Four Trees

  1. The Pecan Tree

I was four when my family and I lived in New Bern, North Carolina. I do not remember every detail of the house; I recall little flashes of images, like the red carpet in the bedroom, the claw-footed tub, the smell of paint thinner that hung constantly in the air while my parents struggled to remodel what proved to be a house in serious disrepair. One of the most prominent images, however, is the large pecan tree in the far corner of the yard. I remember it as the largest tree of my acquaintance, but perhaps that was only because I was quite small myself. My dad hung a swing from one of the lower branches, and, in my mind, it took about a thousand feet of rope to reach. While he worked in the garage, he would strap me in to the swing with his leather work belt and push me so high that I could see the missing shingles in the garage roof. In the fall, when the tree dropped its fruit over our backyard, I would gather a whole mess of them in the hem of my shirt, line them in neat rows on our stone garden bench, and smash them to bits with my dad’s rubber mallet.


  1. The Tire-swing Tree

I was seven when we were stationed in Middletown, Rhode Island while my dad, a Marine Captain, attended the Naval War College. My first best friend, Jennifer, lived across the street from us. Both of us loved animals, and so what we did most of the time was walk around with our little stuffed dogs on leashes, taking them on tours of our little Marine base neighborhood.

Second best were the times when we would sit, four at a time (Jennifer and her brother, me and one of my sisters) around the edges of the tire my dad had suspended, horizontally, like a donut tangled in baling twine, from the little twiggy tree in our front yard. Each time it rained, we had to smash the swing into the trunk of the tree to rid it of the rainwater that had gathered in the lip of the tire, where the inner-tube would generally fit. Eventually, my dad drilled holes in the rubber to facilitate this process, but we continued with the smashing anyhow. Because of the precarious nature of its suspension, the swing never really followed a particular trajectory; rather, slipping around in its ties, it shuddered in a generally-forwards direction and then shuddered back again. We never really knew if we would manage to avoid bashing our heads into the tree—I suppose that was some of the thrill of it all. As we swung, we would shout little sayings in synchrony, but I can hardly remember what they were. After we moved, my sisters and I took to shouting “Jennifer! Jennifer!”every time.


  1. The Birch Tree

We moved to Stafford, Virginia when I was ten. The first thing my dad did was chop down the little willow tree that the previous owners had planted near the sump pump outlet. We (my sisters and I) were upset with him for several days.

The swing at this house did not come for several years, perhaps until I was in late middle school. It was simple, a little wooden board strung up with brown rope. By high school, I had moved into my room in the newly remodeled basement, and I could see the swing from my bedroom window on windy days when it swung, of its own accord, past the edge of the deck. Sometimes, when particularly overwhelmed by schoolwork, I would climb out the window and sit on the swing for a half-hour, until life began to lose the weight it gains while you sit in a dark room staring at trigonometry and contemplating the future.

A few weeks before high school graduation, I had my school friends over for a party. My youngest sister made a piñata from a balloon, some glue, and strips of newspaper and we hung it from one of the branches of the birch tree. My dad then invited each of my friends to sit on the swing, hold a wiffle ball bat, and attempt—while blindfolded—to hit the piñata while he pushed them past it on the swing. Nobody died, or was even injured, which I believe was a small miracle.


  1. The Palm Tree

I was twenty when I travelled to Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. The palm trees in Switzerland are a surprise, especially if you come to the south of Switzerland expecting a northern climate. In reality, the weather is much the same as that in Blacksburg—milder even, for its lack of gale-force winds.

The palm trees were, apparently, an experiment to determine how far north they are able to grow. They were a success in Riva, at least, and I can testify from personal experience that they are well able to survive several weeks of heavy snowfall.

In the spring, when the weather was finally warm enough for us to sit out in the garden outside our school building, one of my classmates asked if she could hang her hammock between two of the trees. She was given permission, provided that she restrict herself to the palm trees, as many of the others were important or aged specimens.

The hammock, strung parallel to our boxwood hedge, became a community resource as we descended into our final weeks of projects and presentations. On Easter Sunday, a cool but bright day, I sat with two of my friends in the purple hammock and rested my head against the trunk of one of the supporting trees. Palm trees have the oddest texture: like a pine cone and a coconut; almost soft, like half-dried summer grass.


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