Once, on a warm Saturday afternoon many summers ago when I was not more than ten or eleven my grandfather, John McCoppen (Johnny Mack) Reeb, asked me if I wouldn’t mind helping him out with something he said he needed doing. He caught my attention right away by addressing me by the name of John. This was for me a huge delight, because I had always been called Johnny, despite my protests that I hated the diminutive form of my name and wanted to be called by something that might demonstrate to the world that I had grown up beyond childhood. At that moment in time I thought my grandfather must have been the first person who had heard me, and took me seriously.
All of us - myself, my father, and my grandfather, had the same first name of John. It was the same for at least 2 generations before that, and farther back than that, if you choose to consider the name of Johann, the Germanic form of John, that came from Alsace, or Elsass, depending on who might have ruled the area at any given point in history. I could be number six, or eight, or ten, for all I know.
So my grandfather came to be known as Johnny Mack (or just Mack by most of his friends), originally to distinguish him from his father who, I learn from my great-grandmother’s diary from 1902, had always been referred to as John A. My father went by Jack, and I was - merely, as I saw it - Johnny. It was all to distinguish each of us from the others, especially when being referred to in the third person, but I had always felt in some way devalued by it.
Apparently, I was being treated with some kind of new mature respect, and the prospect of this fascinated me, so I readily agreed to go along with his suggestion. We went outside to where he had already placed a wheelbarrow and in it, a spade shovel and a little maple sapling with burlap wrapped around its roots.
“You and I are going to plant a tree together,” he announced, with an air of some considerable seriousness. The property already had a lot of trees, and I could not understand why he felt there was need of another one, but I decided to go along with the whole thing. If he respected me, I reasoned, I would respect his wishes in return.
We began across the big lawn to the far northwest corner, some 40 yards away, stopping a couple of times along the way so he could catch his breath. Not too many months before this day he had suffered a major heart attack, and he was still in recuperation from it, so he always had to take it easy, on doctors’ orders. I had remembered going to the hospital in Toronto where, as it was explained to me later, he had been the subject of one of the first coronary bypass surgeries in the country. It had just come past the point of being an experimental procedure and I remember him in his hospital bed showing us the ugly wounds on his leg where they had managed to take pieces of vein to replace the ones to his heart. I never understood any of this at the time, nor of its great significance to him. I know now that he was plainly grateful for the extra time he had been given.
We slowly dug a hole in stages, with rest periods in between, for the little tree. I had to help, and even at my young age I must have done as much of the work as he was able to do, and this too, somehow, made me feel more important. Together we had to lift the tree out of the wheelbarrow, and carefully set it down in the hole. He cut the burlap wrapping away from the root ball, and we filled in around the roots with the soil that we had dug out of the hole earlier. Then we gave the roots their first drink for their new life with a hose that he had previously brought there for that purpose.
After he gently tamped down the loose soil with his foot, he stood back, as if in admiration of a job we had done extremely well. Craftsmen admiring their work.
“A tree is like a family.” he said, after a moment of studious observation. “It has roots you can’t see the beginning of, in some dark unknown place under the ground from where they come. It has a trunk like the wealth or the structure or the reputation of the family, and it has branches and leaves and flowers, and these are like the children who you hope will reach up into the world and make it a better and more wonderful place.
“In a few years I will be gone. I’m sorry to tell you this, but later on I fear you might have trouble remembering me. But then you can look at this tree which will still be here and recall this moment and what we did today.”
He had changed much over the later years of his life, from a big, heavy-set, aggressive and abusive alcoholic who was both feared and detested by the generations before me, to the much quieter, more frail and reflective person whom I recall the most, and with great fondness. Life-threatening events will tend to do this, I am sure.
I remember how he used to take me with him on the week-ends. To the race track where he would bet just a few carefully budgeted pension dollars, and we would enjoy the elegance of the horses and the skill of their jockeys, the splendor of the silks. To his brother’s place on Sunday mornings, where I learned from them to play cribbage like a pro by the time I reached the age of twelve. Watching him work with his hands despite the family prejudice that it brought to him.
Although I am sure that after his illness he tried to change so many things about the conduct of his life , he was never able to stop his smoking habit, and enforced idleness only increased the temptation for him to roll another cigarette and light it up. And this is what eventually took from him his life.
I was away at the time, in Europe, on my ‘old world tour’ sorting out my own problems when I learned of it. By that time it was all over and he was buried in ground no different from the earth in which we plant those things we want to grow - like little trees. I knew it was too late for me to do a thing by way of paying him my personal respects, until I would return some months later.
My greatest regret these days is not coming to know him better as a person. We typically don’t speak with our kin about our views of the world or the meaning of our lives, or our places in the universe; but this we ought to do so, and at the very least with our own blood I say we must. I am compelled to do this with those who still are with me because they, and I no less, will soon enough be gone.
It turned out that Johnny Mack had miscalculated on the place the tree was planted. It grew for a few years, but soon after my grandfather passed away, the local power utility had to cut it down. It was growing up too close to their lines and would soon have been a hazard, so they said. The men who came to do it seemed sorry.
But that is the thing of least importance, really. Family, for better or worse, is who we are and the means by which we have been brought into the world we know. What we do with our lives is really up to each of us, and we can choose to take in our origins and our experiences both good and bad, as a resource for our ongoing growth through our journey through life. To forgive all others, I have heard it said, is more practically a personal declaration of freedom, than an act of benevolence.
The tree of which I speak still continues to grow in my imagination and in my memory, as if the planting of it happened just yesterday.
John Robert Reeb