Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Old Apple - Part III

[Note: Parts I and II appear below]

A gray mist obscures the woods, and the trees encircling our property appear arrow-straight and somber as mourners at a funeral. My view from the bathroom window takes in the full breadth of the yard, from the swamp to the stone walls bordering the abandoned road. It is open and coldly bare. A lone chickadee hops onto the shed roof from the protective boughs of a hemlock. Her head swivels, inquisitive, confused. Too exposed! She retreats to the safety of the hemlock.

Cut flush with the farthest peak of the roof is the stump of the apple, her sawdust strewn like bird seed on the asphalt shingles. Clearly she was gone long before Chris came to take her. Only the merest ring of bark circles the dark tunnel rotted to her core. Chris reported that his co-worker was so anxious about the extent of the rot that he refused to climb her. We’re lucky she was able to hold her limbs steady above our house through last week’s high winds.

The cut was long delayed and I’d said good-bye many times, standing at the window, treasuring close-up glimpses of jays and titmice, the cocking of their heads and the fluffing of feathers with a quick pecking groom. We have loved this view into the life of our tree and her visitors.

Dave and I went out today to salvage some pieces from the brush heap of her twigs and branches; I will use some boughs as the bodies of Christmas Santas for Tucker and Casey. Our friend Phil also suggested that we use others to stoke the fireplace and when Dave smokes fish. “There’s nothing like the smell of apple wood,” he promised.

So, the apple will remain with us, lending solidity to a Santa Claus, a fresh smoky taste to Dave’s fish, and in aromatic wisps as we sit cozily by the fire. But I will miss her in the springtime when a cloud of pink blossoms bustling with busy songbirds no longer shades our window.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Old Apple - Part II

[Note: This piece follows the essay below.]

A red squirrel scampers up the apple tree, then hovers at the brink of a gaping hole. His brush of tail quivers - in excitement or anxiety? Two jays swoop, raucous and bullying, from the limbs of the tree to the feeder, sending a whirl of cold-fluffed titmice flying. All of this life has centered about our aging tree, yet her time is nearly past.

The shingles on the shed roof are warped and wrinkled as the apple leans closer to the house. Yet another arborist, the fourth, (we’ve sought many second opinions) has confirmed that this cutting is timely, but I’m saddened at ordering the death of this friend.

Her branches, clawed and skeletal this January afternoon, offer easy perches for tiny birds eyeing the feeders as they await the blue jays’ departure. In finalizing plans with Chris, the tree-man, I asked him to give the creatures ample warning before beginning the cut to allow them time to escape. Hands in his pockets, he smiled, assuring me, “I’ve been a vegetarian for twelve years now; I’ll make sure they get out alright.”

This old tree has thrived through world-altering changes. For a hundred and fifty years, her canopy has shaded backyard activities, from demure young ladies in linen frocks sipping fresh-made lemonade to Dave and Steve wailing “Brown Sugar” during their summer Woodstock revivals. But, after many delays borne of our reluctance and the tree-man’s busy schedule, the apple is due to fall Friday.

I will go out now to press my hands against her trunk - to give warning, give thanks, and seek forgiveness. It’s hard to imagine coming home after work to find the shed’s embrace empty.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Old Apple - Part I

[This is the third essay from the series "More Than a Shell." The first two are listed below.]

Our house has evolved along with the families who lived here. A haphazard mish mash of sheds and additions mark two hundred years of changing interests and needs. A door from the bathroom off the kitchen opens into the potting shed. A tool shed is tacked on behind. Like a caboose on a train, a playhouse brings up the rear. The apple tree growing in back of the house might have been chopped down for any one of these structures, but instead, they were built to wrap around the trunk of the tree.

The apple supplied shiny red fruit for pies, cider and cobblers. It was valued as a retreat for limb-climbing children and a shady spot for a cool sit-down after a morning’s work in the yard. It would have been a shameful waste to squander such an asset, so a couple of old doors, the wood still just fine, were used to encircle the tree and protect its bark during construction.

Since we’ve lived here, several large limbs have rotted and fallen. Yet the tree’s scars house birds and squirrels, and its apples, once shrunk to ridged brown walnuts, provide them with food during cold winter months.

I peer out an upstairs window through the apple’s crooked branches. A bright-eyed titmouse of soft dove gray perches beyond the windowpane. A flicker darts to the trunk, exploring the empty socket of a fallen branch, poking his head out a mite further down. Squirrel siblings clamber and chase the length of a massive limb; all of this life happening just out my window.

We love this tree, the eccentricity of its shed-wrapped trunk, the image of its inner tunnels and chambers, home to all manner of nibbling, furred and feathered friends. But we’d like to build an addition of our own - a New England-style porch. We imagine summer evenings spent lazing in green wicker chairs, or autumn afternoons warmed by an amber sun as we sit overlooking flaming red maple woods.

Of course, we want to save the tree, so we’ve called in the experts to gauge her health. Various treemen have walked around her impressive girth, rocking on their heels, speculatively eyeing our friend while scratching a chin. “Well, she’ll last maybe a year, maybe ten, barring high winds.” Five years ago the insurance company threatened to withhold coverage on the house if we did not cut her down. We had the tree pruned and wired and she squeaked by inspection, but clearly we’ll have to make a decision soon.

I cancelled the cut once already, like holding off putting an old dog to sleep. “She’s doing okay, it’s not time yet.” I get teary at the thought of gazing out the window to see only roofs. I'll miss the antics of a bright-eyed titmouse glimpsed through a veil of apple leaves.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Making It Home

[This essay follows "More Than a Shell," posted August 26]

When we moved in, the house had been vacant for over a year, a year of stillness but for the scrabble of mice and the settling of old floors. Unaccustomed churnings stirred the languid air when our kids raced through rooms and clattered up the stairway.

For close to two decades, Dave and I had lived in the dormitory of a private school in Greenwich. Communal meals, the thumpings of the five Moore boys playing basketball in the apartment overhead, and the constant on-call activity of dorm life had been our routine. Now night’s darkness was unbroken but for the call of owl and coyote. As much as I love Nature’s wildness, those eerie voices could turn a peaceful walk with our malamute, Kody, into a frenzied break for the house. “C’mon, Sweetie, c’mon,” I’d urge, tugging her leash, as cartoon images of yellow eyes and dripping fangs skulked unbidden into my mind.

Casey and Tucker, ages seven and ten, had loved the house during preliminary tours, but they hadn’t fully grasped that buying it meant leaving our home at the school. They were accustomed to having a gym and playground in the backyard, and friends next door, upstairs, and down the hall.

Dave and I tried to transfer as much familiarity to their new rooms as possible. I traced the markings on Tucker’s door in Greenwich that gauged his growth: 9/16/81 - 16 months - 32 inches, through 7/11/90 - 10 years old – 4 feet 11 inches. Tucker copied those milestones on the door to his room. (The most recent addition reads, “12/20/ 2001 - 21 years - 6 feet 2 inches.)

I had gingerly peeled Tuck’s artwork and Greenpeace and World Wildlife decals off the old woodwork to re-create the same effect on his new bedroom door. “I liked my old room better,” he scowled at the unveiling. I was disappointed by his reaction, but we all felt homesick.

Greenwich had been busy and suburban. The school was academically challenging and highly competitive. The grocery store and main shopping area were nearby. The hospital where my kids were born was one minute away - all so convenient, so fast.

There were no commercial centers in our new town. The grocery store was a ten-minute trek and it was years before we located the hospital. But, that first summer, we discovered three working farms within four minutes of the house and an orchard with blueberries, peaches and apples just down the road. We picked berries, rode bikes, and explored the surrounding woods, marveling that we lived in the New England of Currier and Ives.

“No Trespassing” signs marked the borders between our property and that of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, but we risked outlaw status in meandering along the stream and up the ridge. As I child, I would have loved these forays, but my kids whined about ticks and cultivated my worries about hunters as excuses to stay indoors. They preferred the entertainment of TV and computers, and groused when I shooed them outside.

Autumn brought apple-picking at the orchard off Route 58, and with school’s opening - friends. Once yellow buses rolled and kids came over for play dates, Casey and Tucker began to feel at home. It was harder for Dave and me: we had no welcoming classroom of built-in pals, and it had been years since we’d felt like the new kids in town. Finding new doctors, a new mechanic and new friends was hard.

At the first parent open house at the elementary school, Dave and I wedged ourselves expectantly into the tiny children’s seats in Mrs. Ledbetter’s second grade classroom and checked out the other parents. We rifled through Casey’s desk, her folders and workbooks. We scanned bulletin boards looking for her papers and artwork. What we found was a sign that all would be well: a pen and ink drawing, prominently displayed, of a child walking down a country road. Beneath the picture, were written the words “Childhood should be a journey, not a race.”

We were home.