By CL Bledsoe
I barely remember this, but when I was a boy, there was a giant oak tree in our backyard. The kind you try to hug but can’t get your arms around. Every year, my mother would bring her third grade homeroom class on a field trip to our house to picnic under it and talk about the farm, the lake below, the cattle probably having sex somewhere nearby.
The tree sat among a loose huddle of other oaks and a peppering of pines on the plateau our house occupied. To the north of the house, a ratty old pecan tree shed branches and pecans we’d gather in black trash bags to freeze. This was my favorite tree because its split trunk made it somewhat easy to climb. After mom got sick with Huntington’s Disease, my father would take bags of these pecans to various widows he rented farmland from. Maybe a week later, he’d return to “visit,” and they’d usually have a pecan pie, cookies, or some kind of dessert for him. It was quite a racket.
Another pecan tree stood guard over the south side of the yard. Behind it was a row of pines marking the fence line, the wire mostly gone when I was growing up, leaving half-a-dozen bleached posts. Once, a barbed wire fence (read: “bob wahr” where “wahr” rhymes with “far”) kept the cows out of the yard. When I came along, they were free to roam right up to the house. I could hear them scratch themselves on the red brick, sometimes, which was strangely comforting. There were pros and cons to their freedom: a pro was that it helped my sister’s (unrealized) plan to pet a cow, since they were closer. A con was that they ate the flowers she kept trying to plant.
The big oak in the back was my sister’s favorite tree. When I was little, she would lift me up (often involving her bending over and helping me clamber onto her back) onto a low branch, which I would ride. She would sway it side to side and up and down. I didn’t much care for the up and down, since I was already scared to be up there. But knowing that my big sister was right beside me gave me courage.
People describe trees as majestic. To me, that implies people that use the bathroom in the closet instead of in the yard, but we all have our own interpretations of history. This tree was the opposite of garish gold or jewels. It had a presence that calmed the air around it. The sky seemed brighter through its branches. Of course, I’m talking about the Arkansas sky, which is so big, blue, and empty the blackbirds didn’t so much fly as trip and fall up.
The oak was struck by lightning and eventually fell, sparing the house, but crushing that bit of our childhood. Just like that, the things you love can be taken. My sister’s second favorite tree was about halfway down the south hill (which led to a long valley floor bordered by a lake stuffed with catfish we fattened up and sold, and then gravel hills we mined, beyond).
I don’t remember this one at all until after lightning set it alight. For me, it was a hollowing log, slowly rotting and falling over. We played inside it while it was still standing, and after, when it fell, until snakes found it and chased us out.
We had to follow a fence line down and slip through twined strands, making sure to untwist them after we ducked through, lest we incur dad’s wrath. He was forever complaining about people who would twist the strands of bob wahr together to sneak through and fish our lake or gather magic mushrooms from the cow piles. This stretch of fence didn’t accomplish much, since most of it was down, extending to the lake, below. But it was habit.
I was fond of her third favorite tree. Another hardwood, this one a little shy of halfway up the gravel road that led from our house to the top of the hill, where roads star-fished out to our various kin’s houses or back toward town. You can reasonably guess what ultimately became of this tree, as with the others.
When our mother was doing her best to stave off the effects of Huntington’s Disease — the loss of muscle coordination and memory, the loss of sense of self — she would walk to the end of the gravel road, to her sister-in-law’s house on the other end of the ridge, sometimes to the lake and back. I went with her.
We’d rest at this tree, sometimes, which sheltered wildflowers but also a nice mini-hill of clear dirt I liked to play in. A cow trail (like a deer trail but made by cows) started there and cut across the valley, up to the other end of the ridge on the far side. There, it crossed the road to the feed troughs on the other side, where Dad and them would put out medicines and supplements that could be administered that way. The road led to a cattle gap (we pronounced it “cattle gamp”) which was a big, square pit covered with a row of metal triangles that came to points on top. Cars could drive over them, but cows couldn’t walk across them (though once or twice one did at least try to jump it).
Beyond this, more kin, and a rutted road that turned to asphalt and led down to the world.
I think about that tree often because of Mom’s walks. I always wanted to stop and play and didn’t understand, at the time, why she wanted to press on. A few times, she told me to stay and play, there, but I couldn’t stand seeing her walk away.
I returned from college, years later, to find many of the trees behind the house missing, due to lightning or various ailments. When I mentioned it to my father, he said, “I’m doing the best I can.”
The pecan trees are still standing, and the pines. Past the feed troughs and down the far side, the bob wahr fence still stands. Beyond that, every so often, a train will share its lonesome wail, and then up the road the equivalent of a block or so, there’s a cemetery.
Mom lies under an oak tree on a hill on the east side. When we buried her, I complimented my father on his choice of the spot. It gets good light and is open and cool. Standing there, under the shade, you can see out to more trees, hiding the incursion of people. The highway is far enough away to be quiet, not that there’s much traffic, down there. In the valley, it seems safe from lightning. I can’t say that this is one of my favorite trees, through no fault of its own. I go there to visit it, when I can.