The “Family Tree” people from Belchertown have taken down most of the big trees in my parents’ yard. My oldest sister – the one who helps my mother with her finances — hired them to do some trimming. They came back when my sister wasn’t there, again and again, each time getting my mother – always so cheerful, always so trusting – to agree to more trees.
“It is, after all, a family-owned business,” my mother says when my sister asks her about the checks. Thousands of dollars have already paid. Thousands more are still outstanding. And we will miss the trees.
The gray birch on the side yard was the centerpiece for two family weddings. It was also an obstacle on the skating rink my father made every winter — first for his children, then for his grandchildren and then, apparently, just for himself. Now it is just a stump. The family tree people didn’t even finish the work.
But what bothers me most is the loss of what we have always called “The Fact of Fall” tree in the back yard. Sitting outside the window of my father’s study on the first floor, the large oak once served as the backstop for neighborhood wiffle ball games. More importantly, it was the inspiration for the title poem of what has always been our favorite collection of my father’s poems. Now it too is gone, the wood shavings sprinkled out across the roots that stick out from the soil like a serpent.
I briefly consider putting on my lawyer hat when my sister tells me about the Family Tree people – I am the only lawyer on this side of the family. But my 26-year-old nephew Peter has already made the calls. Standing in for my father, he would have done this with a lightness that has always eluded me. The Family Tree people will finish the work and then not come back out to the house. And somehow they will feel good about this.
* * * * *
My father was always a gardener.
My former sister-in-law used to tell the story of arriving at our house on Hills Road to meet my parents for the first time, only to find my father coming in from the back yard in his work clothes. Goodness, she thought to herself. They even have a gardener. Therein should have been the first clue.
It was only later, when the gardener took off his work gloves and sat down for dinner, that she realized that the man she met in the backyard, the man in dungarees striding toward the house with a youthful vigor that always surprised us, was her future father-in-law.
* * * * *
It was Peter who was sitting at my father’s bedside in the hospital when my father died. Thirteen hours after my father came off the ventilator, one hour for every grandchild, and with encouragement from the doctor and my father’s eyebrows, always so expressive, rising with consent, we had gone back to my parents’ house to sleep. Peter volunteered to stand sentry.
Although I would be lying if I said I am not still conflicted about this, and I suppose I always will be, I comfort myself with the knowledge that my father would have appreciated the symbolism – the fact that it was the oldest offspring of his oldest child who was with him when he died. “Grandfather,” Peter might have said with a reverence I have always appreciated. “Are you sleeping in that country you have got to?”
* * * *
Digging a hole for a hydrangea bush a while back, my father uncovered a plastic soldier who, years ago, was left behind when the dinner bell rang, a casualty of some epic but now forgotten neighborhood battle, lying first among the leaves and then within the soil. We laugh that, like the Japanese soldiers who were left behind on uncharted islands in the Pacific after the Second World War, he didn’t know that the war was long over. My father washes the dirt off the soldier and puts him on a shelf in the garage, and we give him a hero’s return. Standing guard, he is joined by comrades in the years that follow until the trickle of recovered plastic soldiers peters out. Every soul has finally been accounted for; the families notified.
* * * * *
It is the metal at the roots, my father explains to us, iron sulfate, that gives the plants their color. Spare us the worm and killing frost, he asked, and let the earth be sharp. The bitterness in the soil is what keeps the color fresh. I strive still for the permanence of hydrangea blue.
* * * * *
In the field behind my parent’s house, my father’s vegetable garden lies fallow.
My father had trouble with his back during his later years, and the doctor advised him to give up gardening. My father added one more row to his garden instead, and then another couple of rows the year thereafter, the last row, he said, just for the rabbits. A grandchild coming out into the garden to call him in for dinner would have found him lying on his side, a pail next to him, working the wet soil with his hands.
We moved the hose and the tools back into the garage before the funeral, but there on the slope, next to the cow path where pasture meets lawn, is the wooden bench my father used to sit on while resting between rows. The frozen earth pokes its way up through the soles of my sneakers like gravel. Frozen clumps of meadow grass work their way back onto the garden.
The weeds will return, the earth slowly re-asserting itself over the imperfect order attempted by my father. My father never did get things exactly right – the acorns and moss on the side lawn, shade thrown by the trees he refused to take down that prevented the roots from ever taking hold. Fifty years later the family tree people have finally settled the matter. The grass can now come in.
* * * * *
On the other end of this former cow pasture, almost within view, behind the rosebush where the football games were played, beyond the white birch and pine trees where a drumlin once sat, my father’s ashes lie in a pine box – a nod to a line in one of his poems – in the same loamy, Paxton soil he used to work with his hands. On the slight hill, just below where the grass meets the woods, snow drops push up through the wet earth by his grave.
Water through wood communicates, is what he wrote. Worms are the dear familiar. And moisture everywhere. Pain was the root, from seed to flower. What he asked was to be taken in.
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