(I read this at the Litchfield Writers Guild June Coffeehouse 2016)
The tree was going to fall on the house. It was growing in that direction. It was teetering in that direction. If it didn’t fall on the roof, I was sure it was going to fall on our friend sawing it down. As he cut around the base with the chainsaw, the zzz zzz cut straight to my nerves. The top of the tree was tethered with a rope to the tractor my father-in-law drove, pulling the tree away from the house as my husband DJ yelled, “Back, back!” The saw buzzed, the tractor drove, Back!, Back! And I prayed Please let this go well. And the 200 year old, 65 foot tall tree thundered until it hit the ground with a BANG and shook the earth beneath our feet. It had fallen exactly in the middle of the yard. Not on our house. Not on our friend. And as I stared at the fallen giant, in the sudden quiet, I realized, after I told myself it was all right to breathe again, just how much the landscape had changed. Would never be the same. No more refreshing shade in that part of the yard in the heat of August. No more laughter from the kids soaring on the tire swing.
That was last year. We were digging a new well and the big rig couldn’t maneuver around the yard with the tree in the way. We loved that old oak, but given the choice between the love of a tree and a reliable water supply, we opted for the water. We had lived in the house fifteen years and in the apartment over the garage for four years prior. The tree was part of the family. A silent, ever-present living ancestor, it had been there for two centuries. We weren’t the ones who had planted it. Someone else could take the credit for that. If they were still around. We were the ones responsible for taking it down. A little guilt there. But we did add many things to our yard over the years.
When we first got married, I knew as little about gardening as I did about replicating mom’s meatloaf. By contrast, I would soon learn that my new carpenter husband could not only visualize houses from blueprints, he could also plan out gardens pretty well. He bought shrubs and perennials and suggested where we should plant them. They started to come up and they complimented the spaces where they were planted. In this way, we designed our landscape. Things started to take shape. Sure, little plants would not always last and one year the moles ate our tulip bulbs, but for the most part, things stayed the way they were. It was fun deciding what we wanted, where we wanted it, and planning what the future yard would look like. That was over 20 years ago.
Somewhere in that time, my grandmother gave me a Rose of Sharon. We planted it beside the porch’s white rails, gingerbread posts, and sky blue ceiling. The pink hibiscus flowers offered an nice contrast. The bush flourished there for quite a while. Bumblebees loved it. A few years ago, an ice storm damaged half the bush. I pruned off the dead parts. Where most people would have a V-shaped bush, we now had a Y. The following spring we celebrated a multitude of blossoms. The pruning had actually strengthened it. Time passed and we took the blooms for granted again.
One day I came home and something was missing. I didn’t know what it was right away. My heart noticed before my eyes did. Then I realized that the blossom-laden branch lay on the ground. It was broken. We had had a very hard rain the day before. The pounding rain off the porch roof had disintegrated the woody stems and soaked the roots.
I can’t say that I acknowledged its presence every day. Sometimes even when we don’t pay close attention to things on a daily basis, when something changes, we notice. Where we had intentionally cut down the tree in our backyard, the passing of the Rose of Sharon was something that happened when we weren’t looking.
That was the end of it. It was sad. Like we had lost another member of the family. I look at the space where it stood and in memory’s eye, can still see the pink flowers. DJ says we can replace it, but I say no. That chapter is past. Let the Egyptian garlic grow. It self-seeded under the bush long ago, and now, with the sun unimpeded, is twice as tall. Hummingbirds visit its nodding blooms.
When we lose people, our personal landscape changes. For 18 years we were blessed to share our corner of the world with both of DJ’s grandmothers. Nan lived next door and Grama lived up the street. Nan loved books and history and English cookie tins. I’d look out my office window to see her filling up bird feeders or hanging sheets on the clothesline or sitting on her screened-in porch in the summer with the door open, reading a book or building a jigsaw puzzle. I mowed her lawn in the summer and shoveled her walk in the winter.
Grama up the street was more of an extrovert. She loved people and parties and all things leopard print. We went to her house for family get togethers, always with music and laughter and cake. The Christmas tree would be bright and gaudy, laden with thick shiny garland, and the thermostat set at 80, with a log burning in the fireplace, but it was more something to joke about than complain about. And, even with her walker, Grama would dance and sing. In the summer, she sat outside on the bench under the lilac bush, wearing big dark glasses and a festive sweater.
A year ago, Nan passed away, and last year Grama did, too. They were both 94 and had been part of our personal landscapes for a long time. Now everything is different. Nan’s house still stands next door, but it’s vacant and gutted, no longer full of cookbooks and faded photos, and the glass elephants she loved. Now it’s full of someone else’s dreams, undergoing major reconstruction by her grandson who inherited it and hopes to move in one day.
Grama’s house is also vacant and has been cleaned out and the yard cleaned up. A for sale sign stands in the front yard. No more parties, no more leopard print. No more reason to visit. Just quiet. Random cars show up in the driveway sometimes. Possible future owners? With the passing of these grandmothers, our emotional and physical landscape has changed. If someone new moves in, when someone new moves in, they’ll move things around, make it their own. Our view will change.
Sometimes we stop and stare at a new addition in our landscape. Like a new baby. So much wonder and promise in such a small package. I remember learning that I was pregnant for the first time. I stayed up all night thinking, “I’m going to be a mom. I’m going to be a mom. I am a mom.” And then dreaming, visualizing our growing family. The happy effects a new baby has on a husband and wife. Of course you can’t foresee all the things that will change, but you dream just the same and vow to do things a certain way so all will go well.
Life goes fast. It’s good to stop and remember things and people along the way. To remember loved ones, we take photos and make scrapbooks and plant gardens. The pale pink roses climbing the picket fence were ones my grandmother bought me years ago at Agway. The oregano plant DJ received from a friend when he worked at the Ag station when we first got married still grows in the garden. Two small rose bushes my mother purchased for Grama’s funeral last summer grow in the front yard, too. I didn’t have a place to properly plant them where they would get the attention they deserved. I dug a new garden just for them, changed the landscape a little to accommodate these new beauties.
The red bergomot and orange poppies I planted tell another story. They were grown in the green house at Newtown High School where DJ works. He brought them home at the end of the school year in 2013, six months after the Sandy Hook tragedy. Every spring when those flowers come up I remember where they came from. I recall that day. One of those days when everybody remembers what they were doing when they heard the news.
My oldest son Tim was in his first year back at public school after being home schooled for several years. He had missed the bus that day. I was a little aggravated by that, but then young David and Sarah were so good about my waking them up. As I drove up the hill to the green, the view was breath-taking. Peach sunrise and icy branches on the trees. Kids snuggly in blankets. Bundling up on a cold winter day to take their big brother to school was an adventure for them. Three hours later I would hear the tragic news of the shooting. Of children. And my husband in lock down. Every year, the poppies come up and the bergamot comes up and as they retell the story, the hummingbirds and the butterflies visit.
After that tree was felled in the backyard last summer, we just stood there for the longest time looking at the emptiness it left behind. Before the thunderous crash, we hadn’t thought about the effect that emptiness would have on us. We removed one thing and the whole landscape changed. The way the light fell on the ground, the shadows, the temperature.
The immediate mess was the jungle of green leaves. Piles and piles of leaves and branches. A tangled mass that would need to be cut. But looking at the natural debris at our feet, the air was lighter, the sun warmer on the tops of our heads, unimpeded by the former green canopy. The rig came in and dug a new well. We dug up the entire backyard to run new pipes to the house. We smoothed out the earth and planted new grass seed. The happy result was a grassy backyard that was lusher and greener than ever before. Thanks to the sacrifice of the old oak.
Sometimes we add to our garden. Sometimes we take things away. Sometimes things are taken away. But it’s always a garden. Always fertile ground for new growth and a renewal of the old. Even when the landscape changes, there is always something green, always something blooming somewhere. Hope, as it turns out, is perennial.