January 13, 2005

Reproachful Trees

Leaning into the lint–white winter sky, the gray branches of thin front–yard trees. They reproach me for not knowing their names. They reproach me for not being able to describe them better. These are trees I didn’t climb in childhood, these are trees my children climb. When I was in the pram, my mother tells me, I used to point up and call out in delight as I passed under light–shot linden leaves. And one of my first words was tree—the sound I made for it was “key.” Inhaling the sap scent of a pine’s weeping trunk, feeling through the hard ridges of maple bark to the wood beneath, still does something nothing else does. Why have I loved trees so much and learned so little about them? If we come back I want to come back as a tree, a big grandfather oak. There were times I spent with my grandfather that I remember as momentous, though nothing much visible was happening. In my snowsuit, I got stuck between two vertical pikes of our apartment building fence and panicked, thinking I’d be stuck forever. He said calmly, “If you got yourself in, you can get yourself out,” and that has been right ever since. Or the time—was I four?—we were tossing a spaldeen in the park and I threw the little pink ball high up in the air, it came straight down to me and I caught it magically on the thumb side of my fist without the slightest wobble. Ever since, I’ve thought of myself as a fielder. When a series of little strokes in his eighties had made him querulous and angry—and more than anything, I’m sure, terrified—he snapped out of it for an instant and asked me, “You mean writing books, stories?” “Yes,” I answered brusquely, ashamed of my hopes, and that was the last conversation we ever had.