If people want to criticize Millennials for being self-absorbed, navel-gazing egotists, they should know from whence we sprang.
In the interest of unscientific, anecdotal research, a case study: my own personal tree.
Fifteen years ago, my grandparents planted a tree in my honor. It’s on a college campus in my Midwestern hometown, at a school where my grandfather was the dean of the theology school for many years, a university that nearly every member of my family attended, except me. There’s a giant plaque underneath the tree that bears my full legal (including hated middle) name.
A couple of other facts: I don’t know what kind of tree it is. I don’t recall whether there was some sort of ceremony when it was planted, or how I was even informed.
The tree is just there. A tree grows in Anderson, Indiana.
My grandparents (who I have mentioned before -- grandparent love!) probably planted the tree because I’m their only grandchild. They think I’m a big deal. I love them for it and think they are an equally big deal. But what does it mean to have my own personal tree?
As a teenager, I thought it was half embarrassing, half hilarious. I sort of naively thought, How nice. My grandparents gave me a tree. I remember being forced to take photos next to it. It grew faster than I did, something that was always noted. But duh. It’s a goddamn tree.
At that point, it wasn’t yet clear that hand-wringing studies and glossy magazine articles would paint Gen Y as an egoist generation of coddled brats. We didn’t know the whole world would mock us for our self-important ideals and compulsive connectivity. In light of these developments, a tree seems almost like an especially quaint gesture, yet it’s strangely appropriate for a woman my age who feels like the past is slipping away, like we’re trashing the planet, like we’ll never get back what we lost from an era in which you planted trees for your grandchildren just because you loved them.
It was also unclear that I would grow up to be the person I resemble today: a writer, an (conflicted but earnest) environmentalist, a person who left home and never goes back.
Or maybe it wasn’t a mystery to anyone except me. I spent hours on my grandparents’ word processor (not a computer, mind you), typing crappy little stories about my dolls. Grandpa and I used to collect leaves in the fall, often walking through the local cemetery or on the university campus. Growing up, I heard stories about how my grandparents had lived all over the country in the pursuit of better education and work they loved. Maybe they hoped I’d internalize those formative experiences, that all of those moments would come back to me later and I would understand the significance of chasing dreams and being grounded and prioritizing passion.
When I think about the tree -- and I do -- I think a lot about what it means to go home, what home is, where I’m from, and who came before me.
I hadn’t seen it in at least a decade when I went to visit my tree earlier this year, my partner in tow with a camera strap over his shoulder and a wicked grin on his face. I approached it with hesitation, with a mixture of confusion and sadness, and sat under it while he snapped photos and tried not to be conspicuous. Co-eds shuffled past, not paying any attention to the moody chick in a pile of leaves. In every photo, I look painfully awkward, physically uncomfortable. I’m barely smiling. I had too much on my mind to fake it that day.
I’m not the only person with a dedicated deciduous. When I got up from sitting around under my tree, I looked around to see if there were any other individualized plants nearby. When I got close enough to read the one other raised marker in the clearing, I shouted.
“I know this bitch!”
OK, she’s probably not a bitch, and I don’t actually know her. But I recognized the name on the tablet underneath another tree, a woman born a few years before I was, to a now-divorced couple who used to be BFF couple friends with my own now-divorced parents. I wouldn’t know the woman if I saw her, but she’s out there somewhere, another recipient of an incomprehensible gift, once proclaimed worthy of this honor.
I wondered, would anyone would call us if anything ever happened to our trees? Who would do that? Would they know how to find us? Who takes care of my tree? Does anyone ever read the plaque and wonder what I did? (I didn’t do anything, y’all. That’s the point.) Does anyone ever read those little brass plates on public benches and sidewalk bricks and wonder whose names they are? Or are they disregarded like newspaper obituaries?
I also considered: Should I dedicate something physical to my grandparents -- you know, something more than my entire life of trying to be a smart, compassionate person like my grandpa or a weird little antique-loving lady like my gram? Do they deserve a similar physical marker, something to make people remember (or at least wonder) who they were?
My gram is 92, and I wear her clothes. Today -- his birthday, Dec. 8 -- my grandpa would have been 97, and I wear his sweaters. They planted a tree for me because they believe(d) that it would mean something. It probably doesn’t reflect on my generation in any particular way, but I was implicitly promised that my life would matter. That means a lot to me.