sē’ dәr noun 1. Any of several Old World evergreen coniferous trees of the genus Cedrus, having stiff needles on short shoots and large erect seed cones with broad deciduous scales. 2. Any of several other evergreen coniferous trees or shrubs, such as the Alaska cedar, incense cedar, or red cedar. 3. The durable aromatic wood of any of these plants, especially that of the red cedar, often used to make chests.
(The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.)

An aromatic wood, red like a ham. The scent lingers like the memories it evokes. Of the treasure chest in Mom’s room. I was five and I wanted to see what was in that great shiny varnished box. She opened it and a world of the past came to life. I saw my sister’s baby shoes and my little moccasins. There were books and pictures and artifacts that make up a family history. The aroma of the cedar almost burned my young eyes.

My grandfather had these wonderful magical pocket knives and he could take a branch of cedar and make anything! I asked him how to carve a duck and he told me to cut off the parts that doesn’t look like a duck. Mostly he would just sit and whittle. I asked Dad what he and Grandpa were making and he said they were, “just whittling.” I asked why and he said, “Just to whittle.” It was the only time I ever heard my father praise something that didn’t have a clear purpose. Whittling cedar meant spending time with Grandpa. I got my first pocket knife in the summer after 2nd grade. I sat in Grandpa’s lap and he showed me how to whittle. I still bear the scars on my thumb and index finger. Whenever I smell cedar and see those scars I know my Grandpa will never die.

We had a cedar tree in the back yard. Rabbits made nests under it. Birds lived in it and we hung the bird feeders there. The cedar tree was full of life and curiosities. We put Lucky’s doghouse under it when he was a puppy. My little friends and I would push each other into it on ornery lazy days. It would scratch and the sap would stick our fingers together and I could smell the cedar. We had another in the front yard. I was 4 and it was almost Christmas. There was a big snowstorm. The wind was blowing and the snow was swirling around the tree like cyclone. I sat in the bay window behind the old stereo. I knelt in my footed pajamas and pushed buttons I found on the back of the stereo and spun the handles on the window and controlled the storm. That night I dreamed that we put giant colored lights on the cedar and moved the presents out there. It was covered with snow, the snow I had made, but it wasn’t cold. Mom didn’t like that tree. She had it cut down. I was worried about the rabbits’ nests.

In college I made a very good friend from Lebanon. He told me of the cedars on the mountains. He told me that it snowed on those trees too. He was a refugee, a victim of a war. He was able to tell me about it in vivid detail. A boy soldier, an orphan, robbed of a childhood and somehow, given a taste of the American Dream. He left Lebanon but took a little of the war with him. His own personal civil war was that of a Lebanese man separated from the land he loved and drawn to the opportunity of another. He had no need for money or material things; his gold and silver were his friends, his past, his God, and his ability to love. He would have loved whittling with my Grandpa.

I think of many things when I smell cedar but mostly of Grandpa, and whittling, and cutting my fingers. I cried when I cut my fingers that day, and I cried when Grandpa died, and sometimes, I cry when I smell cedar.


Kerry Cooper

North Hollywood, United States

  • Artist
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Artist's Description

At work on the escalator several years ago I caught a whiff of cedar. I think it was in the cologne someone had been wearing. The memories came running back. I went to my desk and wrote this.

Artwork Comments

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