Sunday, May 18, 2008

There is a hole in the middle of our life

It is not often these days that someone lives as an adult in the house he or she grew up in. Although I never in a million years ever expected to do so, I happen to be living in the only house I knew as a child. I am back.

There are ghosts in a house, at least to the people who have lived there before. You might call them memories.

Sounds, smells, feelings. Memories. Whatever you want to call them. They make the house a far different physical place for me than it does for my children, who have only lived here for a few years.

I was born in the hospital right down the street. This is the only house I knew as a child. We never moved to a different town or state or country, as my children, Army brats, did time and time again. I went to the same school from nursery school all the way through twelfth grade. I cannot walk through the business district without remembering every single store or business that had been there when I was a child.

It was a much different town then, with hardware stores, bakeries, mom and pop drug stores and clothing stores, a shoe store, Isaly’s, and a five and ten. Now it sports Starbucks, Chicos, Talbots, Pendleton’s, and a smattering of trendy boutiques, jewelry stores, banks, beauty salons, and spas. I don’t just see the town as it is today; I see the town as it was and is. It is not the same town my children see.

When the men came to cut down the large, old maple tree in front of our house this past week, I felt physical pain and sadness. I felt as though I were losing a member of my family. I know that sounds retarded. It was a tree. But it was more than just a tree.

This maple tree was large and tall, and it had stood in the center of our yard far longer than I could remember. Our house is on the side of a hill, overlooking the village and the valley and the river below. This tall maple tree had always, always, always been there. It must have been well over a hundred years old, if not two hundred or more. But now it was hollow. We saw squirrels scampering in and out of it, making their nests or hiding their nuts or whatever it is squirrels do. We peeked through the hole in the side of the trunk. Yep, it was hollow inside. The tree was not dead; it still sprouted leaves and those helicopter seeds. But we worried that a strong storm might topple the tree onto our house, or someone else’s house. And it had to go.

Our gravel driveway comes down off the side of the hill from the main road and makes a U-shape before exiting back onto the road. In the center of the U is a large green grassy area and a rose garden. As children, we thought of the gravel driveway as an ocean and the grassy knoll with the large maple tree in the center as an island. We used to play “Gilligan’s Island,” my friends and my little sister and me. My friends would fight over who got to be Ginger and Mary Ann. That was fine with me; I wanted to be the Professor. We made my little sister be Gilligan.

I watched from the house as the men methodically and persistently cut the tree down. A lithe, fearless man dangling on a rope cut huge branches and chunks off the tree from the top down. Each hunk was anchored to a rope, and as the chain saw finished its cut, the wood would swing down to the ground with a controlled thud. Other men would scamper around the massive piece of tree, move it out of the way into the rapidly forming pile of wood at the side of the driveway, and the man in the tree would move on. I could only watch so much of this. And then I had to leave.

It took them two days. Three really; there was a day in between because it rained.

And then the tree was no more.

They left the stump; they said we could plant flowers in it, or something. We had not wanted them to take out the stump or the roots, as it was such a large tree we were afraid its total and complete removal would leave the hillside more prone to erosion.

I envisioned all the homeless squirrels parading in front of our house with placards of protest. But it never happened.

There are big dents in the earth around the tree stump where the large, heavy branches and chunks of tree landed with heavy thumps. The gravel driveway is covered with sawdust and all those little green helicopters. I peered down inside the wide, hollow stump the other day and saw black carpenter ants scampering around in a muted frenzy. King Solomon’s mines had been taken away from them, and soon they, too, would be homeless.

Trees come, trees go. Sometimes we must cut them down before they fall down and damage something.

There is a big hole in our front yard now. There is a big hole in my heart. This was not just a tree that went; it was a whole childhood of outdoor play. It was my father out mowing the grass, tending his rose garden. It was my sister and me sled riding down the hill past the tree. It was my children sled riding down the hill past the tree. It was all the leaves we raked over the years and piled into sheets and dragged across the road for the borough to take away. It was the squirrels and the birds and the empty locust shells clinging to the trunk. It was the snow, the rain, the wind, the sun, the night. Ring after ring after ring – and I cannot tell how old the maple was because it was hollow. But the stump stands a good three to four feet across in diameter. This maple tree saw a lot. This maple tree was probably older than the house, which is 182 years old. Which is old by American standards.

This maple tree was a monument.

This maple tree was part of the family.

And now it is gone.