The Cherry Tree Carol

And now, on Winter Solstice, we pause for a break. Last week I went to a Christmas musical performance of Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian Christmas at the university. I went partly because I love fiddle and violin music of any kind, and partly because I love Christmas concerts and miss most of them because I’m grading fall quarter classes. I also went to this particular concert because I recently discovered my biological Appalachian roots and wondered why this concert was called ‘Appalachian Christmas’, which is apparently because it is blue grass music and contains multiple fiddles, mandarins, bass, and guitars. I’m not sure that is the right answer but nothing else was forthcoming.

I went by myself because Jeanne is still recovering from her concussion and crowds and noise are sometimes overwhelming. The expensive tickets were not sold out so we were invited to move closer to the stage. I ended up in a great seat where I could see the band’s faces and watch them actually play their instruments.

The music was lovely. I had a wonderful evening, even though, or perhaps because, I was by myself. I realize that when I go to events with friends, a part of me is always unconsciously wondering/worrying if they are having a good time. I know that’s unnecessary but can’t help it. By myself I felt freed up, able to just relax, be totally in the moment, listening fully to the music.

That night was alive with memories for me. My mom Helen was an organist, working with church choirs. And at this time of year she would be leading our annual Christmas caroling for Gordon School. I felt mom’s presence with me that night. Growing up over the years Mom taught us kids old French church carols like “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabela”, gospel carols like “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn”, carols Appalachia and many other areas, Christmas music from many traditions. One of my favorites was called the Cherry Tree carol. This carol is originally from the 15th century and among many versions there is one discovered in Appalachia, which was the one mom taught us. The band played a most beautiful fiddle version of this song, which sent me back to a long ago memory I had almost forgotten.

When I was about 15 my parents rented an RV and drove all us kids down to Florida to visit my dad’s brother, our Uncle Doug. On the way we drove the entire Blue Ridge Parkway, which I heard was stunning, though I didn’t see much of it as I spent most of that part of the journey on the floor of the camper, shaking in fright that dad would drive us over the edge of the scenic road. I was suffering from the onset of what I know now is Panic Disorder, a disorder medicine didn’t have a diagnosis for at the time. Back then I was known as a particularly neurotic teenager!

One evening dad pulled over to a camping place right off the drop-off side of the Parkway, I don’t remember exactly where we were but when we all got out of the camper and stood in the wind on a precarious cliff edge I felt a strong sense of impending doom. Normally my family, especially Dad, would treat my feelings as part of my overall high-strung personality. In this case the turn-off must have generated enough general unease in the rest of my family that dad agreed to drive a bit farther down the highway to another campsite on the other side of the road, more level, and sheltered on the mountain side.

After we had set up camp, eaten dinner and cleaned up, my younger sister Betsy and I went for a walk in the woods. It was a full moon and the skies were clear. Just a bit north of the campground we found a rough circle of huge pines, towering above us. We sat down in the center of the circle, in a place that felt ancient to us, and sang and sang for what seemed like forever. One of the songs we sung was the Cherry Tree carol.

In hindsight, I wonder where we were on the Blue Ridge Parkway, how close to the towns of Cherokee and Sylva, where my birth mother Iva Dean was living. My sister and I are both adopted and we spoke of it often when we were kids growing up. Who did we imagine our mothers were and what were there circumstances? Were they young and on the streets, older with other children already? Why did they abandon us? Would we ever know?

The adoption agency told my parents that my birth mom was from the south, which is a pretty big area to cover, but since we were in “the South” in Virginia, North Carolina, etc., my sister and I surmised, we were closer to my birth mom than we were in Massachusetts for sure.

That night long ago we sat under the silver light of the full moon , within the safe circle of tall evergreens, listening to the night sounds. We added our own voices to the night, singing all the verses of the Cherry Tree carol we could remember. I wondered wistfully if I was close to my birth mother’s home, if maybe she could even hear me.

JOSEPH was an old man,
And an old man was he,
When he wedded Mary
In the land of Galilee. 
Joseph and Mary walk’d
Through an orchard good,
Where was cherries and berries
So red as any blood. 
O then bespoke Mary,
So meek and so mild,
‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
For I am with child.’
O then bespoke Joseph
With words so unkind,
‘Let him pluck thee a cherry
That brought thee with child.’ 
Then bow’d down the highest tree
Unto our Lady’s hand:
Then she said, ‘See, Joseph,
I have cherries at command!’ 
‘O eat your cherries, Mary,
O eat your cherries now;
O eat your cherries, Mary,
That grow upon the bough.’
—The Cherry Tree Carol (c. 1500)

Now, in 2018, I am 64 and have found relatives on both my birth mothers and birth fathers sides. I know my birth mother, Iva Dean, was living in Sylva, North Carolina in the summer of 1969 . I know my adopted family was camping in the Blue Ridge mountains, maybe not more than a half- hour distance from Iva Dean and my half-siblings, Jo Ann and Kenny.

I thought about all this during the band’s rendition of The Cherry Tree carol, wondering if my birth mother Iva Dean loved music as much as I did, if she loved the church choir or listened to the radio or had a favorite song or type of music.

I thought about my adopted mother, Helen, and her deep love of music, how her whole life was about music. The organ, the choir, the medieval trio, the harpsichord and timpani and even the jazz drums in a band playing in bars as a teen. I thought about us kids singing in the car on long trips and Christmas caroling through the neighborhood.

Is my love of music an intrinsic part of my biology, my DNA, or is it a consequence of growing up in a household filled with music, nurture more than nature, my adopted mom’s love of music influencing my love of music, though sadly I didn’t get any musical talent other than appreciation. This despite her many attempts at my musical education: choir practice, recorder lessons, piano lessons, and later, on my own initiative, guitar lessons.

My vocal range is a very limited Alto, a bit on the low end. My hands are not great for classical guitar and my singing an embarrassing match for folk guitar. Hardly anyone plays the recorder any more. I couldn’t compete with mom on keyboard instruments. I have a small ukulele I keep planning to try, it is a popular instrument today and there are local groups you can join, but I’ve not made room for it in my pre-retirement life.

I hope that music was a part of Iva Dean’s life as it was of my mom’s life, and I know that music will continue to be a central part of my life. As I listened to the last notes of the Cherry Tree Carol fade that night, I held both my mothers’ in my full, full heart.

3 thoughts on “The Cherry Tree Carol

  1. Nicely told, Kate. I love the scene of you and your sister singing in the woods. You are connecting with and through music. I’m glad for you. Sky

  2. This is so absolutely beautiful, Kate, I wish I could share it and might if I can if it’s OK with you. Your piece here comes in a timely way as well, as I, too, received my first ever “first cousin” match appearing to startle me on Ancestry. I have messaged her but I doubt I will hear from her again. I will email you the details. There are no words to say how grateful I am to the infinite that you and I were thrown together and carried through chapters of our lives until now and going forward by Helen and Larry when we were plucked by them in 1954 and 1956 respectively. I felt a giddy sense of elation last night when I realized what my biological start was and then this morning I woke up realizing the sadness of that story and all it impacted, in all probability. Then again as if by sudden magic you wrote your beautiful piece here. Thank you for mentioning me in it with you. It helps me this morning and always. Your sister, Betsy (Angela at the start of it all)

  3. Your Beautiful words continue to weave your journey’s tapestry. Thank you for taking us along as you explore your own Ultima Thule.

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