Most Sunday mornings I write with a friend. She provides the prompts, we write for half an hour, then read our efforts to one another over the phone. The prompt today was taken from John Hay's writings regarding a tree he grew up with. (A Beginner’s Faith in Things Unseen: “Fire in the Plants”)
One afternoon when I was five my father called my brother and sisters and me out to the back yard. It was really two yards divided by a stone wall with a rose arbor. The cesspool was also located out there so summertime found two vastly different scents competing for our attention.
On this day dad stood at the corner where rose garden and cesspool occupied the same bit of earth. Four small hemlock trees surrounded him. “Pick a tree,” he sang out, his face one big smile. My mother often accused him of being less than a landsman – he’d grown up in New Rochelle, NY; he was a city boy, after all – and being surrounded by farmers on all sides made him a bit defensive. He decided to prove his worth as a country man by planting trees for his children, trees that would grace the corner of the yard for years after we’d all grown and gone.
One by one we held our trees straight as Dad shoveled dirt over the roots. My brother’s tree was tucked directly into the corner of our property, mine stood slightly tilted next to his with the twins’ trees crowding close to avoid getting their feet wet in the murk of the cesspool.
My mother came out to inspect the proceedings. She was a city girl herself but her own mother had been born and raised on a farm. Mama knew a thing or two about gardening. “I don’t know, Jay,” she said, shaking her head. "Those trees are awfully close to the cesspool. Plants don’t like human excrement.”
The cesspool had always been a bone of contention between my parents. In the 40s, when they married and moved to the house my city-escaping Granddad had called his summer home, the modern leech field had not been in existence. Instead, a long pipe led from the house to the far reaches of the back yard where the effluent collected in a scum-covered pool before sinking into the surrounding earth. Though it was barely visible behind its shield of tall, rank grasses, it stunk in high summer when the air was hot and still. Only the roses planted in great sweeping pink swaths offered the nose any comfort.
My mother’s observation made us children anxious. We’d interrupted our play to help Dad plant our very own trees and in the space of half an hour had become very possessive of them. “They’ll grow just fine,” my father assured us, waving his hand at the surrounding woods to make his point. “Look at all those trees. They don’t mind a little sh… .” Intercepting a black look from my mother, he didn’t finish the word.
“It,” my brother muttered under his breath and scampered off, brandishing the wooden sword he’d been threatening my sisters with before Dad had summoned us. We whooped after him, leaping the lowest of the rose bushes that separated the two yards.
Those trees did grow, but slowly. In my teen years the branches of my tree were finally high enough off the ground to shelter me and on those days when hiding was a stronger urge than dodging the awful smell of the cesspool, I would take a book or my sketchpad and crawl under its sheltering branches. In winter I loved trying to sneak under the branches without disturbing the snow so that when I looked up, it was like being in the Snow Queen’s castle.
One by one my siblings and I left the home place for college and new lives but every time I returned I took time to visit my tree. The cesspool was filled in by then, replaced by a holding tank. I brought my first born to the back yard to play under the hemlocks and then the other children as they arrived. We had picnics there and built tiny houses of fallen twigs. Often we’d bring a book and I’d read aloud. Stories read in the company of trees seem more real somehow.
The trees grew for twenty-five years. Their spires reached high into the blue. I noticed a few bare spots here and there on the branches, accentuating the brown needles that still clung to the branches but it was a warning I missed. Several months later, a letter from home brought the news of my father’s illness. I returned in time to say goodbye and before leaving, stumbled out to the back yard to seek solace under my tree. I stood beneath its branches and looked up. Only then did I realize that my tree was dying, too. In fact, all four hemlocks were turning brown, their needles falling in sad puddles on the ground.
The summer following my father’s death, all four trees had to be cut down. My mother and I stood watching with tears in our eyes. Taking my hand she turned to me and said, “I’m glad I was wrong about these trees. Your father would always point them out to me when I had doubts about something.”
The home place has gone out of the family now. The rose bushes are gone, too, and many of the trees that surrounded the house of my childhood. But in my mind’s eye, those four hemlocks we planted with my father so long ago rise up out of the corner of the yard, growing between the roses and the cesspool, proof that life finds its own way to flourish despite unfavorable conditions, despite our doubts.