Not Merely a Tree (by Phyllis A. Duncan)
Not long after I bought my first house in Northern Virginia, my then significant other found a tiny maple sapling in the scruffy back yard. He dug it up and replanted it dead center in my postage-stamp front yard.
“It’ll grow,” he said, “and the shade will cool the front of the house in the afternoons.”
This little townhouse was situated so that the sun rose at the rear of the house and set in the front, and, yes, the afternoons in the front room of the house were warm and a bit stuffy. However, looking at that six-inch tall sapling with two or three leaves, it was difficult to envision shade.
Mindful of my black thumb, for weeks every day after work, he stopped by the house to water the sapling and otherwise tend to it. I swear I heard him talking to it. He’d done this before. One Christmas, he told me, when he was married, he’d bought a live Christmas tree for his kids. After Christmas he was going to plant it in the backyard of his house in Reston. By the time he got around to it, however, the ground had frozen. He spent hours with a big screw driver, chipping a hole big enough to fit the tree’s root ball. He tended it as well, and twenty years later he and I drove by the house he’d sold during his divorce. There was that former Christmas tree, towering over the house.
The maple in my front yard became “our tree,” his term for it, and it grew beyond all odds. Though it was at my house, he took it on as his responsibility, and he continued that when it became “our” house. He trimmed limbs when it needed it, made sure it got extra water in dry seasons, and, again, probably talked to it.
I came to love that tree, our tree. And it did shade the front of the house for a while until it grew as tall as the house itself. Its leaves turned an incredible reddish-gold in the fall, and it was in front of my office on the second floor. As I sat at the computer and wrote or worked from home, it was a comforting presence. When my SO was on travel, it was as if the tree watched over the house and me until he returned.
Twenty-five years after he planted that tree, four years after he and I were no more, I sold the house to move to where I now live, some 150 miles away. I absolutely hated to leave that tree, and that little house, behind. There were so many good memories there, enough to mask the few bad memories of the breakup. When I left the house for the last time, I lay my hand on that tree, and I spoke to it.
Over the years, I’ve thought about “our tree.” I don’t know if he does; I don’t know if he remembers it in his alcoholic fog. But a few months ago, my Irish “came up,” that intense feeling of intuition I’ve trusted more often than not. My Irish was telling me our tree was gone. I mentioned it to a few people, who said, rightly so, there were other, more significant things to worry about (gassing mothers and children at our southern border; hints of criminal activities in the highest office in the land; the rise of neo-fascism, etc.) than a mere tree in front of a house I hadn’t owned for eight years.
A couple of weeks ago my former next-door neighbor called out of the blue to invite me to her birthday party. She’d been a true friend for many years while I lived there. When my brother died, hers was the shoulder I cried on; hers were the arms that embraced me. When the SO and I broke up, she was the one who listened. And I had missed her. I readily agreed to come and spend the night in the house next door to mine.
Then, what, I wondered, will you do if you get there, and the tree is gone?
I began to envision it, even dream about it. A bare front yard, sometimes with a stump, sometimes with a gaping hole where the tree had been.
On the day of the party as I drove northeast, that image of the bare front yard stayed in my head. I followed roads I knew well, turned onto streets I’d turned onto hundreds if not thousands of times, and into the cul-de-sac.
And there it was. Our tree. Taller and thicker than when I’d left it eight years ago.
All throughout the party, I sat where I could look outside and see that tree. When it was time for bed, I picked the guest room that was equivalent to where my office had been in the house next door, so I could see the tree when I woke up.
Our tree is now almost twice the height of the house and strong. It is what’s left of what was good about us, and there was good. There was strength; there was love. I’m glad that part of us still stands and will stand probably after he and I are both gone. There will be something permanent about the love we had, the love that alcohol drowned.
As I left the morning after the party, I wanted to lay hands on that tree again, to feel its bark beneath my fingers, but I already knew how it felt, as I knew in that moment, it wasn’t really our tree anymore. My Irish had been right; our tree was gone. A new couple lives in the house now and cares for the tree.
It’s not merely a tree. It’s their tree. And I’m glad.
This post originally appeared in the author’s blog on www.unexpectedpaths.com. © 2018, Phyllis A. Duncan