an inquisitive look on his face. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
“Yeah, pretty wild, isn’t it?” Christy asks rhetorically. She gathers the ash bag and begins distributing Dad above the roots of our tree. “Calcium, Phosphorous, Potassium, Sulfur – what else do you think, Grant?”
“I reckon some carbon,” I respond.
“Yeah, I bet carbon,” Christy says, sprinkling ashes in the meadow grass at the base of the oak. As she pours, bluer vesseled clouds roll from the mountains and sweep into the cove. The breeze picks up. The air is cool and plays a symphony in the leaves. She passes the urn to Craig. The wind builds even more. The green meadow grass sways across the entire valley. The limbs of the oak bend and move.
“So elemental,” Carole notes as she stands with a hand to her cheek. I notice tears in her eyes as the wind rustles her hair. “It’s like he knows. He’s here.”
Wind whips my hair and pushes my beard around when Craig hands me the urn. I bend low to the ground and release dad to rest. As I pour, some of his ashes, like dust, move with the wind to dance in the meadow.
“Lots of folks at rest in the cove, Dad,” I say as his ashes pour. “You won’t be alone.”
“No, he won’t.” Craig says, watching from the tree. “That’s good. He hated being alone.”
With the ashes poured, we stand for a while and tell old stories. Our tales are good, bad, complicated, and wonderful – the life of a man well loved by his kids. Towards the end of our time here, Craig and Carole recall the time Dad met Celine Dion at a baseball game and was a total fanboy about the experience. Christy thinks about time they spent together, just the two of them. Like the time they traveled from Delaware to my wedding in his old truck, or the freezing cold day she took Dad, an Air Force vet, to the Veterans Day parade. I told them about how he would play Simon and Garfunkel, Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and other oldies on the radio when he’d drive me to school after he finally retired. I loved those car rides.
“Do you have a bible verse in mind, Christy?” The wind has calmed down again. I look at my sister as the meadow comes back to a rest. “I don’t really know the good book all that well anymore.”
“Me either, Grant,” Craig says, looking at Dad’s view across the mountains.
“Yeah, actually, I have one.” Christy says. She removes her phone from her pocket and pulls up a saved passage.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
Craig wraps his arms around Christy and me, gives a good squeeze. We admire the view a little longer, then the five of us decide to leave Dad at rest. We work our way back across the meadow to Cades Cove Loop Road. As we mounted our bikes and pedaled off, Brian waves and hollers, “Goodbye, Lloyd!”
There are no cars on the loop today. We are free to bike the entirety of the cove without breathing exhaust or needing to dodge those automated chariots. The weather is perfect – “very elemental,” as Carole had described the day. We see a few deer, a good number of turkey, and, wonderfully, six bear on our ride. Two separate bear families numbering three were spied on the loop.
Our ride ends back at the campground. The place is buzzing with folks, way more than when we all arrived earlier in the morning. Happening spot – car free days are very popular. I see Katie and Eli almost immediately after pulling into the parking lot near the camp store. The two of them originally planned to join us at the memorial, but they took a shorter loop. I hug Katie and learn she and the boy had a small ceremony themselves for Dad under a family of trees out in the cove.
“He was very choked up, Grant. I mean deep emotions,” Katie tells me as we hug. “It really is a testament to Lloyd. Elijah knows how much you love him, and he feels so much for you right now.”
Dad loved ice cream, so we all get some cones – and some chili dogs – from the camp store. As we munch on our snack lunch, we notice a bear just snoozing away in a tree above the campground. That makes seven bear on the day.
Shortly after the food, we say our goodbyes. Craig and Carol are heading out for a nine and a half hour drive all the way back to their place in Michigan. They are new grandparents and have a baby to spend time with. Christy and Brian are going back up to the high-five state as well. With the memorial done, Katie, Eli, and I hop in the family wagon, cruise out of mountain country to pastoral Tennessee, and come on home to Knoxville.
That night the rain poured for hours. No doubt the falling waters helped break down some of Dad’s ashes. He’ll be making his way into the tree. Dad was a very Christian man. I know he’s found peace in golden fields out there somewhere. I like to think our atoms will meet again, out in the heavens, beyond the firmament, in time. Until then, I’ll be thinking of him, and I’ll keep spinning those old tunes.
**Featured image by Christy Going, altered, cropped to fit