By Peg Carmack Short - Illustrated by Ellen Stouffer
When autumn breezes began to send leaves sailing through the air and plump pumpkins were starting to burst from the vines, it was time for our family to return to the Missouri Ozarks where my dad was born. There we marked the passing of summer by viewing the miracle of changing leaves. The view grew more spectacular as we drove west beyond St. Louis. The roads became steeper and the trees more dense as the path wound its way through the mountains.

The road we traveled was Route 66, which snaked past campgrounds, Burma-Shave signs, and billboards advertising tourist attractions such as Jessie James's hideout and Onondaga Cave.

Most of the time we arrived late at night, my sister and I stumbling out of the car, tousle-headed and groggy from sleep. Soon we were embraced by a chorus of exuberant voices as aunts, uncles, and cousins surrounded us. Strong arms circled our waists and pulled us close. There were sweet kisses, followed by exclamations of: "My, look how big you've grown!" My dad and his brothers exchanged slaps on the back and bear hugs. Laughter bubbled up around us like an explosion from Old Faithful. Secure in the love and legacy of my father's past, I was lulled by the dancing voices and the warm camaraderie of my Missouri relatives. Despite my excitement at being in the country for a few days, I soon fell asleep, cocooned in a feather bed and sung to sleep by crickets and cicadas.

The next morning I awoke early to the sounds of my father rising. Quickly and quietly I threw on my clothes and tiptoed down to the kitchen. I wanted to be the only one up, certain that Daddy would take me for a walk in the woods. I loved being alone with my dad because he was a great storyteller and my hero.

Sharing conspiratorial whispers, we packed a thermos of hot cocoa, which Daddy made especially for me. Then we climbed into our used Plymouth and set out for our early morning adventure.

The roads grew increasingly rough and rocky as we left the main highway and headed into the surrounding countryside. We were off to see the family farm of my father's youth and to take a walk in the nearby woods. Finally the road narrowed to a mere footpath, and there we parked and began our communion among tall oaks and shagbark hickories. The air was perfumed with the smell of apples from a nearby orchard and wood smoke from a neighboring cabin. Around us the morning mist kissed mountains and meadows, and the trees sighed with our passing. Here, amid a kaleidoscope of amber, crimson, and golden leaves, my father told me about his growing up on a farm in the Ozarks.

He pointed out a distant hilltop where he told me there was a deserted church and an ancient gravesite. In hushed tones he told me a shivers-down-the-spine story handed down from his father to him. The tall tale chilled and thrilled me the way a good mountain story should. Of course, he assured me, these stories were just fun to tell and weren't really true. He showed me the fine points of mountain medicine by pointing out flowers and roots and telling me which ones his mother taught him made good medicines when brewed as teas. And he warned me never to eat wild berries, onions, or mushrooms unless he was with me as a guide because some are poisonous.

We gathered hickory nuts from the ground and placed them in the deep pockets of my father's jacket. Then we rested at the crest of a hill under a tall, stately tree.

"Do you know that trees have intuition?" my father asked me. Intrigued by the thought, I shook my head. "No."

"When a tree feels threatened by disease, drought, or fire," he told me, "it begins to twist itself under the bark, reinforcing itself, so it becomes stronger." "How do you know that, Daddy?" He took my hand and led me to a felled tree stump. From the outside the bark looked like that of any other tree, but inside there was evidence of its twisting and struggling.

"We're a lot like that tree," he told me. "As we go through life, we face danger and hardship. Disease and the strong winds of trouble threaten to destroy us. But in the same way God designed protection for the trees, he uses our struggles to help us become stronger. But always remember," he cautioned, "that in the midst of our trials, God never leaves us. If we keep our eyes on him and trust his guidance, then just like these trees we'll grow stronger."

From that day on, I've never seen a stately oak without wondering how much it might have struggled and persevered in order to become grand and majestic. And while I would like my life always to be joyous and free of trouble, I remember my father's words and the Scripture verse he taught me: "Whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything" (James 1:2-4, NLT).

Once again the trees have turned to amber and a sudden brisk breeze yanks open my sweater, reminding me that winter is not too far away. As I take a morning walk in the woods near my home, the dewy grasses dampen my feet and brambles tug at my pants leg. I hear the noisy cawing of scolding crows, angry that I've disturbed their morning meal. The wind blows and the leaves of the trees rustle and seem to clap their hands. And my heart is filled with joy as I remember my father and our walks in the woods.

I've long since forgotten the names of the trees and which plants make the best medicine. Yet my father's love for God and his daily example of faithfulness, through good times and bad, walk with me always.

Story copyrighted 2001 by Peg Carmack Short and may not be copied in full or part without written permission of the author.

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