Aug 3, 2009

You Cannot Step On The Same Piece Of River Twice

Long 'way around to say what everyone knows: change is inevitable, and constant.

Not that all of us like that. Not that all change is good.

This has been the Summer of Change for me, and it's been uncomfortable to say the least. This summer more than any stretch of time for me has involved dynamic leaps and shudders, twists and curves. I've had to deal with more new things these past few months than I've had to deal with, it seems, in a very long time. One after the other they set me up and knock me down again.

I had to put my cat of 19 years to sleep this summer. Her kidneys finally began failing her, and she put her small head in my palm one last time when the euthanasia drugs reached her heart.

My daughter is going to be a high school freshman this year. She'll be home in two days, and in one week from today she'll be going to her first day as a freshman. Everything changes when you hit high school, and my own high school experiences were varied and not nearly always positive, so of course being a parent I'm terrified that her high school experiences (at a different school than the one I went to, to make matters worse) will be less than 100% perfect. That she will have to endure some of the same wrenching and tearing that I had to endure.

A dear friend lost her beloved husband of just a handful of years, leaving her with two young children. I cannot imagine how she feels, and how her little ones are dealing with it. To make matters worse she lives in another state, so I can't even sit with her to talk about it, to help her in the healing process.

The list, which gets pretty boring to someone who isn't me goes on and on, but to cap this summer off my favourite aunt died of liver cancer just a few days ago. Her and her husband, who is my favourite uncle of all had been married for 67 years. We drove my mom down to Lake Charles this last Sunday to attend the wake, and it reawakened all sorts of memories of my childhood in Mississippi at my grandparent's house. Seeing her lying there surrounded by flowers all I could think about was sitting with her on my grandparent's floor building puzzles with her. She loved puzzles as much as I did, and we'd spend hours in the evenings carefully assembling landscapes and still lifes on the carpet while everyone else talked or played cards or sat on the porch swing and watched the fire flies light up the black night.

A lot of my childhood is tied up in that old white wooden house, but there's one thing in particular that I always come 'round to when I think about my father's and my grandfather's home. In front of the house is a circular gravel driveway, and just off center of that gravel drive there stood a pecan tree. This particular tree was a great grandfather amongst trees; a native pecan, so it grew tiny little pecans, spending its energy instead in growing tall and wide. My grandfather hung a swing from a branch of that tree some 80 or so years ago, to entertain his four sons. Two lengths of heavy chain and a seat made out of a plank of oak that must have been two inches thick, and little did he know how long it was be there when he first climbed up there to secure the chains.

That swing entertained three generations of children and adults both. My father and his brothers, then their children, boys and girls both, and then when those children grew up their children were introduced to it. I've pushed my daughter in that swing, and cousins of mine, and even friends whom we've invited over the years. I know my cousins have done the same thing. The chain never got rusty at the lowermost reaches because constant use by generations of hands kept it polished to a satin smoothness. The wires or eyebolts that attached the chain to the branch's circumference were never seen by the second generation--they'd been there so long that even when I was a kid you could no longer see the attachment point, long since overgrown by the slow, steady encroachment of the branch as it thickened into a width bigger than most tree trunks. The chains simply went up and up and stopped at wood, as though the tree had changed its structure just enough to depend a pair of supports for the wooden seat and a single passenger.

The tree was immensely tall, and that branch was some thirty or more feet up, so the swing had a tremendous arc to it. If you were alone, and patient, by tugging on the long chains you could after a while stay airborne for what seemed like forever. If you had the help of a bigger brother or an older cousin who could push--well, you could fly so high you felt like if you let go at the top of the arc and slipped off the worn wooden seat you could spread your arms and soar over the tops of the pine forest that bordered the land. It became a point of pride with the older boys that you were a man when you could get enough height going that, with a running start you could push your passenger so hard and so straight you could run, upright, under the seat as the arc carried them over your head.

Talking with my bereaved uncle's two sons, the caretakers of the house and land now, I found out that the old pecan, like my aunt, like all of us have to do sooner or later, had succumbed to the ravages of age. Rot had set into its soft insides at some point and eaten at it, slowly but inexorably until the massive tree was just a shell, and to keep it from falling on the house it shaded and sheltered they had to have it cut down. I was told that it was so thick around the trunk that the tree removal specialists had to call in a favor from a local logging company--a commercial cutter's chainsaw was needed to cut it, and then those pieces had to be cut and cut again by the smaller saws until they could be loaded into the truck.

I can't imagine the house without that pecan tree there, spreading branches over what seemed like half the yard. I cannot imagine driving up the driveway, hearing the grey gravel crunch under the tires after a three hour car trip and not seeing, at the top of the hill that swing hanging there, and the massive trunk that supported the branch on which it depended. I can't imagine not seeing the grandfather's massive roots surrounded by a sea of red spider lily flowers in fall, or by white wildflowers in summer.

So much changes. Little changes at the house I could understand. The old wooden pump house gave way to a metal shed to store equipment in. The brambles and woods that crowded so close upon the yard were pushed back, the old fence where the dewberries used to hang thick and succulent was cleaned away because there hadn't been cattle to enclose in decades. The furniture inside stayed the same but photographs changed and tiny bits of bric-a-brac went to new homes as family members requested some special memento or other. The wooden floors polished smooth by the tread of thousands of feet remain. The wooden casement windows are still there, but I heard, after hearing of the death of that old tree that even the house was starting to run down. Standing empty for so long as it has the small maintenance issues quickly become legion, become too big to handle easily, and I can see the day, not soon but eventually when even the house will be torn down.

I can still see my uncle standing there, his white hair and my grandfather's face. I can hear the rumble of his voice, the echo of his laugh stretching back across all of my childhood in the same way I can hear my aunt's voice. I know that one day, perhaps soon, he too will be lying there, surrounded by flowers and mourners, family and friends and well-wishers, and I know that the rest of us will have to go on a little piece more, will have a little more time to walk down the road.

I can't go back there now. Oh, I know the route by heart even though I've not driven it in years. What I can't do to myself is replace the image in my heart with the image as it is now--one less guardian tree there, the swing that filled so many of my childhood hours gone, the house falling slowly into ruin. And now the ghost, figuratively, of my aunt. Sitting on the floor with me building puzzles I'd brought all the way from home, just because I knew Aunt Eva was going to be there when I arrived.

Is it any wonder change gnaws at me?


Nancy Dancehall said...

This is heartbreakingly beautiful.

I'm so sorry for your loss, for all your losses.

But you've brought back the ones you love and shared them with us in this post. Now there will be beautiful images of your aunt and of a strong, guardian tree in our hearts too. A little bit of immortality, that.

"The chains simply went up and up and stopped at wood, as though the tree had changed its structure just enough to depend a pair of supports for the wooden seat and a single passenger."
I can see it.

meno said...

I'm sorry about all these things.

I try not to return to a place that i remember like that. i am too cowardly to see the changes. Too many changes come chasing after me anyway.

Clowncar said...

Gorgeous prose there, Irr. The sense of melancholy hovering over your description of the swing is palpable.

So sad that tree is gone. But surely someone somewhere is putting a brand new swing on a tree right now...

Gordo said...

Several years ago we had three relatives and a family friend all die with six weeks. It's incredibly difficult to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel when you're still inside and around a couple of curves, but it IS there.

I'm standing right beside Nnacy: I can see that branch, chain and swing with perfect clarity. Beautiful.

Jean said...

I am so very sorry for your loss, dear.

If your family does not read here, you might think about sending them a copy of this. It is painfully beautiful. You paint with words.
Entire lifetimes in gentle shades of love.

I can feel the car rolling up the driveway and hear the gravel crunching.
Thank you for bringing this to all of us. ♥

Mickey Glitter said...

I'm so sorry. So, so sorry and have no other words to offer. *big hugs* xo