The Swing Tree

The Swing Tree You’re gone now. Each time I pull in at the summer house, the realization hits me as if for the first time, and the emptiness stuns me. The constant joy of my east-end summers, a sentinel of my childhood, there is now only a slight swayle where you stood. It makes me sad. So I do what time has taught me to do with loss: call up my memories of you when you lived, when you were there to play with, when you made me happy. My earliest memory of you is actually of the carpenter ants. The black horde made you their home, and there were holes in your great humped roots from years of their relentless invasion. I squatted beside my father to watch him do battle, trowelling cement into your wounds, a yearly but futile attempt to shut the ants either out or in. The best part came when the biggest hole was filled: in the smooth surface of the wet mortar, my brother and I left our marks, three initials each, and the date. It felt so permanent, as though we were becoming part of you. It’s nice to think of it that way, now. Each spring the previous patch had cracked and crumbled, and we redid the bond, renewed the connection. I like the idea that I had my name on you in the form of a repair. I remember, too, lying on my stomach in the grass, in high summer, chin on hand, watching. Under your cool shade, in the company of lilies of the valley and Indian pipes, I studied the ridges of your bark and the patterns of your far-ranging roots. I followed the ants with my eyes, saw the network of their trails fan out across the yard, speculated on their vast numbers and what their purpose on earth might be. Infrequently, I rolled onto my back to look past your hand-like leaves to the blue sky. I might look over to the aspen to make sure it was still quaking in the light breeze; I could look the other way to guess the exact height of the towering hemlock or the Douglas fir; but I always stationed myself under the oak. While not the tallest, you were the biggest-around of all, and I always felt you were the gentlest, the one that spoke most softly to me. I was safe with you. The best memory of all is the swing. It was officially summer when Dad strung up the two heavy ropes with monkey’s fist knots in the ends. We could hardly wait for him to finish, and swung madly from the single ropes for a while before hooking on the wooden seat. Dad made it himself. It was smooth and polished to a shine from countless hours of serious swinging, of twisting around and spinning, or swaying lazily, or just sitting, dreaming. Soon, I was able to climb the ropes, and I touched for the first time the cool, gray surface of the limb that made all our swinging possible. Your trunk was so rough and deeply grooved, but your branches were so smooth! From this great height I could see over the garage, and out past the big blue spruce to the creek. I felt on top of the world. I felt grown up. When the dastardly work of the ants made it necessary to take off the branch we used for the rope swing, it was hard to accept. There was no way out, of course: such a big bough could fall on a car or on a relative, and would be a real hazard in a wind storm, and might break off rough under the weight of a winter snow. “Better to cut ‘er off clean right now.” I took it harder than I let on. But at least you were still there, still filling the yard, shading the house, still the first thing we’d see when we turned in from the road. I came to think of you as a dear, scarred companion, still there to talk to, still beloved, but who, having lost a limb, could no longer play. I got older, and spent less time with you. But the ants stayed on, and you lost your war with them. The last time I went out to the old house, it was autumn, and years had gone by since I lost you; I stood for a bit where you once were, to grieve, and to love. Then I took a walk around the place, and picked up a few things off the loamy ground. Beech nuts, smooth stones, pine cones, a blue jay feather…and acorns. I took only loose ones, the ones that had just fallen. Those that had gotten started, that had already dug in, I left in the earth. Memories are like acorns: small things, quite miraculously able, given time, to fill an empty space with something beautiful. © 2013 Victoria Northridge