Set back from the shoreline and dwarfed by a row of giant hemlocks, a solitary mountain ash, still in its infancy, stands in the snowy field. The tree is not yet of an age to give shade in the summer but I am sheltered by branches of memory.
It was the fall of 1957 and my father, terminally ill, gazed out the bedroom window at a mountain ash gracefully spreading branches over the yard. The foliage, no longer green, had taken on autumn colors—yellow, orange, and reddish purple. They were vivid colors, embodying a melancholy mood of autumn, soon to deepen into the dark brown leaves of winter.
Small birds, finches, thrushes and waxwings flew in and out of the branches, stealing the small red berries which would sustain them in the days to come. Slowly, the clusters of berries disappeared, promising life to birds still able to soar—even as my father’s life ebbed. The chatter of the birds sparked questions: What is our destiny? Who shall live and who shall die? What will be our allotment of time? These were mysteries without answers, blown on the wind of a darkening autumn.
The snows came to Albany and sparse clusters of berries fell to the ground—only red dots on pure white, like specks of blood punctuating the earth—and still my father clung to the tree of life. No, clung is an inaccurate word. In those cold months my father remained vital, summoning his dwindling energy to directing work on the completion of a glorious new temple sanctuary where he served as rabbi.
In periods of remission he would drive himself to the temple in the old brown Plymouth Coupe which lost its roof in a fierce wind storm on State Street Hill. And, when he could not drive, loving congregants would carry him to the temple where a peaked roof climbed into the sky and symbolized the biblical tent in the wilderness.
Upon his return home from the temple my father spent hours writing a sermon for the dedication—a sermon he would never deliver.
What was the sermon my father would give—if only his voice could vanquish death? He spoke of the future, of hope, of tomorrow, for he believed life goes on. He never referred to the imminent cessation of his life, only to new beginnings. From his childhood on he had always looked forward. And, if the power of will could influence events, my father would live. If only.
So each day my father wrote words, like blossoms, imprinted on untouched pages.
And a whisper suffused the bedroom: Not yet. Not yet.
Spring. The mountain ash bloomed. Showy white flowers opened, an advance guard of what would eventually become red berries as the cycle of life once again evolved.
My father died on the day of the planned dedication. Instead of a service of rejoicing, the first service to be held in the new house of worship on Academy Road, where sunlight filtered through stain glass windows, would be my father’s funeral. The dedication would have to wait.
And the mountain ash? What of the mountain ash outside the bedroom window? Well, the tree continued to thrive, although with the passage of time and the force of weather the trunk bent away from the wind, and the bark, battered and scarred, painted the tree in mottled shades.
It is more than half a century since those poignant moments occurred in Albany, N.Y. but whenever I walk by the mountain ash in our field at Brant Lake—a tree still tender, its future unknown, I remember my father. And I trust the tree, beginning to give forth white flowers and red berries, will grow strong, bend with the winds of time, the inevitable turbulence of the years. As did my father, Samuel Wolk.
As may we all.