Creaking Tree

Thu, 11/29/2018 - 8:00pm

The Thanksgiving weekend was cold, just plain silly cold. I remember a freak snow one year, when I was in Massachusetts, “trough snow” they called it, falling unexpectedly between two weather systems, neither of which had given any indication the previous night that there would be inches of white on the ground in the morning. A few years before that I was standing on a cousin's back stoop in another Massachusetts town, smoking, as flakes fell from the sky, thinking I really had to quit that horrid habit.

There were only a couple of football games I did not manage to avoid during those years of going to the mainland for Thanksgiving, one a very old rivalry in Massachusetts, another I thought at first in Rhode Island but it may have been just over the line in Connecticut. Both cold.

But those memories are more than balanced by recollections of walking on mild afternoons, or of my parents standing outside for the rare photograph, before we had a camera with a flash, with Aunt Alice, they in their “inside” clothes, she wearing a coat with a fur collar, likely more because it was her “good” coat than for warmth.

She made squash pie by one of those old “season to taste” recipes which drove my mother wild both for its vaguery and my father's annual raving. In that photo Aunt Alice is holding one of those cherished pies.

It is not at all complicated, this “aunt” was my grandfather's first cousin, but somehow that explanation never translated well when I was a child, because my mother, from whom I may have inherited some traits, could not leave it at that. Their mothers were sisters, Lewis sisters, never mind that, as children, my grandfather and this “aunt” shared the same last name – Ball.

In summer people arrive, distant relatives who have traced their ancestry back to Block Island. They must all be appalled that I, living here, have such limited knowledge and offer the same response: “I have it written down at home. Somewhere.” Often, I add my mother's story of moving here and thinking it wouldn't be that difficult to connect the dots to the other Ball families here at the time. After all, she had the advantage of having a little booklet her husband's great-grandfather had carefully compiled — and had printed — tracing his own line back to the first Ball settler.

“Don't look too hard” one of the older ladies on the island told her back when the community was tiny and everyone truly did know much of what there was to know about each other's history because there was often so much over-lap.

So, I stick to “it's written down. . . somewhere.”

There is a tree in the yard, a different one than stood during those long-ago Thanksgivings. That one grew old and died, was home to woodpeckers for a few years before one day toppling ingloriously. It was not even felled by a storm, just a hand put out the way people do when standing in a yard, talking.

The size of the one there now surprises me; my sister-in-law brought it from her yard in Grosse Pointe in a bucket. There were three altogether, one flourished in the shelter of the barn foundation, protected from east, north and west winds and open to winter's warming southern sun; another died; and the one sort of where there used to be a maple, grew tall. It was protected from the northeast winds that stunted one side of the carefully planted and tended but too exposed trees in the big grocery parking lot.

“How bad is the winter wind?” visitors ask and I would direct them to those misshapen trees but in summer there is too much traffic to be examining arboreal evidence.

The tree in my yard grew more than I realized. When Hurricane Irene was threatening, a branch reaching too close to the gutter and roof was slender enough that I could saw through it. It was only after the storm passed and light flooded the house that I realized how much of a canopy it had provided. Last spring more branches were taken from it, higher and bigger than I could reach and I soon realized how much it had blocked the bit of breeze that is my salvation on a summer night.

Thanksgiving night, after a day of ducking between warm places, thinking if only it were calm the sunny cold would not be so bad, I came home to that moonlight that is so sharp it seems to have been honed by the wind. 

The branches of the tree were black, gnarled witch's fingers against the pale sky and they were cracking in that way that would have been frightening — instead of merely disconcerting — had I not heard the same sound on nights there was no wind and on still, frozen days after a snowfall.

It was the next afternoon that I came home almost 20 minutes after sunset, and was surprised that there was color yet in the sky, more to the south than it seemed it should be a month before the solstice. The wind wasn't blowing much, and the tree was almost silent. I look out at the same time tonight to those low dark clouds that seem to shout “cold” and “dark” and “winter.” 

I don't know when the last leaves finally fell, the molt starts in August but last longs into the autumn. It was only a couple of days ago that I realized the rangy forsythia had finally given up for the season, and had only a few bits of papery brown clinging to its wind tossed vines.

“Winter? I don't mind winter,” I have been saying these past few years when the cutting cold was so delayed it arrived near, even after, the solstice, almost a fair trade for the return of the sun.

There is, at least, no immediate chance of rain.