The tree I’d be

Cypress trees.jpg

Sunlit Cypress. Teresa PhillipsCC BY-SA

A few days ago,  I happened upon this captivating tweet:

I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring and I turn towards the sun. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut tree.

-Roger Deakin, journal entry for April, quoted by writer Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 04/04/2018

Macfarlane then asks: “Which tree would you be and why?”

—A cypress.

That was my immediate thought.

But why?

After all, one of my favorite scents is Fraser fir (the predominant Christmas tree in North Carolina). I vacuum the stubby needles at holiday’s end and try not to empty the canister for as long as possible, because the fir fragrance fills the air with every subsequent use. The trees of my childhood are dogwood, pine, live oak, magnolia, sweet gum. I have early memories of sun-dappled sidewalks covered with “helicopters”—one-winged seeds, or samaras—that spiral down from maple branches. I tossed the helicopters again and again, as high as I could, to watch them swirl like propellers. Crape myrtles lined my grandparent’s yard; I climbed their smooth trunks, sat in the crooks of their branches, countless times.

Why does cypress come to mind first, then?

Poets and writers, you know when an image appears so vividly that it holds some significance begging to be explored . . . .

For starters, my image is of Taxodium distichum, more commonly known as a bald cypress, or, my preferred name, a southern-cypress tree.

It’s rooted in the swamps of the southern United States, where my roots are. A tree at home in water, in rivers. I grew up in a place called Tidewater, entered the world in a hospital named for its proximity to water: Riverside.

My first recollection of the word cypress was my grandparents’ reference to a place on beyond where they lived, where the little dirt road curved past canals and thick woods that had grown to obscure stately houses: up Cypress Swamp, they’d say. Grandma’s best friend from first grade, who grew up to marry Grandma’s brother, was from Cypress Swamp. As a child, standing on the dirt road, looking through the treetops, if the sun was right, I could glimpse a bit of one old, abandoned house—a roof of cypress shingles.

The word sounded poetic to me even then: cypress. Like a whisper. Like something inviting. Maybe magical.

Although, through the ages, a cypress was usually associated with funerals and mourning. My affinity for the tree is clearly fused to my eastern North Carolina heritage, a reminder of the generations that have gone before me. My family tree, so to speak. It is ancient. Maybe nothing encapsulates that so well as this passage from Our State magazine, in which the author chronicles his boat journey on a river through a cypress forest:

 Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.

-T. Edward Nickens, “In Search of Methuselah,” Our State, June 8, 2016.

They live for so long, cypress trees, due to their ability to withstand storms; they thrive despite adverse growing conditions. Cypress wood is hard, strong, water-resistant—hence those shingles on the old country houses still standing as a forest  grows up around them. Those hand-hewn shingles sheltered the life therein. Like Noah’s ark, made of gopher wood from an unknown tree that some researchers speculate to be . . . cypress.

I cannot say the adversity, the storms, in my own life are any greater or worse than those weathered by other people I’ve known. I can only say that I’m still here. I view the cypress not as a funeral tree but one that preserves, celebrates, and affirms life; that, ultimately, is the whole reason why I write, why this blog exists at all.

On a fanciful note: Earlier I mentioned the word cypress sounding magical. When I was a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I still do. In these books, C.S. Lewis borrowed from Greek mythology to depict dryads and hamadryads, the spirits of trees that took the form of young girls with their particular tree’s physical characteristics: a birch-girl dressed in silver, another with hair like long, willowy branches. Does a cypress call to me, then, because I am tall (5’8″ in bare feet)? That’s taller than the average American woman (5’4″) but not dramatically so. There must be something more, then, as to why the cypress chooses me, something unique to the tree and to me, other than our having southern roots in watery regions.

The knees.

In cypress forests, knobby projections stick up from the water. Theory has it that those “knees” help the tree breathe, enabling it to take in more oxygen. I don’t know how much truth lies in that theory, but I can tell you this: For my entire childhood I suffered from asthma and the only way I could sleep at night, the only way to breathe, was by curling up in a ball with my knees drawn up under me.

So, yes, my knees helped me breathe.

*******

In the old places

where the water stands still

they live on

holding all their stories

not evergreen

but ever-enduring

reassuring

reaffirming.

With every breath

drawn on their knees

they whisper,

“Remember.”

Real

and ethereal

—if I were a tree

a cypress

I’d be.

Cypress trees - pink

“When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and future slowly unravels before us.” echorooCC-BY

Cadillac man

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When he was little, he spent hours lining up his Hot Wheels just so.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“It’s the parking lot at church,” he told me. Car to car, he explained who each owner was according to where they parked every Sunday morning.

He’d matched his toys to the real cars by the types of spokes and wheels.

A mother can be worried and fascinated at the same time.

Around the age of six, he announced: “I’m going to get a Cadillac when I grow up.”

“Oh, you are?” I responded, attempting to keep a straight face.

He nodded his head emphatically. “Yes. A blue one.”

His grandparents drove a blue Sedan de Ville. My husband’s stepfather bought it new in 1989, with forty miles on it.

I could understand the appeal. My boy was obsessed with cars. When I was growing up, I loved my grandparents’ car, too: a vivid red 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 (see A long time ago in a Galaxie far, far away).

The boy has always known exactly what he likes and doesn’t like, what he wants and doesn’t want. There are no proverbial shades of gray with him. He loves dogs. He loves music, especially old gospel songs. I joke that he was born seventy-five years old and he has never disagreed. When he fell in love with Cadillacs at age six, it was forever.

He began collecting Cadillac memorabilia, knew all the latest models and years. He knew the old ones, too.

“Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa say the Cadillac goes to me when they’re gone,” he said, his big brown eyes aglow, around age ten.

The de Ville was, at that point, twenty years old.

“I’m glad they want you to have it,” I tell him, even as I think Buddy, by that time the old car won’t be worth having . . . 

Pa-Pa, a jolly, larger-than-life Scotsman, took meticulous care of his Cadillac, but after his death in 2014, it just sat in the driveway. Undriven. The seasons came with their ravages, year after year: summer’s blazing sun, autumn leaves gathering layer upon layer, winter’s snow and ice, spring’s thick coating of pollen.

Ma-Ma died last fall. We began cleaning out the house, my husband’s childhood home.

Our boy said, “It’s time to get the Cadillac.”

My husband and I looked at each other.

We looked at the de Ville.

It looked forlorn, awful.

But, to honor Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa’s promise to their little grandson long ago, we decided to see what could be done.

We had the car towed to the place where Pa-Pa bought it almost thirty years before. With a new battery, it fired right up, despite four years of sitting completely idle. It got new brakes, new fluids, new tires, and a much-needed bath.

The service rep called my husband: “You’re not going to believe it’s the same car. Everyone here thinks it ought to be in the showroom.”

We were skeptical . . . but the rep was right.

The boy—now a man—drove his father and me to the dealership to get the Cadillac, to bring it home.

It sat in the service area, waiting, gleaming, as if age and time had no meaning.

Touching the hood lightly with his fingers, our son whispered, “I wish Pa-Pa could see it.”

He took the wheel. His dad rode shotgun beside him.

I followed behind, marveling, as my son, at last, drove his shiny blue Cadillac down the country back roads into the setting sun.

Somewhere over the rainbow

skies are blue

and the dreams that you dare to dream

really do come true.

I note that when Judy Garland sings this line in The Wizard of Oz, she’s leaning on a big wheel.

*******

On the de Ville’s front grille is a medallion with the Roman numeral VI. Our son learned that this is a Heritage of Ownership emblem given to Cadillac owners for each vehicle. 

This was Pa-Pa’s sixth Cadillac.

Heritage emblems are not given anymore.

Still born

Lost in France WWI

WWI digital collage by jinterwasCC BY

“In this place, time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences . . . .” -Woodrow Wilson, 1915

By Christmas, she’s too weak to get out of bed. She listens to him singing carols with the children in the front room by the fire, his resonant bass filling the house. If the pain would stop, she thinks, I might could play a song or two for them . . .

The piano stands silent as she drifts in and out on the sound of his voice.

He peers in at her. How strangely frail she is, birdlike, lying there with her black hair spread like wings over the pillows, skin as white as the sheets, dark circles around her eyes. Until the lost baby in September—poor, stillborn thing—she’d been tireless, out in the cotton from dawn to dusk, all the while keeping an eye on their three children at the edge of the fields.  

Her strength hasn’t returned, but she’s alive. He is grateful, for he walked the valley of that shadow once before, fourteen years ago. Just down the dirt road, over the canal footbridge, under a stone on the land his father gave for the building of the church, lies his first wife. Nineteen years old, buried in her wedding dress, holding the infant who never had a name to inscribe on the stone:

a place made vacant

in our home can

never more be filled.

A place now filled by a woman who’d been twelve at the time of her predecessor’s passing. 

She opens her eyes. Huge, black eyes that look straight through him, making him shiver.

“Francis. Go get Mama. Please.”

Turning back to the front room, he kneels with the children—ages six, four, and two—and gathers them in his arms. “Listen to Papa. I’m fetching your Grandmama. Stay close by Mama, hear?”

The older girl and boy nod. The two-year-old squirms against him. He hands her to her big sister. “Mind her. Keep away from the fire. I’ll be right back.”

The six-year-old regards him with solemn eyes, big and dark, so like her mother’s. “Yes, Papa.” She grips the little one’s hand, tight.

He grabs his coat and cap. The children watch him through the frosty window, hearing the echo of his boots running over crunchy patches of snow.

They file into the bedroom where she lies with her face turned toward the other window and the winter white world beyond. 

She moans as the pain in her middle cuts like a knife and the whiteness deepens to gray. I am turning inside out. If I didn’t know better, I would think . . . 

Then the darkness swallows everything.

*******

Day blends with night, it all runs together, until a cry shoots through him. He bursts into the bedroom, blue eyes wide with shock.

There, in the quivering circle of red-gold light cast by the kerosene lamp, stands his mother-in-law, her face shining with perspiration. Before he can take it in, she crosses the creaking floorboards to hand him a wriggling, wailing bundle.

How can this be? How can this be? pounds his heart. The baby was stillborn nearly three months ago!

His wife, smaller, paler than ever, watches from the bed, black eyes glittering in the lamplight. “Merry Christmas, Papa, one day late,” she grins. “It’s another girl.”

Who is very much alive, crying for all she is worth, here in his arms.

His instincts kick in. He jiggles the infant and begins to sing, softly, tears spilling down his cheeks.

The newborn and her mother both drift away on the sound of his voice: “Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”

*******

“So, you see,” says Grandma, “I was a twin.”

“How can that happen? Having a stillborn twin but not the other for almost three more months?” I’m hanging on her every word as she makes up her four-poster bed. Through the window of her room, with its tongue-and-groove walls painted a cheery pastel pink, I can see her homeplace just on the other side of Granddaddy’s garden. The tin roof gleams bright silver in the morning sun. For a second, I see it in the icy December of 1915 . . .

She shrugs. “It’s rare, but it happens sometimes, even with animals.”

“But how did she not realize she was still expecting for that long? She’d already had three children, not counting the one she lost!” My  great-grandmother went on, in fact, to have a total of eight children, all of whom I know. Not counting the lost one, of course. Grandma’s twin.

Grandma shakes her head. “There’s no telling. Women didn’t go to doctors like they do now. When she lost that baby, it came early. She just didn’t expect there to be a twin remaining, I guess. Women lost babies all the time. My sister had stillborn twin girls. I was there and saw them. They looked like tiny dolls, not quite finished . . . ”

She says this with a matter-of-factness that I cannot comprehend.

“It’s so mysterious, that you were still born after all,” I say after a bit, following her to the kitchen, where she ties on her apron.

“Oh yes,” she says, flouring the spot and croaker that Granddaddy caught in the creek. “Life is full of mysteries, that’s for sure.”

“You’re kind of a Christmas miracle, then, aren’t you?”

Grandma chuckles, placing the fish in the frying pan where they sizzle and pop, sending up a fragrance that makes my stomach growl.

“Just one day late,” she smiles.

She goes about her work as usual, while I drift away on the sea of her stories, filling in the minor details that have been obscured by time, envisioning these great-grandparents who died before I was born, sensing the tenor of their daily lives, yearning to know more. I halfway expect, as I go out on the back steps to gaze at the empty homeplace, that I might see them in one of the translucent windows, waving to me in recognition.

I have to stop myself from waving back, in case anybody else happens to be watching.

*******

Happy Birthday, Grandma. Your stories live on.

Love always from your and your Papa’s namesake.