A Few Things to Hold On To
My mother moved my brother and me when we were five and four from our small apartment in Dobbs Ferry, NY to our great-grandfather’s house in East Hampton in 1991. My father and she had just divorced and things weren’t good in Dobbs so she packed us into a VW hatchback and we hit the road south to start a new life. At our new home just off 27 by the cemetery and town pond we had a cat named James and a big backyard with a giant horse-chestnut tree. James was an Abyssinian and a fierce hunter. He left birds twitching on our doorstep and rabbits filleted in the yard. I loved James. I loved following him around and mimicking his movements; I felt we had a deep connection, but the rabbit killing I could not stand. “James, you asshole!” I would scream, “not again!” But the killing continued. “That’s just the way he’s built,” my Uncle Ralph once said, trying to console me, “there’s no stopping it – it’s his nature to hunt.” But what about the rabbits, I thought, who’s going to take care of them? I think it was then that I discovered I wanted to be a veterinarian, not an ice cream man.
The great horse-chestnut tree was simply massive. Its limbs and branches stretched up and out and arched over into a giant dome. Its bloom was so thick in the summer that you had to squeeze through or pull one of the branches aside to get in. Once inside you could climb and scale and jump and there was one limb even that you could crawl ten, twelve, twenty feet high, and once you reached the trunk there was a branch with which you could swing back down to the earth. No one ever measured its circumference, but my great-grandfather once likened our great horse-chestnut tree to the atrium of a cathedral. In the summer, when he could no longer walk, the nurse would wheel him out to sit underneath the tree for hours. He was almost always awestruck by that tree and by nature. He was an acclaimed scientist who wrote about multicellular organisms and mitochondria, the future of medicine and the atomic bomb. I didn’t know him all too well because I was very young when we lived together but I could tell everyone admired him and his capacity for wonder. They moved him back into the city to live with better in-home treatment when I was five or six and then he passed when I was seven. I remember his hands and how they seemed so fragile. He wore thick glasses, read a lot, and occasionally drank sherry in the afternoon. When he passed they held his service at St. John the Divine on the upper west side. My brother and I sat with our Uncle Ralph on one of the wings and drew pictures of nothing I can remember. There was a choir and lots of people giving speeches. My cousin Tommy, also seven, played the cello.
When Tommy visited us in East Hampton we would sneak through the hedge and steal flowers from the garden in our neighbor’s yard. It was a tremendous thrill. We’d make bouquets and give them to our mothers. A couple times though, foolishly enough, we’d try to sell those same flowers at the foot of our driveway at a makeshift flower stand. Somehow we had no idea that our neighbors very well could have driven down their driveway, the one next to ours, and found us out. We never got caught though. We were never found out. Except for by our mothers who may have even encouraged it. We laugh about that now – the flower theft and the mischief in the backyard.
If our uncle or aunt visited we’d play monster. Each of them had their own style. Rafael, Tommy’s father, took on a zombie like face and chased us dragging one foot behind him in a limping like gait. If he got close enough he’d burst into sprint. And if he caught you he’d swoop you up into the air in an arch and deliver you back down to the grass to be eaten for lunch or tickled until a comrade or two raced over, brazenly, to rescue you. Aunt Catherine, or “Cak,” had a different approach. She pursued you slowly, with, horrifyingly enough, a butcher’s knife. She crooked her head to the side and stared off wide-eyed as if possessed. But she never sprinted and she never caught you; she only pursued. There was something especially frightening about that pace – she was the thing that doesn’t stop. And while in pursuit, she’d call out your name, beckoning you to come back to her. She once did it for my friend Felix and I when he was over for a play date. We begged her and begged her to play and finally she did. She told us to go out and hide in the yard and then from god knows where she just appeared, with a butcher’s knife. We giggled and screeched and hid and ran and somehow, unfortunately, my friend Felix’s mother got word of it and he was never allowed back. In retrospect, Catherine, whose got two young boys herself now, can’t believe she did this. “Poor thing,” she says now, shaking her head, “he must have been so frightened. I mean…I was a monster! Bad Cak, Bad Cak!”
Not too long ago, maybe a few years, I stopped by my old house with my friend Ted. We had sold it by then and none of us had been back there for a while. It was winter. I had recently sprained my ankle and Ted and I were driving back to his place from Amagansett. “Want to see where I grew up?” I asked, as we approached the Maidstone Arms. We hadn’t anywhere to be so he said sure and we pulled into the old driveway. Ted and I got out of the car and walked up, me hobbling on crutches, to the front of the house. It seemed a lot smaller then. But not the tree. Hurricane Sandy had just passed that fall and even then, even though many of the branches had been blown down, and the limbs were bound by a fairly intricate set of cables, even then, the branches bare and the space open, the great horse-chestnut tree still seemed alive and well, like a cathedral. “We used to crawl up that limb there,” I told Ted, pointing, “and there used to be a branch that you could actually hold onto and swing down from.” Ted, being a good sport, crawled up and straddled the limb. You could easily touch his boots, the limb being maybe 8 feet high. “Pretty cool,” he said. The new homeowners, being smart and having predicted the fallout of the hurricane had had the tree trimmed by an arborist. They must have been in a hurry because I picked up one of the cylindrical pieces and took it home with me. Over lunch one day a few weeks later in the city, I told my great-aunt Judy, Tommy’s mother, about the wood chippings and cylindrical pieces that spread out across the floor of the old tree and how it was secured there now by a set of cables taught and driven into the ground by tent like spikes. She was pleased to know it still stood and that I’d taken one of those pieces for myself. She told me that after her dad, my great-grandfather, died she sprinkled some of his ashes at its base. She told me it was then that she realized death was neither an end nor a beginning. “There’s no souls or heaven or any crap like that,” she said. “He’s just a part of nature now. He’s soil, and he’s in the birds that sit on the telephone wires outside my window in the country. He’s lightening.” I liked that. And I like how now, after all these years, I can pick that piece of wood up off my desk and hold it my hands.