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Cindi Walton author

The Tree

    ​       “That tree’s always been there.” I remember my grandmother saying as she pushed me in the old tire swing that hung from the mighty oak. Fast forward thirty years and the tire swing is no longer there and neither is grandma, but the oak is standing tall and more impressive than ever. At first glance the tree is the epitome of perfection, but upon closer examination I can see there are rotting branches covered with some form of wood eating fungus. Claw marks on the trunk of the tree show evidence of a bear that has marked its territory, just like I did the year I was in love with Tommy Perkins. I must have been about twelve at the time and he was an “older man” of fourteen, going on twenty. Moving to the side of the tree I see it…the crudely shaped heart I’d carved with a paring knife smuggled from grandma’s kitchen. I remember tucking the knife into the side pocket of my pedal pushers, forming an alibi if I were to get caught with the sharp object in my possession. “I needed it to cut these wildflowers” I would sweetly say as I placed a bundle of colorful weeds into my grandmother’s hands…now all I had to do was to remember to bring home a handful of flowers if my alibi were to stick. In the end it didn’t matter, grandma never found out about the missing paring knife, and I never finished carving our initials inside of the heart. I guess it was fate since the very next day Tommy professed his undying love for Sue Belanger, a fifteen-year-old cheerleader who just happened to be blonde and gorgeous. Sitting under the ample shade of the tree I observe the landscape before me. An open field, the remnant of a stone fence and a narrow trickling creek that’d seemed much wider and faster when I was a child. From my vantage point under the tree it’s as if I were reading a book, where the words jumped off the pages and formed mental images dancing across the open field. I was suddenly that gangly fifteen-year-old girl, desperately striking a match against the solid oak in hopes of lighting the lone Camel cigarette I was holding. I’d taken to stealing cigarettes from the side pocket of my grandfather’s “67” Ford Fairlane that particular summer. I remember sneaking one cigarette at a time so he’d never miss the lone smokes I’d been pilfering. The memory that stands out the most was just how much grandpa loved washing and waxing his “Cyan Blue” colored Ford. Grandma often accused him of “attending” to his car more often than he attended church. Regular attendance at the local Methodist church was just as important as having a regular bowel movement in my grandmother’s mind. “A daily dose of prune juice and a Sunday sermon will keep a body right as rain and ready to go” this was just one of her favorite sayings…and she had many.
      Shifting my position, I rested my head against the base of the tree and let my grandmother’s proverbs surface to the top of my memories. She had a saying and phrase for every occasion and I’d been the recipient of many. When I started my period the summer between 5th and 6th grade she’d said, “You’re a blooming flower now, but never forget you aren’t ready to be pollinated.” It was several years later before I realized this had been a “birds and the bees” moment and I didn’t have a clue what she’d been talking about at the time. When I’d graduated from high school grandma baked my favorite funnel cake placing pieces of chocolate so they resembled a stairway ascending from the center of the cake. On the top there was a handwritten scroll. I remember looking at the delicate cake thinking it represented my reaching adulthood, but grandma had something different in mind. The scroll simply read, “You’ve reached the top…now jump!” This was her way of saying, “You’re heading off to college, spread your wings and soar like an eagle” …but of course grandma had her own way of expressing her sentiment…” now jump” said it all. The sun had shifted in the sky and the rumblings of my stomach reminded me it was well after lunch. Rummaging through the bag I ‘d brought along, I dug out a plastic container of hummus, a baggie of pretzels and a bottled water as I shifted my position under the tree to escape the hot sun which had found its way through the branches. Taking a pretzel, I used it to scoop out the tasty hummus seasoned with dried bell peppers. As the delicious treat danced among my taste buds, I found myself smiling…grandma had loved everything and anything garden grown, except chickpeas and Brussel sprouts. A month before she died we’d gone out to eat at a restaurant that advertised an endless salad bar. “Don’t understand why you put those stupid little things on your salad since they roll right off your plate…not a darn thing about them looks or tastes like a pea.” You didn’t want to get her started on Brussel sprouts which she referred to as “deceiving little bastards” since they looked like mini cabbages, but were bitter as hell in her estimation. Finishing off my snack I left my backpack under the tree and ventured toward the creek. Many hours had been spent fishing the creek with my grandfather or catching frogs with my cousins. Looking back at the tree and seeing my backpack propped against the trunk, a montage of forgotten memories rushed over me. Bikes and bagged lunches all found safety from the sun underneath that tree. I had my first “boy/girl” kiss behind its massive trunk and years later in the same spot, a picnic lunch on a checkered blanket set the scene for my first real encounter with love. Somewhere in between nostalgia and daydreaming I had shed my sandals and found myself wading in the cool water of the creek which barely reached my calves. I didn’t know if it was because I’d grown taller, the creek was drying up, or a combination of both; one thing for sure… it wasn’t as deep as I remembered. We used to gather the branches that had fallen from the tree to try and dam up the creek in hopes of creating a pond. Needless to say the pond never came to be, but not for lack of trying. It’s funny how as an adult you can see the hidden dangers that weren’t visible as a child. I was forbidden to wade in the creek or climb the tree without adult supervision. Those warnings went to the wayside when there were adventures to be had and challenges to meet, like the time I shimmied up the old oak to check out a bird’s nest that looked as if it were suspended in mid-air. I’d managed to scale the tree with ease but froze once I was within arm’s reach of the nest. It was several hours before my grandfather found me and gently coaxed me down. “Best be heading for home or your grandma will have both our hides.” As far as I know, grandpa never snitched on me; if he had, I would never have been allowed out of my grandmother’s sight. Lost in my thoughts the sun had shifted in the sky casting a pink hue over the open field. The day was fading and I knew I needed to finish what I’d come to do in the first place. It would be dark soon and I had no desire to walk the half mile back to where I’d parked my car.  In preparation for my visit to the stately oak, I hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight…to be honest, I’d never planned on my memories hijacking the day. As grandma was fond of saying, “Plans are like an invited dinner guest who takes off with the dinner rolls” It had taken me half of my adult life to understand that particular saying. I remember trying to explain it to a co-worker. “It’s like this, the best thought out plans are like a meal you’ve slaved over and when your dinner guest sits down to the table and you pass the homemade rolls, they take the damn bread basket and run out the door.” Needless to say my coworker didn’t get it and when I tried to break it down and explain that homemade bread was a “planned” mainstay at every meal my grandmother made, I confused her all the more.
      Once again I was lost in my memories and the sun would be setting soon. I needed to get back to the task that was before me. Opening my backpack, I removed the small cedar box my grandfather had made for me when I was eight years old. The cedar still emitted its distinct smell and opened a floodgate of memories. “This box is to hold your most prized possessions; the other stuff can go in that shoebox under your bed.” The shoebox under my bed at my grandparents’ had held a hodgepodge of treasures, from bottle caps to pressed leaves. I was forced to discard items like my snail collection when they started to smell, but the cedar box held only the things I valued the most. School medals to promise rings, the wooden box had held them all…until now. Today the box held one item and its value had no measurable price. Slowly lifting the lid, I reverently removed the contents…a bag holding the ashes of my beloved grandmother. I’d been carrying her remains around for the last six months trying to locate her “forever” home this side of the pearly gates. The last six months of her life had been brutal. Pancreatic cancer was a bitch that slowly ate you alive no matter what course of treatment you threw at her; but grandma rallied and lived eighteen months longer than any of her doctors believed was possible. It was during her last round of chemo that grandma made me swear to take her ashes. She didn’t want to be buried in the family cemetery next to her family and husband. “They’ll be where I’m going, but on this side of the veil I won’t let this damn cancer put me in a grave.” She gave me no other instructions other than to say, “You’ll know where to scatter me, until then, keep me with you for a spell.” So after months ignoring the finality of the task I’d been given, I was finally ready to let grandma rest in peace and what better place than here, next to the tree. Looking at the old tree I found myself crying and laughing at the same time. Grandma had been the “oak tree” in my life. Sturdy and grounded. Her loving arms had offered me shelter and comfort just like the branches of this tree. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I thought grandma would always be here, but all living creatures die and eventually, so will this tree. I have to admit that I took grandma’s presence in my life for granted, but no matter how self -absorbed I became, grandma never waived in her love of me. “Bloom where you’re planted” she would say to me whenever I felt sorry for myself or my circumstances. “We all need a pruning now and again to get rid of the stuff that’ll choke the life out of us,” …that was the turn of phrase I heard whenever discipline was heading in my direction. Drying my tears on the back of my hand, I proceeded to walk toward the tree. Opening the plastic bag, I panicked. Not sure how to go about dispersing her ashes, I sank once more to the base of the tree and emptied her ashes before me. Gazing toward the heavens I began to recite a prayer that grandma had taught me when I was little when suddenly, the wind appeared out of nowhere gathering up grandma’s remains and taking them heaven bound. It was in that instant I remembered grandma saying, “Someday I’m gonna ask the wind to help me soar so I can share the view with my friend, the tree!” Looks like grandma got her wish.

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