My grandmother took her granddaughters to a graveyard deep in the country each Memorial Day and sat beneath the spreading limbs of a sycamore. She crocheted and she recited the names of carpenters, circuit riders, seamstresses, homemakers, schoolteachers, bandits, and bankers. Of the Native American who had once walked among us. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, relatives, ancestors all, and we children laughed along the gravesites. We darted in and among the woods surrounding them. We played hide-and-seek between both the tree trunks and the tombstones and were not afraid. The veined leaves overhead played patterns of dark and light across the green grass. Across every warm and deepening evening.
Trees rooted within the hills and flatlands alike. Trees standing solitary or planted in stands between the fields of the farmland. Tree after tree growing on the shores of both mirrored lakes and rivers as muddy as the Mississippi. Trees pouring over the countryside, over each and every out-of-town roadside. Trees say the most about being at home in the Midwest.
A maple tree shaded our house on West Main Street, Smalltown, U.S.A. A willow tree was desired by my mother and so planted by my father along the back boundary of our yard. The lofty maple shaded my bedroom, but its height made a climb out of the question. The eldest of three daughters, I finally managed to gather the courage of my younger sisters and climb to a high fork in the willow. Maple, willow, oak, sycamore, and elm. Hickory, walnut, apple, peach, and the occasional persimmon. Even some pine and some poplar. The feeling of trees all around had begun long before sojourns spent in the willow, however.
The trees that lined the lake on which my grandparents stayed in their cabin seemed older, for instance. We girls went swinging on an old tire “out there.” We spotted frogs. We called after the catfish below the surface, after the bluegill. I can still see myself as a girl child, still feel my young body stretch and soar out over the water.
We sisters took note of which of the uncles or cousins gathered below us smoked and which ones drank. Which ones didn’t. We knew which aunt wore what shade of lipstick or what scent of “new-fangled” perfume, which relation spoke of being most recently moved by “the Holy Spirit.” Most of all, we children noted who came to play, who came to lift our bodies up over his or her head and swing us about or high enough to reach for the trees.
We were an extended family system over which my grandmother and grandfather seemed to reign. My grandfather who wore the plaid flannel shirts soft against my cheek. The old man who had worked “in a big job” for “people all the way out in Washington, D.C.,” but when he retired, then wore fishing caps laden with bright, gaudy hooks and flies. My grandmother who, her hands covered in flour or cornmeal, fried “a mess of fish” under the trees on so many summer nights of all our lives. And she could roll out pie dough in “nothing flat.” Both grandparents could remember “way back.”
We sisters dropped our lines into the water. We grew up in-between them, as did the fathers, mothers, children all around us–my grandparents who stood like trees themselves as we grew. Old, gnarled, but forever firm in memory.
The almost-a-teenage girl I can see now so much more clearly than before climbed the willow tree back in town and did not think too much on all that had come before her, of course. Secretly, she had begun to worry that not so much noise, but so much silence was what passed between her parents. However, in those middle-class 1950’s days in which she was finally growing taller, this eldest girl desired silence. She wanted to escape the screaming of the younger children across the back lawn, the eyes of her ever-watchful father who sat in the swing and read the paper, the more pointed vigilance of her mother whose face appeared now and then through the kitchen window as she did the supper dishes, as she watched the clock and counted minutes until “bath time” and “bed time.” This daughter did not want to think on the rifts she already knew existed in this typical, oh-so-white middle-class family by which she was surrounded in those days.
Growing toward adolescence, she climbed toward the silver underside of narrow, weeping leaves. The town girl straddled the limb of the tree and could see Main Street, the couples who grew old together on the front porches up and down the street. She wondered at the old couple from the country that planted corn in their backyard right next door! They bent and rose together, not the way her parents worked in town, she knew. Town couples, the “country club couples” of her more well-to-do friends, they went their separate ways.
The girl’s eyes followed Main Street downtown toward “the Square” and the county courthouse, the red brick library, home of the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew. I realize now that already in the back of my child’s mind were the questions: What really went on in that courthouse anyway? What did a mayor do exactly? As a matter of fact, what did “government” do? Her father and his friends discussed politics in the yard at night. They stood in groups and talked underneath those bare legs that the turning-of-age young lady had already decided to ask her mother if she could shave her legs…
The girl already knew of the trees that grew beyond the Square, indeed, actually over beyond the tracks. She had been “down there” on Sunday afternoons whenever she had ridden with her father to get a block of picnic ice. From her spot in the crook of the willow, the girl viewed the roads only barely familiar–narrow roads, some completely covered by the branches of stooping trees, trees that seemed to grow wild, trees whose tops bent completely over these particular streets because there was not enough city money to prune, and therefore, to grow the trees of “those people.”
The girl I was had heard the stories of the neighbors. One of the women who came to sit in the yard talked of her childhood and of seeing a black man in trouble, a man beaten and tied with a rope and then dragged behind the wheels of a wagon. And who knew then what the branches overhead held for him? The neighbor who’d once been a child had said she’d cried at the sight. Cried out of fright and cried for another’s suffering. Cried that such violence existed, and that it seemed to exist never ending in this, her own homeland.
The younger girl in the tree squinted her eyes and wondered at the existence of strangers. Strangers who had whole lives, whole parts of town, whole histories not her own. Roots that went from this land evidently back into another one. And she eventually learned of other groups as well–evidently all these people around her were just some assortment of groups really—the African, the Irish, German, English, Scottish, Welsh, the Italian, the East European who came to clear the woods, settle the farmlands, live in tents beside the mines in a desperate scramble for survival. The Native American of her grandmother’s line who had all but disappeared. The girl’s parents had taken her to see the displays in a museum once.
The branches of the willow spread out around the growing girl. Indeed as the girl I was grew, the willow tree also grew thicker, heavier. Its spring green branches swept the ground, but evidently, never quite clean.
She had not learned until my high school days that the land beneath my feet had long since been stained. Stained by wars with the Black Hawk, the Iroquois, “problems” with the Cherokee become part of my own family tree. And there had been the Civil War. Those slaves who had dashed for freedom. Those hidden and those returned into bondage. The war in which not only states went their own private way, but counties, towns had also tried. Brothers, sisters, every separate limb of a family had gone this way and that. And there had been religious wars, the Mormons driven out. There had been the Klan and the frenzied activities of bootleggers out in the night-time glades.
Many an old-timer in overalls who sat up on the Square spitting tobacco had talked of being sent “all the way off to Europe” to fight in 1917. The girl pressed for the stories from her own father, stories of tea in England in World War II. His Air Force squadron. Bombings in London, France, then Germany. Did her father know about the Holocaust?
A girlfriend’s father had served in Korea. And then Vietnam, and even in the Midwest, the tree-lined streets were suddenly filled with students. The National Guard all around. A young woman, I sat in a tree above a college campus and read “American classics” for my literature class. At the same time, I listened to both sides down in the street, soldier and dissenter alike who spoke of a brother in the army, the lottery, and a fiancée about to be drafted. They spoke of a country called Cambodia. Of one called Laos.
Straws can be driven like spears into trees by the tornadoes that rip through the Midwest. They are violent, often misinterpreted, even misunderstood ill winds. Rarely are these straws, these bits of twig and wood removed later, however. Rather they become the subject of wonder. The straws are a subject of discussion by some who remember the tree without the stiff shaft driven through its very center, by others because “Look! Would you just look at this thing now become a part of the tree!”?
The trees with which people in the Midwest are most comfortable grow twisted, not straight. And even “the natives” have a habit of attributing wisdom to the older trees. Wisdom meaning that they, these trees “have lasted.” Wisdom somehow being related to endurance. Trees that have grown like “the old folks.” And new nests have a better chance of being hidden between the lacy branches of a tree that has withstood lightning and thunder. The storm. Woodlands that have withstood the fire.
The rings of an old tree grow solid around and around its center, and the trunk and the branches grow up and around each knothole. The limbs of the trees do not so much seek or implore the blue sky as they seem to offer shade. Dark shade and solace for that pain for which there is no solace. War and more war. The trees simply wait. The breezes shake their lofty heads.
The girl, finally grown into a woman, had a chance to escape further than the fork of her parents’ willow tree. She had an “opportunity” to leave the Midwest, to go further than those horizons that had always stretched out around her. After all, she’d finally decided to become a writer, and writers, she’d gotten the impression in literature classes, should see the world. Also they should probably drink a lot. Artists must “experience.”
But then what to write–there had been disillusionment with the life of my “ideal family,” the narrow limitations of my mostly white and middle-class hometown–its prejudices. Indeed, what I saw as the narrowness, the prejudice of whole regions, whole states. But then as I grew older, was there not also disillusion with the lives of “the wild,” the rich, the famous, and the none-too-romantic? With the lure of alcohol and the “absence” so often present in a life of abandon? Once when I lived in the desert, a desert I had also learned to love and to hate, I visited the Midwest again. As a fellow traveler drove, I fell asleep in the back of the van and then woke up suddenly in the middle of green. The middle of trees. I was a girl again, and I was home.
The pen and what to write? All those familiar voices that come whispering across water, across ashes. Across a lake called childhood and the call of the bobwhite. A past comes murmuring up. A tree weeps the lullaby of men who forever return to the inland woods to fish. Of my grandmother who crocheted pattern from underneath the sycamore. Of my great, or was it my great-great grandmother who wove tribal patterns into much-needed baskets and blankets in some land of time beyond us all.
Woman, come home. Writer, a pen beckons from the Midwest.