Pat has a thing ’bout trees. He likes them, and they–as much as a tree can return one’s affections–seem to like him. He feels a close kinship with them wooden-headed, wind-dancing beings. Now me–to be completely honest here–if’n a tree falls in a forest, I really don’t care one way or ‘nother. That’s just the way of things, and such.
(Notice them little saplings on that there pitcher of Pat’s grandparents?)
Behind closed eyelids
Blood grazes red in a field
Of light and daydreams
The sun climbs the tree
Then leaps from the top branches
Into a new day
Some of my fondest memories of childhood are associated with trees. In my grandparents’ yard were three, towering weeping willows. My father planted the trees from cuttings the year he, his sister, and his parents moved out from their West Milwaukee home for the ten-acre homestead in the country. The willows grew quickly and wildly in the fertile soil during the thirty-plus years before my birth in 1968. Up until that time, my father had (among many other accomplishments): joined the U.S. Marine Corps, traveled the world, gotten married, built a house next door to my grandparent’s home, and fathered three children with my mother. I was number four of what eventually turned out to be five children.
Not the oldest or the youngest, neither spoiled nor burdened with the responsibilities that seniority brings, I was an in-betweener, perpetually stuck in that vague, gray place that is, “The middle of things.” Through luck, DNA, or necessity, I developed an inwardly focused personality. I didn’t think highly of myself or act selfishly; I was anything but that. I was the quiet one. The sensitive one. The one that watched the others to see how things were, and to see how best to fit in. I was a keen observer and listener. Of people: their behaviors, their shifting moods, and their interactions with one another. And of nature: her beauty and bounty, her multifarious permutations and interactions, and her aloofness towards those who didn’t heed her, oftentimes, subtle nuances. But mainly, and above everything else, I was a dreamer.
I was the kid with his metaphorical head in the clouds. And not coincidentally, one of my favorite places to adjoin with the Muse of Visions was in the topmost branches of the willow trees. Swaying back and forth like a child in his mother’s arms, I was soothed and hypnotized by the trees’ gentle motions. Dappled sunlight flickered across my closed eyelids, tattooing a secret message in light. I watched, entranced, as the blood coursed through the thin folds of skin. Backlit by a red sun, the throbbing blood branched and divided like the woody limbs on which I clung. With my cheek pressed against the cool, smooth bark, I inhaled the fruity aroma of sap that spoke volumes of the vitality of the trees. And of life. For I could feel it. The trees were alive. And I was a part of them. For minutes at a time when I was in one of their branches, there would be no separation between us, no place where child existed and tree did not. We were interchangeable then. Congruent. Complete. Without me, the trees did not exist, and without the trees, my existence would become unbearable.
There were three trees. And each had its own name.
There was Papa Willow. The largest of the three, he had a thick, straight trunk whose lower most branches were the hardest of the three to reach. I had to strain to climb him, but once I made it past these lower hurdles, he opened himself up to me. He offered the farthest views from his top branches. Like a soaring bird, I could look over rooftops, down into neighbors’ back yards, or further yet, down the road to watch expectantly for my own father’s return from work.
There was Mama Willow. Wide at the base, and split into two main trunks, she looked like a kneeling woman with outstretched arms. She was the easiest of the three to climb, as no sneakered foot had any trouble gaining the first step up on her. Her views didn’t reach as far, but she offered something else. Grabbing and pulling bunches of her whip like branches together, she allowed me to swing like Johnny Westmueller did in the old black and white Tarzan movies I used to watch with my grandma.
There was Baby Willow. The smallest of the three, he grew nearest to my grandparent’s house. A birdbath with the statue of Sacred Heart Mary stood under his branches. The leaves from his branches used to fall into the bath, and if left there, they made a reddish goop that sank to the bottom of the bowl like clumps of blood. The wildest ride was possible from his branches. Having limbs much narrower than the other two, if I managed to make it to his top on a windy day, the reward was roller coaster wonderful.
Three trees and a middle child. A match made in heaven. Perfection attainable. For the moment.
We moved away when I was eighteen. My grandmother had died when I was thirteen, and my aunt wanted her half of the inheritance immediately. We sold my grandparent’s house and yard, the acreage that we used for farming (But was technically still my grandparent’s), and gave my aunt her portion. We stayed on for a couple more years, but when my oldest sister had to quickly sell the house she was living in, my parent’s helped her, and her new husband out, by buying it from them. No more country life. No more trees.
I never said anything when all of this happened. I thought I didn’t have any say in the matter. That probably comes from being an in-betweener.
I have gone back a few times. Once for the funeral of an old neighbor. Once to take my wife to show her where I grew up. Once to take my kids for the same reason. The road looks narrower than it did. And more houses crowd the sides of the street. But the trees are still there. Bigger than ever.
(August 11, 2003)
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