Nothing about these two pictures—you can imagine how it went down, can’t you?—“you stand by the tree in your Easter best and I’ll take your picture, then I will and you’ll take mine,”—seems extraordinary, a mother on the left, relaxed and happy, perhaps even content today; her son—with braces—smiling on the right, stiff and awkward in that pre-teen, early adolescence “I’m as graceful as a cantaloupe,” phase—all arms, legs, and “where did those big feet come from?”, desperate for body or facial hair, that sure sign of manhood, or a deeper voice, anything that would ground you, plant you firmly to the ground.

This is what you do, when you are just two, before someone thought of holding your arm out with your phone camera turned toward you and your loved one, snapping a shot on the run. You would take turns taking each others’ photo, a Kodak Brownie used in this case, circa 1965, and if I project from this distance now you’ll forgive me; there appears to be just a touch of innocence, like a light coating of frost or frosting on the grass, cake of this life — at least for now, tinting these two portraits and with that comes some sadness—innocence and melancholy hand-in-hand, constant companions.

But trees.  This home came without.  The slab it was built on rested on landfill; the yard 50′ wide x 150′ long sloping down to the alley, two tire ruts delineating its path.  I liked the alley for that reason, because it was still country wild and even by the time I moved away several years later it was still just the two muddy, dusty, gravelly ruts it had always been.

During the ‘Mary’ years we had, by ourselves, fenced the backyard—I dug all of the post holes.  Have you ever used a post-hole digger?  It’s like a two handled shovel and I imagine in even the best of circumstances it is a miserable piece of torture devised by adults and foisted upon children as an excellent way to strengthen your upper body, if they even used that excuse, because truly, it is an excruciatingly difficult process, this hole digging, but regardless, the fence went up and inside of it, following the perimeter of its alternating thick and thin boards and round rough-hewn posts, we planted 50 or 60 (it seemed at the time to be 100) Lombardy poplars as a wind screen.

But those were planted as a form of child slavery and although as they grew to amazing heights and were a source of wonder, beauty, and delight for years, they meant nothing to me.  There were even three planted in the parkway in front of our home, just to the left and off camera in the photos above, between the newly laid sidewalk on our block and the street.  It is the elm that we are standing by that I am writing about today.

It was an orphan, a sucker shoot that had grown on its own out of an embankment two houses to the south of us.  we (the neighborhood kids and I) used to sit on the top of this little canyon watching cars travel up and down Van Buren Street, playing “That’s Mine” — which entailed claiming the niftiest car coming down the street before someone else did, Ford Mustangs were the most popular among us — or just sitting there, hidden by lilac bushes and that ability most children have of disappearing into a landscape — the bane of most parents “now where did that child go?” — You could be just feet from them, but if you were good, you were camouflaged by your youth and the desire to stay outside and play longer and perhaps be just a bit disobedient, which for a child is a thrilling thing—those minor delinquencies.

This elm, though, was slated for demolition, the homeowner realizing that it was growing at a peculiar angle overhanging his parking spaces for the duplex that anchored our corner, Willsie Avenue at Van Buren Street.  I don’t know why I said “I’ll take it,” it may have been that I was the rescuer of the neighborhood, the one kid on the block that all the others came running to when there was an animal emergency or other calamity that required immediate attention in the absence of adults, all of whom worked, there were no stay-at-home moms on our street, well, at least none that you could trust with your childhood dramas and triumphs.

But take it I did, digging at it’s convoluted roots—one long root, perhaps 6′ long that jutted out from its trunk at an odd angle was particularly bedeviling—and then dragging it—as you can see it is ever so slightly taller than me—over to our front yard. Don’t worry, I asked permission to plant it there. I struggled to dig a hole deep enough for its roots and that one long scraggly root, all of this by myself—it’s amazing how your friends will absent themselves when there’s the slightest hint of sweat involved in anything that has a purpose not of their own devising.

Forever after, it was ‘Robert’s Tree’; it grew as quickly as I did and fast became the shade tree an elm is destined to be.  Important photos were always taken under its branches; graduations, visits from long lost relatives and my mother’s incredibly large circle of friends—the ones from so many of her past lives that it was difficult to understand how one person could know so many people and that they all loved her, seemingly as much as i did, birthdays (not winter ones, don’t be silly) and any special occasion that required a photograph to be taken, the mementos of our future.

The last time I saw it was in 1985, long after I had left home to have my own life—and plant more trees.  It was even bigger than I imagined it could ever be, and like a parent with their grown child, I brimmed over with pride at how magnificent it had become and that I had helped it when it needed it most.



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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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