Monday, October 24, 2011

a poem as lovely as a tree

i grew up next door to a large house with a porch as wide as a hat's brim with a porch swing and as odd as it sounds, two large crouching stone lions flanking the front porch steps. i used to 'ride' those lions as a child, imagining myself in some great parade toward Noah's ark. two cast iron deer stood facing each other in the front yard (the lions and deer are still there), and according to historical documents, both lions and deer have been fixtures since before the Civil War. 

many years ago, when i was a child, trains traveled the tracks on the other side of the road from the house, and town legend always said that when a train blew its horn at midnight, the deer would run around the house. nobody mentioned the lions, who no doubt stood sentry as any proper lion should.

the yard surrounding this grand house was a child's playground. high in the branches of the giant magnolia — its branches reaching to the roof of the two-story house — provided the perfect lookout. on the ground, my friends and i swept the ground clean, then marked the walls of our houses with magnolia leaves and seed pods. when i think of it, it seems as if we played in this yard for hours, coming home only long enough to pee or to eat, then we were back at it again, our imaginations taking us far away from the limits of our tiny town.

but my favorite place in the yard was another tree — a sugar maple —and i most often went there alone. it was my all-season thinking tree — the mossy carpet beneath it in the spring providing a soft perch, the empty branches scraping the sky in winter the perfect pitch. but it was best in the fall.

as cool weather hit, i would watch for the leaves to change, from green to shades of yellow and green to one day suddenly, the whole tree caught fire, in reds and yellow and oranges of a particular beauty. i'd climb the tree then, caught up in that fire myself, listening to the wind whip the leaves and branches into a chatter, all the while knowing that because i lived next door to it, this was not exactly my tree. i was just borrowing it.

it belonged to hanna.

since i am the daughter of a particularly Southern woman, i was raised to call the elders in my life by proper salutations like miss or mrs... hanna, who was 16 years my mother's senior, didn't particularly like to be called "Mizz Kitchin," as my mother required.  that was her mother-in-law, after all. so through the years, she became "big hanna," her daughter "little hanna", though we would never have called the senior hanna that in greeting. she was just hanna, which always felt strange to me, but this is what she preferred.

(i admit to having been a little afraid of hanna as a child, though in her yard, she never gave me cause. not once do i recall her asking me to climb down from the mighty magnolia, or to pay heed to the camellias when i was playing hide and seek, or to take care with the lions or the deer because they were irreplaceable antiques. we played in the playhouse out back — filled with spiders and mice and the most wonderful old china tea sets that she never seemed to worry we would break.)

maybe my fear was that Hanna was a stickler for etiquette, and i was always worried that in her presence i would somehow not know how to do it right. a few times in my life i actually stayed with her in the big house, sleeping in antique twin beds in a room at the top of the stairs that felt much like stepping into a hollywood film set in the 1930s. with  beautiful beds and window seat, this room was not at all like the one i shared with my sister. when i went to bed, i sometimes tiptoed through the other upstairs rooms, imagining what it might be like to actually live there, imagining ghosts behind some of the doors i didn't dare open.

we ate supper at 5 in the afternoon (hanna's husband, buck, was a farmer), and hanna served crab au gratin in large scallop shells with so many pieces of silver on the table i didn't know what fork (or spoon) to use first.

years later, she hosted my bridesmaid's luncheon, the silver so polished and crisp linen so white i worried that i'd spill aspic on it and she'd never forgive me. (never mind that my sister and two sisters-in-law, all nursing newborns at the time, pronounced at one point that it was time for the cows to go home.)

hanna taught me to prepare the altar for communion, something that was center to her own heart. she would later become in the national Altar Guild of the Episcopal Church, which is no surprise to me. After her husband died, she became a leader among women in our small home church, serving as the first woman on the Vestry. again, no surprise.

and though i've never served them this way myself, no doubt if i owned egg cups i could serve the perfect soft boiled egg in one because of her.

she always acted as if she was slightly amused by this spit of a girl who lived next door and flitted from tree to lion to deer to playhouse (though as i recall i always asked for permission), and who was more comfortable outside her house than in. she had slight giggle whenever we talked, as if: I can't believe you don't know this as old as you are. didn't you learn anything from me? and she was likely right.

a few fall seasons after i married, hanna sent me note in her perfect pen, and she included a Polaroid of the maple i loved. "our tree is particularly beautiful this year," she wrote. our tree? until that moment i never imagined hanna might have been watching me out her window as i sat beneath her tree or climbed its branches. it was as if she knew how much it meant to me, and she was pleased to share it. (of course that meant that she had heard me singing from the swing on her porch, giving commands to the lions and deer. oh dear)

one grand lady, to be sure.

over the summer i learned hanna was dying, and a month ago on a short visit home, i peeked in to see her. she had moved from the big house years ago to a smaller one next door, and when i saw her sitting on the edge of her den, though her frame was somewhat diminished, her eyes told me she was still hanna. i reached to hold her hand, to kiss her forehead, and she seemed surprised, and only later i realized that in all the years i had known her, we had never actually touched.

some people are touch-ers, of hands, with hugs and kisses. hanna was not, at least to me, but i knew she cared for me. we both loved the same tree.

on that visit i learned that hanna and my mother had years before stripped the old dining room table so large it felt like it would seat two dozen (maybe it would), and how on those days that my mother sanded and stripped, she and hanna talked. she was sort of like an older sister to my mom, and i knew how much my mom would miss her.

and as the weeks passed i prayed that hanna would live to see our tree one more time.

the maples are turning now. when i drove into my parent's driveway on the day of hanna's funeral two weeks ago — she died a week shy of her 99th birthday — i looked at our tree. green still, but the tiniest tinges of orange forecast the fire that would soon catch.