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I don’t believe in signs, but I do believe in trees. A friend came over last week, a professional gardener, and walked through the back yard with me. What used to be a flat dirtscape is now pretty much a flat mulchscape with pliable soil and a few seedlings peeking through. I started this garden just a year ago, so I’m not dissatisfied with its progress, but I know it needs help.
My friend the gardener glanced around at the tall white fence and said, “We need some vertical interest back here. This wall begs for a tree.” She pointed up to the two-story back of our wood-shingled, 112-year old house. She described a pear tree, conical shaped, that would bloom with white flowers in the spring, and whose leaves would turn red in the fall.
A tree. Of course. And what about an apple or cherry, or maybe a redbud tree over in the corner next to the shed, to soften the ugly view of electrical wires and the transformer box on the alley telephone pole. Her skilled point of view trained my eye upward.
Fifty years ago, I was a kid who lived in trees. Nothing beat the shelter of leaves and branches, the thrill of being high above the ground and invisible. Every day after school, when I was ten, I climbed into the branches of our backyard silver maple and settled in with a pile of Archie comic books and two cream-filled donuts from the Krispy Kreme up the road. I could hear and see everything — the kids on the school playground across our back fence, my brother dribbling a basketball on the concrete driveway, a boy dragging a stick along the ditch that bordered a field across the way. I could see into the windows of our house. But no one could see me.
A high school boyfriend thought me brave and a little crazy our senior year for climbing into one of the towering pines next to the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, its branches forming perfect horizontal rungs, a ladder to the sky. He jumped into the neighboring tree and we raced to the top where we wrapped our arms around the soft trunks and swayed, calling to each other through swishing pine needles.
When I was 18, a toppled oak in the old forest of Memphis’s Overton Park became an arboreal playground for pot-dazed college students. We hiked in through tangles of saplings and climbed onto the trunk, wider than a sidewalk, and lay on our backs, staring at the timbered skyscrapers above us.
But for over a year, out here in the middle distance, relocated for the third time in four years, I have kept my eyes on the ground. Packing, unpacking, settling, surviving. My tree climbing days are long gone.
Yesterday, searching for a missing passport through stacks of dusty boxes left unopened since I moved into this house last January, I came across family artifacts that took my breath away — tempera-painted, miniature handprints on yellowed construction paper; messages from sweet little boys declaring their love for their mother. Report cards and school projects and shot records and snapshots gone sticky with age. It was hard to dive in and look. My eyes clouded at the evidence of my family’s happiness.
In a file folder with my name on it, I found a letter written nearly 20 years ago, by me to my husband as we stood at the precipice of divorce after four children and 20 years of marriage. He had been the boyfriend in the pines. In an utterly rational tone, I enumerated my fears. Number one on the list: our children will be rootless and won’t know where home is.
Amazingly, this house that was their father’s is now my grown children’s and mine through a string of impulsive and unexpected and conscious acts following his sudden death a year and a half ago. It is the family home I feared they wouldn’t have.
I locate the passport among scraps of memory, close up all the boxes and go to the garden. The spring air is soft and chickadees swarm the birdfeeder. The dog chews on a chunk of bark and I pull out the shovel. It will take a while to dig a hole big enough for a tree’s root ball. If I do it right, though, and water it enough, and if disease doesn’t get it, the tree I plant this spring will be here long after I’m gone. Maybe I do believe in signs after all.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.