A month after losing Nelle, we scattered her ashes to the coulee where I grew up. I was still in a dense fog of grief. It was Ger’s suggestion to bring her to the tree where my grandfather’s ashes had been scattered in 2011. The Sheltering Oak is nestled back on my aunt and uncle’s land and on that day in early October 2015, Ger and I walked back there alone. It was crisp, Fall day with a bright, cold sun. Leaves were making their descent from the branches to the ground. We sat in silence for a long time. Just sat. I couldn’t bring myself to leave the tree, and leave her there.
I never envisioned that in Spring of the following year, I would be visiting the tree again to bring the ashes of another daughter. Iris was lost in February of 2016. This time, we waited a few months. The weight of losing two babies was too much to make the journey again immediately. We waited until it warmed. This time, two aunts, two uncles, and cousins who lived in coulee joined us, along with Theo and Quentin. We held blooming flowers. And scattered the tiny quantity of ashes over the green earth beneath the tree.
In the Summer of 2017, I came back to the tree. This time, I was pregnant with Autumn. I wandered away during a family gathering with Theo and Quentin. The day was hot, the sun was brilliant, and the Sheltering Oak was expansive. I sat with my three living children, two beside me and one still growing. It was my secret escape, a moment away from a large family gathering to sit beneath the tree and pray that the baby I was carrying would be born.
Last weekend, I was back in the coulee. Though April should hardly be considered Winter, Wisconsin had a snowstorm only a few days prior. Snow still covered the ground. With my big kids and my aunt, we made the hike back to the tree, a slightly more treacherous journey between the snow and ice on the trail. The tree was barren, devoid of all leaves. Bundled in our winter coats, we sat for a few minutes, until the kids complained about being cold.
I have now seen the tree change throughout the seasons since we first lost Nelle. I have yet to bring Autumn to the tree, my baby named for the season of change. To bring her along the steep path would require a firm tread, the assistance of another adult, or a walking toddler. But I know that I have many years ahead in which we can visit. The land has been preserved through the Mississippi Valley Conservancy. It will be protected for the health and well-being of future generations.
The tree, probably a hundred years old or more by the size, may one day die, or be struck by lightning or disease. But the land that holds my daughters’ ashes will continue to flourish with the changing seasons.