The Tree That Roots Me To a Time Long Past

Because we had no need then for names, we referred to it only as ''the tree.'' It grew against the cellar house and over the attic where we slept. My sister and I agreed that in wind it uttered the same soft, indiscernible phrases over and over.

That's what's missing now when I go back to that farm in Wyoming where I grew up: the tree, the rising and falling phrases in the night through windows. And the flickerings as sunlight moved through leaves, sending watery ripples onto walls.

When I came home from my first year in college, it was gone along with the other poplar in our yard, the stumps pulled out by my father's sorrel team, the patchings for root damage under way along the foundation. Suddenly, the farm seemed stark against the horizon, the sky barren. At that moment I felt I had moved away from home.

The willows my father transplanted nearby have thrived in ground that's always wet from a water trough just through the pasture fence. These were a low-growing variety for a screen and for early green, but their slender branches could not be stood upon. They offer no place high and hidden like the one we took for granted as a private necessity.

The shock of its absence hit me for years with each return visit, for I'd never imagined that so huge a tree could be removed. My child-mind had known it was more a part of the farm and landscape than were the house or outbuildings, and its absence carried a weight that numbed me.

Children climb for different reasons: to escape, to test ourselves, for fear of standing still. I remember a day I climbed the tree so that, just once, I could hear my mother call and not answer. Her sheets came through the wringer of her outdoor washer at the door of the cellar house, the cold blueing water below me in tubs.

Not daring to move, I watched her dark head move down the rows of clothesline. She gave up calling me and did my job herself, needing the baskets for the next batch.

BUT what I remember most from that afternoon is the smell of pungent bark I peeled from the poplar's twigs, the sheen of odor on my hands for hours - a bitter-green scent still there that night when I curled between bed sheets fresh from my mother's line.

As we grow older, a part of us stays the same, connected to what once kept us feeling natural alongside where we grew. That's part of what memory does for us: It keeps alive the scents and flickerings that have meant something in our lives, until perhaps one day we return and this time find words to uncover what we have had no way of saying before.

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