Apologies ahead of time....this is my first attempt at a nonfiction essay. Hasn't been past my teacher yet. (I'm plagued by obsessive commas!!)
“Weep not too much, my darling; Sigh not too oft for me;
Say not the face of Nature Has lost its charm for thee.”
My closest friend knew my every secret, every fear, and every dream when I was ten-years-old and too shy for traditional playmates. He was a Willow tree three stories tall, much larger than our house next to the church where my dad was a minister in Duluth, Minnesota. We moved so often that pain of separation from friends had taken away my desire to meet people. Often changing schools during the year, I dreaded the eventual walk into rooms where everyone stared at the new girl. I cried over impending introductions and rarely offered people more than my name. The two-story house on Polk Street had a built-in friend for me who never asked more than my company. The Willow quietly opened his massive arms in welcome, hid me from my younger siblings who had not yet learned to climb trees, and offered me a place of refuge as my body changed without my permission.
When a Weeping Willow is allowed to grow without pruning or shaping of its branches the tree’s lengthy arms may often reach the ground. Only the most resilient of plants will thrive under the deep shade it casts blocking out all but minute bits of sunshine. Inexperienced landscapers, hoping to add an elegant touch to soften yards, have later realized the invasive roots had tunneled into sewer lines searching for water. The massive growth of this beautiful tree is difficult to tame once established.
Because I was the oldest of three children my parents expected I would also need to be the example set for training my sister and brother. No back-sassing or arguing was ever allowed, nor was questioning rules or punishment for infractions. I learned quite early that saying nothing was my best defense. Being silent was also the way to learn from older kids coming in and out of our home. My father was also a teacher in a newly built theater and speech department at a very large high-school. His new job kept us in the only home we shared for three long years. I didn’t understand many of the jokes told by the high-school and college kids. I also didn’t understand that I looked much older than age ten. When my mother bought me my first bra I was already a 34B. Embarrassed by the commotion those painful lumps caused during a bra fitting, I continued to wear oversized shirts to cover their intrusion. They were beginning to get in the way of my climbing the Willow behind our house. But there was no one who could make me give up my white tennis-shoes and short socks. Why should I have to look different on the outside when my insides were still the same? My body was growing too quickly and its appearance was a contradiction to the emotional level of a child.“Act your age,” my father would demand when I preferred to sit on the ground shooting marbles with my eight-year-old sister. I didn’t understand the behavior he wanted since my mother had bought us those marbles to play with. “You behave like a seventh grader. How humiliating!” he said. I took this as praise since I had not yet graduated from fourth grade. But I hurt when he closed his eyes and turned away from me. He was so tall, six foot and four inches, and reminded me of a tree when I looked up at him from the ground.
An argument between my parents was overheard after I was sent to bed early one evening. One parent believed I should be kept a child. The other was embarrassed by how I looked to the generation of kids eight years older than me. One of those kids had mistaken me for my mom when we were introduced. My father was proud I looked so grown up in my new dress and told me so. He also changed how he treated me after that day. I was never allowed to sit on his lap again. My father oozed charisma and I learned to hide behind him at church or school functions. Rarely was I introduced unless I had stupidly come out in the open. Why was my being so timid such a great failing for my father? I would never be more than the leggy daffodil which bloomed beneath our Willow tree.I learned to hide in my father’s tall shadow while he acclimatized easily and could effortlessly weave into the fabric of academia. He was magnificent in acting abilities offering his hand first in greeting. My father always looked everyone in the eye. He told me I should “never drop your eye contact first” though I didn’t understand why. He also talked about those same people as being necessary to development of programs and end results. There were few kind words spoken about them after they left our home.
The bark of a Willow has long been an herbal remedy used by Native Americans. When soaked in boiling water as a tea it served to relieve headaches, pain, and fever. The base chemical was the precursor to Aspirin which was derived from salicylic acid found within the tree. Young twigs and bark could be chewed to give the same effect.
My tree covered most of our back yard, its arms sweeping the ground furiously when storms of summer blasted off Lake Superior. After the winds I would pick up his lost branches and carefully pile them below his trunk like an offering of sorrow. There I hid while watching my father mow the lawn.I listened as he rehearsed sermons and had arguments with himself over the existence of God.His preaching shook pews and parishioner’s moral conscience, yet he would come home and tell us how tired he was of the fables man had created in the Bible. “All fairy tales,” he would say. My mother never argued with him and I quit believing what I read.
Inside my tree no one could see me from windows or connecting yards. I talked without fear of interruption. To him my ideas were never childish. I told him how stupid I felt because I didn’t understand so much of what was said around me. I was afraid of being the center of attention and I cried when my father made me play the piano for people I didn’t know. My tree listened and shook his head in agreement; I shouldn’t have to be stared at or dressed to look like a grown woman.
I hid my dolls and my diary in the crook where his shoulders split from beneath his giant head. I could climb to the hidden room in thirty seconds if my tennis shoes were dry. In that most hallowed sanctuary I would cry and pat his rough skin as if he were the small dog next door. Willow’s leaves imprinted into my shirt and left pictures of his bark against my face while I slept. His leaves smelled sweetly pungent like the damp recesses of photo albums left on our basement floor; their pages molding at the center, peeling into brittle chips sending out puffs of memory that made my hands smell old and my clothes turn a rusty yellow where the covers lay across my lap. The smallest of Willow’s branches were soft and wound easily around my fingers. They sprang back totally unscathed and resilient to touch of a curious child who wondered if fables of bending trees were true . Would a Willow ever break? Did it sigh with the wind while picking itself up from a humbled bow?
Willow and I rejoiced in the silence that settled among feathery green limbs where hummingbirds cleaned their wings. Here, above a world that sounded of arrogance and fake humility, the Willow offered truth. Cicadas would sing; their silvery backs rippled in cadence to entrance of early autumn. My voice hummed with Emily Dickenson.Though the child reading had little concept of meaning, her words lifted in harmony with the Willow’s rustle and his appreciation for poetry. The rhythm propelled a lofty rocking chair that protected a small child from loneliness and quieted anxiety being birthed within her soul.
But I fell from grace while climbing into my cradle wearing shoes given as a gift on my twelfth birthday; their soles new and slick with a tiny heel that matched my father’s desire to dress me as a grown up. I slipped before reaching my Willow’s first shoulder and with my arms wrapped around his trunk slid screaming in pain to the ground. The ribs of bark which had turned to weathered rope clawed skin from my thighs, belly and chest leaving fissured scrapes twelve to sixteen inches long. My dress was torn into shards of cotton that hung in patches from unforgiving sprigs. Clumps of my long blond hair waved above me like white flags in resign to a force that ran eighty feet into the air. I left pieces of myself embe dded in his flesh, and I cried knowing I might be too old to play with my Willow. The pain in my body would subside, but the ache to reach into my friend was more than suffering endured by a fall. There would be no other warning that I would lose him to more than my inability to climb.
Many Willows are susceptible to a disease called “Watermark” which reddens leaves and turns the bark brittle. Foliage becomes transparent in places leaving the crown sporadically bald as bacteria invade the circulatory system. Branches weaken, the bark begins to stain an orange-brown, and eventual withering will consume the entire tree.
My father worked hard to secure a place of reputation within structure of the socially elite. He became a power that commanded respect and was handed control of a growing population of young people. His reach sunk deep into the moral fibers that supported the PortCity’s structure. Broadcasting buried secrets would mean the split of a town, churches, and families. These signs of an impending disaster were carefully hidden from public view and, out of duty or obligation, my mother refused to ask for help. Our family did not speak of problems outside our home. She suffered in silence as my father spent more of his time away from us, eventually wanting little to do with our core. One morning I heard my mother crying. She said a word I had never heard: Divorce. I told her I loved her and walked on to school not knowing who to ask about the word or even if I should. There was a library outside my sixth grade class room that had the answer. While standing by the school playground, I read about a fissure of wounds that never heal. There was no place inside me to hide the agony of this coming separation. I wanted only my tree, my cradled resting place, the blessing of refuge from this anathema of rejection. Children carry nothing heavier than the weight of a secret. It bends their backs like an old man caught beneath a load of firewood. It smells of dark earth and unturned apples rotting in the recess of forgotten root cellars. The stink winds its way up through memory when the father opens the door.There are branches burning within dreams that shove ash from fire pits into a child’s gaping mouth. The face of secret has blue eyes that water when teacher asks why homework isn’t completed then stands the child with her nose in a circle on the blackboard because she cannot answer. It whispers false hope while sitting at the supper table next to a father that gives perfume to mother on their anniversary.The child vomits when the secret arrives in a white envelope.A paper of divorce says there is no more family after October 21st. She vomits again as policemen take the father away in handcuffs and then make him move to Minneapolis because no one would testify against him. He carried a secret that frightened the church and the school system. The father was different. He was gay.
Diseased Willows must be destroyed immediately by removing branches and the trunk to be burned without any delay. Watermark can infect other trees and permeate the ground making it unusable for seed beds.Applying a strong dose of creosote to the stump is recommended to prevent further spread of bacteria by killing the root system.
After several weeks of carrying the secret, the child could hardly play with her sister after school. Instead, she dreamed of running away from home and raced through heavy autumn leaves because she must end the weight that threatened to dismember sanity. With tennis-shoes on she would climb into Willow and tell him a story that couldn’t be said out loud. Except there was another secret that had made it home first. While coming around the corner to the back of the Polk Street house, a full spectrum of sunlight lanced blistering pain into an open wound. There had always been a giant's shadow that blocked any chance of a garden in the yard. This blinding of tearful eyes was an immoral rape of senses. The Willow was gone.
“Where is my tree?”
I screamed at my mother and demanded an explanation.
The church cut him down before damaged branches could fall on our parsonage. He had been hit by lightning the previous summer and there was fear of breakage. Closer inspection found disease had entered the Willow and he was slowly dying. “Momma, where did they take him?”I asked her.I owned a green bicycle with playing cards pinned to the spokes. I wanted to ride to his cemetery; tell him I’m sorry; tell him I wish I had been there as he suffered the axe; tell him stories of geese dancing by the lake; of migrating orange that rippled like a river across the sky when monarchs migrated south; of a white fence covered in wild roses around the house where we would be living soon. But my mother wouldn’t let me leave.
“It isn’t there anymore,” she said. “They already burned it to kill the bacteria.”He had become a burnt offering to aesthetics and possibility, leaving only a circle on the ground where majesty had once reigned. They painted him with tar cutting off oxygen supply to the disease. But the stump was oozing as if he bled from deep entrails beneath the soil like a secret hidden from light.There were no remnants of branches to morn, no delicate fingers to smooth worry from an anguished forehead. My Willow was gone and I was the only one who grieved his death.
I stepped into the circle and felt the sludge of tar pull off my tennis-shoes. “I’ll have to throw them away now,” I thought, knowing I wouldn’t need them again. I sat down in the blackness, my white socks sticking to it like tiny feathers.In the middle of the stump I crossed my legs. I reached over my Willow’s edge to touch white flakes of his heart that rested like powder in the earth’s hair.Looking toward a sky I had never seen above us, I wished for him the same refuge and love he had given me. My pilgrimage was beginning as I released the secret and repeated part of a prayer heard at funerals.
“Our Father in Heaven, into Thy hands I commend this spirit.”
Very interesting. True quality. The voice of a writer that is much needed.
(P.S.: I like your describing yourself as tired and soul-worn and your rating survival as your greatest achievement. It takes courage not to be a star. My description of myself would be the same, but it is never well-received. So I draw much comfort from your words: here is one who does not pretend.)
Super great potential here!
The strength of this essay/story lies in the tree itself, and the facts you intersperse beautifully throughout the body. You tell us part of a story, and then you ground it firmly into fact-science-fact, and then on with your story. We love the tree for its spreading, climbable branches, for its lofty height, for its shelter, and for its medicinal value--both physical and spiritual to all who chew/touch/climb/stew its bark and leaves. And because we love the tree, we feel the impact of the end of the story deeply. Perfect ending, by the way. We've already come to know willow like a child, and consider him part of your family, so the funeral does not strike us as "cutesy", but as something quite deep and comforting. Your voice is lyrical and highly poetic. There is a natural flow and rhythm--even natural assonance and rhymes within this. It's very audibly pleasant to read.
There were a few parts where the flow disappeared. I don't know if that was because you re-touched these areas, or if they were just too personal to spiel your natural poetic stuff... but those areas were brief. I did have to switch my mind set towards the end when you ceased to write in first person for some reason. By that time, I was so involved in the read, that it still worked for me; however, if you wanted to make the story stronger, you could fix that-- and perhaps capitalize "willow" to make it more personable. A great write, and well worth the effort of editing and giving the professionals a peek-see.
Again, what I liked most about the way you wrote this, was the way you weaved those willow-facts into the tale. It was not choppy. It flowed. --Charlie
I do not consider myself a professional reviewer. I respond to art and writing more from the heart than I do the mind. Always have. And I don't really care about grammatical errors or anomalies (that's an editors job) as much as I do how the piece moved upon my heart and my senses and the taste it left in me when I was finished.
That being said ...
I love the syntax and flow of thought in this. The marrow of it holds the readers attention. The analogies are simple and effective and the subplot of death and inevitable change (on different planes) is woven into the storyline with the greatest of ease.
I am so impressed with the gist of it, and I was also delighted with your use of simile, and how you treated your Father (in your remembrance) when he stopped 'seeing' you as a daughter and started to 'feel' you as a woman and would not let you sit on his lap. It was honorable for him to do that. I enjoyed this very much! Your gift sings through this piece loud and clear.