Five days before my Uncle Phil returned home from the nursing home where he'd spent a couple of months post-hip replacement, the skies opened and burst out a special wind just for the block in suburban Kansas City where Phil and his wife Ruth have lived for five decades. My cousin Jeanne watched the tempest from the kitchen window while my cousin Jan yelled for Ruth to go to the basement and wailed for the fate of the dog still tied to its house in the backyard.
The wind howled through. One of the Redlin's old maples fell on a car but it was Ruth and Phil and Jeanne and Jan's yard that bore the brunt of the blast. The two pin oaks that were already enormous when I was a child cracked and toppled. One fell on the roof of the house; the other crushed a mature magnolia and destroyed the redbud tree Phil used to call mine.
Nancy and me under the west pin oak.
I planted "Cindy's tree" when I was in elementary school. My sister Nancy and I were given tiny saplings to take home one Arbor Day, wet sticks with the roots wrapped in damp paper towels. I put mine in a shady spot next to the magnolia on the east side of the back yard. Nancy planted hers in the side yard, outside our bedroom window. Perhaps it was Phil's casual lawnmower, but her young tree soon disappeared.
The only pic I can find of the redbud alive. In the background, to the left of Jeanne's gorgeously enormous hat.
My redbud tree grew fifteen feet high. It crowded the magnolia and the low branches of the nearby oak. It bloomed tiny clusters of blossoms, beautifully magenta, in the spring before its heart-shaped leaves opened. It lived. The idea, let alone the sight, of an actual tree appearing out of that thin little stick seemed miraculous. I visited the tree with pride nearly every time I returned to the house where I grew up. I looked at the thickening trunk with wonder.
Side yard with destroyed magnolia, treehouse, redbud, pin oak.
There's a sweet temptation to accord metaphorical power to such objects in our lives. How neatly the disappearance of Nancy's little tree glides into place as a floral place marker for her own early vanishing. And the whirlwind that left a quarter acre of wreckage in its wake begs to mimic the emotional upheaval recently begun as Ruth and Jeanne and Jan start to care for the difficult old man on their own, to clean him, feed him, change his sheets, change the bandages that his thin skin requires, to mollify him and attempt the impossible, making him comfortable and content again in his eighty-fourth year.
Granting such significance to that material of the world that becomes snagged by our attention can easily slump into a nearly religious feeling: I could interpret the storm as a kind of punishment, a warning or a sign of greater emotional unrest on the way. Jeanne sent out the note, "I want to run away," a day after Phil's return.
And yet turning my back on the messages I may find in the world could be no less an error of hubris. "It's just weather, Miss Fey," said one of my students once, when I was trying to draw the class's attention to spring and its chemical catalyst for young love. I had to smile at him.
"There's no shade in the back yard anymore," says Ruth. "It's just so open and empty." Sometimes a tree is just a tree and sometimes it never is just a tree.