HERE'S A MORMON kind of riddle:

Question: What type of tree do we celebrate at Christmas?Answer: No, not Christmas trees. Family trees.

And this holiday season my family tree is going nuts. It's the kind of tree you would expect to see in Oz - full of apples and oranges and always sprouting new branches. And we've been through so many graftings and prunings it's hard to know the type of tree we are. So I've been trying to get to the roots of things. Here's my family tree - framed by other trees:


One night each spring, when the poplars jutted up like nails into a black hoof and the moon was a silver buckle on God's great belt, my grandmother took us grandkids to visit Grandpa Rees.

She wanted us to hear his stories.

We'd hear the poplars hiss and watch him rock. Then he'd start to talk. And when he spoke, he told us who we were.

He'd sing us the songs of our family - with the poplars providing accompaniment.


Back in the '60s, my grandmother designed her own grave marker. She sketched the flower of a dogwood tree and had it etched in stone. She loved the dogwood and painted it on everything she loved.

"The dogwood flower is for Jesus," she'd say. "It's in the shape of a cross. Jesus was crucified on a dogwood tree. And once He died, God never let the dogwood grow big enough to make a cross again. But when Jesus comes back he'll restore the dogwood to its true stature."

Jesus, the resurrection and the dogwood were vital to my grandmother's perspective.

She had a useless hand she longed to have made whole.


Unlike sequoias and redwoods, family trees grow larger and larger but never die. In fact, my mother is convinced they expand forever. And her faith in eternal family trees has given her an unnerving view of death. I've written about that several times.

My mother sees death the way most of us think of a power outage. It's a minor, temporary inconvenience. For her, the trip to the great beyond is just another family vacation.

In Mother's heaven the weeds will be called "flowers" and all the apples will be wormless.

For her, all the branches of every family tree will show up there. And none of them will ever have to be pruned.


When the father of a Mexican poet friend died of cancer, my friend wrote: "You are the invincible trunk, we are the branches. That's why this chop from the ax shakes us so."

As I write this, my father - trunk of our family tree - is growing old.

He has also had cancer.

My father loves trees. And he has developed a special touch with ailing ones. When a tractor tore a chunk from his nectarine tree, my father - not the tree - felt the pain.

He loves to plant warm-weather fruit trees in our chilly climate to show that trees are hardier than we think.

Keeping trees alive has helped keep my father alive.


My brother Dave was born in 1951 and lives in Utah.

My brother Val was born in 1956 and lives in Hawaii.

Dave is "fruto," Spanish for "fruit that stays attached to the tree."

Val is "fruta," Spanish for "fruit that is taken from the tree."

Dave lives in his hands.

Val lives in his head.

Dave likes putting things together.

Val likes taking things apart.

Dave thinks the most important word in the title "Wind in the Willows" is "willows."

Val thinks it's "wind."

Dave is a sturdy branch in life's big storms.

Val is the branch that always reaches for the clouds.