The Lump that Turned into a Legacy

A parent’s obsession evolved into procrastination… which sadly outlasted her wonderful life, but not before her son followed through and finished a special work of art.

My mother noticed a bulge on the side of a neighbor’s cherry tree. She assumed it represented a huge chunk of burl wood and one she hoped to procure if they ever removed the tree itself.

She spoke about it before I hit puberty in our hometown, Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey.

She noted on several occasions how, “…someday, they are going to remove that tree and when they do, I want that lump!”

She’d point it out and mention how it reminded her of the cherry tree we had on our property, which had been taken down a few years prior. I thought nothing of it; the tree needs to die, then be removed, then mom will get the lump… whatever. Not an uncommon response from a teenage boy obsessed with girls more so than timber, albeit I frequently produced ‘wood’ whenever I made eye contact with the opposite sex.

My mother was an artist before her marriage ended in divorce, when she was not required to hold a nine-to-five job in order to secure benefits. Her paintings won awards at local art shows and she was also a world traveler before she married. One nation held a special place in her heart, based on how her gardens resembled a shaded Asian landscape: Japan.

I deduced, in hindsight, that she probably became enamored with cherry trees during her trip to Japan… and that lump down the street. Soon enough, she saw a tree-removal service chopping down the neighbor’s cherry tree and she persuaded them to hack off the bulge that resided near the stump.

Then, they carried it over and placed it in our living room, which I discovered when I came home from school. My mother was obsessed with this 45-pound hunk of wood. Oh, the things she could do! She gave thought to drilling a hole from top to bottom, placing a tube in the middle and making a water fountain out of it. She thought about polishing it to see if it was indeed a gorgeous slab of burl cherry wood.

I had no idea what she was talking about and had little interest. When I had to schlep it down to the basement, I nearly fell from the weight of it. It was placed there during Ronald Reagan’s second term and I’d often have to move it around to access other parts of the utility room.

She moved in the year 2000 to a larger home for reasons I still question to this day, given she was close to retirement. I joked she needed more space for all her stuff, including that damn lump!

So, I hauled it over to the new house and it sat, yet again, in her new basement. By the time 2010 rolled around, she had possessed this lump for twenty-five years! No grand art project, no fountain, just a hunk of wood drying out and taking up space with 10,000 other things. I knew this basement would be a challenge to clean out, but we all assumed that time would come in thirty or forty years given my grandmother’s lifespan. She lived to 94, and at that time, my mother was a young and vibrant 67-year old.

Then came my mother’s diagnosis, the result that stemmed after some alarming blood tests and symptoms surfaced in 2016: leukemia. It was a cold December evening when I received the news.

The next seven months in 2017 unleashed a waterfall of emotions. We reconciled our differences. She survived sepsis after an unexpected stint in the ICU, she recovered and had the chance to spend quality time with her grandson, Connor. Given her intubation and the doctor’s suggestion to prepare for the worst, it felt like a miracle that we ended up with several more months of time for all of us to spend together.

A month before her demise, I spotted the lump in her family room, taking up space and begging for attention. I barked off, “Can I throw this thing out already? Come on, it’s going on three decades!”

“Wait,” she said, “I have something to show you.”

Then she showed me the printed flyer below, from a burl wood specialist located in Chestnut Ridge, New York.

That’s when I finally understood what she was talking about. My eyes opened wide when I saw what she had envisioned so many years ago.

Almost a month later, she passed, but despite the heartbreak, I had something to look forward to – realizing my mother’s vision for ‘the lump.’

I tracked down the burl wood specialist, a man named Takuji. His woodworking skills and roots trace back to Japan and his accent was thick, but it was fitting. My mother’s favorite destination in the world, the place that inspired her gardens and the interior design of her home were based on her travels to this country.

Takuji set to work in February 2018. It took him three months of hard labor to get the bark off and I paid him in several installments. You can see how the work progressed from start to finish:

When finished, it was magnificent. It turned out it was burl wood at the core, but rather than trim and scrape too much away, he thought it best not to carve too deep.

He mentioned he had never worked on such a large and unique piece, and he even gave this new sculpture a name – Kodama, which in Japanese means, the soul (or echo) of the wood.

I built an entire entertainment center around this piece to honor my mother. Our newly gutted and redesigned basement provided the backdrop and we hired a carpenter who figured out a way to showcase Kodama in a more fitting manner.

When you’re a father and possess the means to honor a well-loved relative in a unique way, it provides context to the next generation. A person’s legacy matters, their impact on the lives of others… matters. When you’re raised in a less-than-perfect family circumstance (i.e. divorce), but have the means to illustrate the value of family to your children, embrace it.

3 thoughts on “The Lump that Turned into a Legacy

Add yours

  1. This story just really touched me. What a sweet way to honor your mother. I have never heard of “burl wood,” but it sure is lovely. I remember when I was young, such tree growths were often referred to as “cancers.” Have you ever heard that? Your mother knew all along there was something very special in that lump. I just loved everything about this story. Thanks for writing about it.


  2. The house Karen grew up in had a stunning Yoshino Cherry tree in the center of the parkway. It was an ornamental tree so no fruit, just beautiful blossoms each spring. Your grandfather took such good care of that tree and everything else growing on the property. I know the tree was still there when I moved from 6841 Dartmouth St. in 1969.
    That was probably the start of Karen’s affection for cherry trees. I know it was the start of mine.


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