Tuesday, January 31, 2006

That Darned Old Tree

I glanced at the obituaries this morning-on my way to the comics-and saw a familiar face on the page : a man who looked quite a bit like Santa Claus.

“Hey !”, I thought. “ That looks like Henry : my back fence neighbor.”

I had met Henry –to talk to-only once, though I had seen him puttering around his yard; and I had once pointed him out to one of my granddaughters. (I asked her: “ Do you suppose that’s Santa Claus over there ?” She looked at him and her eyes got big for a moment-then she answered , scornfully : “ Santa lives at the North Pole,Pop !Don’t you know ANYTHING ?”

The one and only time Henry and I talked, the old tree became part of our conversation.

It was – or had been – a weeping willow tree, and it stood gracefully on his side of the fence: shedding skinny willow leaves into our swimming pool – way back when we had a swimming pool.

My wife and the kids would grumble about scooping all those leaves out of the pool every summer, and I would grumble about raking them up every fall.

Time passed. The kids grew up, and we took the pool out. We had the sense we were growing older – not that we felt old,you understand !

The tree was aging too, and,one hurricane season, the top snapped off:leaving a raw, naked looking trunk , that occasionally sprouted bits of green, but was visibly rotting away.

My wife fretted that the tree would come down in our yard some day,and she took to calling it “that darned old tree” – as in “That darned old tree dropped branches in our yard last night , so I threw them back over the fence.”- or – “ When are they going to do something about that darned old tree ?”

Then,after all those years of being backyard neighbors,Henry and I finally met. I think the occasion was due to a woodchuck racing out of my yard ,climbing the fence like an overweight cat, and dropping heavily into Henry’s yard.

It was a pretty comical sight,and once we had stopped laughing, we introduced ourselves and chatted for a few minutes about Henry’s backyard menagerie. He had chipmunks, a possum or two, the occasional visiting racoon,and,of course, a family of woodchucks.There were other critters – some of which had made a home in the old willow tree.

“People ask me,” he said. “When are you going to cut that old eyesore down ? – and I tell them I hope I never see the day.”

Henry explained that his mother had brought him the tree many, many years ago- only, back then, it was just a tiny willow slip in a glass of water. He planted it to please her-never thinking it would take root and grow; never imagining,in his wildest dreams,it would someday be a tall and graceful weeping willow.

“My mother is still alive, God bless her !”,he added; “ And as long as she’s still alive, that old tree can stay right there !”

I told my wife the story later on-and suddenly the willow stopped being “that darned old tree”, and became “the old willow tree”. It became reassuring to glance out the window and see it there: old and threadbare,but still standing –for all of that.

And so, this morning I sipped my coffee and read the obituary of a backfence neighbor I barely knew : a man who looked like Santa Claus;
a man who joined the Army right out of high school, who fought in the almost forgotten Korean War,who came home, found a job, and settled down to help raise a family.

He is survived by a wife,children,grandchildren,and great grandchildren-and yes : his mother (God bless her !) is still alive.

I hope that “darned old tree” is still there when I go.


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