Friday, March 26, 2010

This slice of spruce is all that remains of a tree I planted with my father some 38 years ago. I recall the day clearly, which likely prompted the tinge of remorse when I fired up the chainsaw. It's a strange and powerful thing to live on the land you roamed as a child. You see lots of ghosts and find memories in holes. Sometimes time compresses, then collapses, and you're left standing inside any one of those rings. A whiff of this tree and I'm nine again, knee deep in a hole I've helped dig with my father to accept the roots of this tree I will one day cut down with the chainsaw skills he taught me, only to take a picture of it today, when he's gone and I'm left with only his words...

...which go like this:

When my son and his crew cut down the two blue spruces that had long graced the edge of the woods on our property, he was thoughtful enough to bring up a slice of the trunk for me to take a look at. He was putting me on a bit because he knew how I winced whenever he cut down one of these old timers.

His tree arguments were always the same: if they stand in the way of some greater good like beautifying the area where the tree is located, it ought to come down. I labeled that his “greater good” argument. I almost always agree after a short general argument in defense of trees, which, after all, have a certain claim on our own history. But he’s so beautified the area where we live with his plans for what has come to be called the Garden of Ideas that I invariably get no support from anyone on the tree issue and down they come.

So he brought up this slice of the Spruce, which I remember planting when we first moved into our house back in 1972, 34 years ago. Sure enough, I counted 34 rings in the trunk. The tree had accompanied us on our life’s journey in this house on North Salem Rd. and counting the rings brought back lots of memories, high and low. It had been an interesting ride for all of us.

We’d been living in Ossining in New York State after moving to the area with our three sons from Cleveland, Ohio where I’d been working in a public relations agency. My wife, Terry, a school teacher before we married, was just itching to get back into the classroom once she had gotten our three rambunctious sons into school. We had bought this house in Ossining without knowing anything about the area, but it wasn’t too far from White Plains where I’d be working for IBM and it was affordable. It hadn’t taken long for Terry, who was doing the house hunting , to discover that the beautiful house we’d sold back in Cleveland for $28,000 wasn’t going to get us a whole lot even in that long-ago time..

We lived in the Ossining house for five years and it was endurable although not easy. Ossining was a tough river town with a host of racial problems that Terry saw first hand as she began to substitute teach in the public schools. Then a couple of things happened that caused us to put a plan to move from Ossining into high gear. First, a giant Tulip tree—at 75 feet tall it towered over the house—came down in a violent thunder storm and second, we had our first lettuce in a salad from a patch that Terry had planted among flowers in the back yard. We wound up the meal that featured the salad marching around singing “we’re moving to the country.”

But not so fast. This great big three-story Victorian we lived in was in one of those Ossining neighborhoods that had become racially mixed and while that had suited us fine, we soon discovered that the rest of the world was lagging a bit behind. It took us a year to sell that house and when we finally did the price was pennies more than we had bought it for five years before. Meantime, of course, other properties had experienced one of those early Titanic moves upwards.

Oh well, we thought, and Terry intensified her search for a house in the country. She found Ridgefield and a house that by stretching hard we could afford and which turned into our Rock of Gibraltar for the next 34 years. We raised our three boys there, Terry ferrying them in car pools to Fairfield Prep some 45 minutes away when they reached high school age. As soon as each son reached 16 he got his drivers license and was on his own.

College came and Terry started a landscaping business to help with the bills. My business unit at IBM was sold to another company and I faced a move to Minneapolis but avoided that when IBM called me back.

Then I was moved to the city by IBM. We borrowed heavily and bought a condo in the city. Terry became Executive Director of an advocacy group called the Green Guerillas, developing gardens on empty lots. My business unit failed and I was moved back to White Plains. We still had the house in Ridgefield. Terry was invited by the New York Botanical Gardens to start a community outreach program similar to the program she had run in New York for the Green Guerillas. She became the director of the program.

Meantime, the boys began to produce families as they followed their own particular dreams—the oldest a business mogul with ESPN,the middle son a landscape designer running the Garden of Ideas and the youngest with the U.N. in Rome. There are six grand children; they all love the house and the grounds where they can run wild.

I’ll have to explain to them about the Blue Spruces and the greater good. And maybe show them the piece of trunk in my office and explain what all those rings really mean.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Two Springs

My dad and I had a long-running argument about the actual start date of the seasons. I won't bore you with my pedantic predilections; suffice it to say he was slowly coming around to my way of thinking.
After a day like today, he might have sworn fealty forever to my method. What a spring day! I sat in the yellow chair in his favorite spot down by the marsh and let the sun dry my tears.

Here's a piece he called "Two Springs."

Always two springs in the Northeast. One early spring, mean and rainy cold, low, scudding clouds, pewter- gray like an October sky. The land still brooding, the patient kid waiting his turn. The woods dark and unfriendly, a hostile army massed for assault.

And then, spring days like this: brilliant sunshine, sky as blue as baby Harlan’s eyes, the light so brittle, sharp, and transparent it makes giant holograms of the bushes and shrubs painting them all in bas relief. The eyes struggle to take it in. The landscape now beginning to strut. Lemon yellow daffodils splashed across the woodlot’s floor, Magnolias a defiant white on an artist’s pallet. Forsythia ringing the land more yellow than the slickers on the road crew out front. Crab apple buds surging.

He sits in the Adirondack chair at the top of the slope. The dog lays at his feet and basks in the warming sun. Down below, his middle son, horticulturist by inclination and trade, clears the winter kill ringing the marsh. The special quiet of a Saturday afternoon rests on the gardens.

But broken a bit.

Behind him in the house the volume up just enough for him to hear, Michael Kaye and Jim Kaat are on the tube, trying to pull the New York Yankees through the Kansas City game, trying to snap a short losing string as Derek Jeter homers in the eighth to pull them ahead. But now the Royals have come back in the ninth and Mariano Rivera has come in to put out the fire.

He calls down to his son to come up and watch the drama unfold. But he holds up a transistor radio and stays where he is. The Yankees get out of that hole as Rivera in mid-season form strikes out the next two hitters and ends it.

The sun is dropping now behind the woods in the west. He’d had enough and was stiff from sitting too long. Age and his cursed infirmity, he knew. He picked up the walking stick he used to get around the grounds and went inside. The dog followed.

That night, the gardening son is back along with his mate and little Harlan and his oldest son and his wife and their three children. They’d come for dinner, a going-away affair for his wife who was leaving that week for Rome to help out their youngest son and his wife with their new baby.

For dinner that night, she’d made three separate dishes to fit everybody’s favorite taste, lamb shanks, chicken pot pie for the kids and spinach lasagna for the vegetarians. It was a festive and convivial evening. The conversation was lively; the camaraderie flowed along with good wine. Underneath it all was the sense of good fortune and gratitude and the unspoken wish that it could go on forever.

The next day was cold. The daffodils drooped in disgust. Spring in the Northeast. He loved it.