Dad was not one to blow up but it drove him crazy and I knew it but I did it anyway, took the pickup to the Smoky Hill (so-called) River and dug up a tree and brought it home and planted it in the yard. I did this once a summer, sometimes twice. He had a right to be angry. It was his yard, and I was visiting. But I was steadfast, a.k.a., stubborn, and had Mom, more or less, on my side. She saw the benefit of having a shade tree or two around the house, periodically exclaiming how hot that house got in the summer on the west side.
If he had blown up, would it have stopped me? I doubt it. Each effort, wrenching the unfortunate victim from its birthplace, schlepping the skinny thing over the pastures to the pickup and thence to this yard on the edge of town, its roots decimated, in the fat hot heat of summer, and then getting it to grow, despite blizzard and drought and gale, engaged a deep need. When I got back to the city I dreamed about those trees.
One thing I had in my favor; I came home every summer to help him with the wheat harvest. He didn’t say much about it but I know he appreciated that, though I was probably the least likely of his four sons to do this, the least mechanical, the least at home on the High Plains. Or so I used to think, even when I acknowledged the fact that each spring I looked forward to going back. I loved it as much as I hated it, probably a good definition of home. Or at least I hated what it was becoming; the rivers sucked dry by irrigation, the towns sucked dry by Walmart.
Once, in lieu of asking his permission, I asked instead, “What do you have against trees?”
“They block the view,” he said.
The view! The view was of pale green pastures and two houses and a dozen forlorn elms on a big platter of horizon. And yes, six miles away the grain elevators of Quinter. And on days of weird inversions, even the grain elevators of Park, fourteen miles away. I didn’t ask again. Maybe Mom said it for him, Who’s going to take care of the trees when you’re back in San Francisco? But I had already thought of that. I had given each of trees a straw collar at least six feet in diameter and six inches deep. The collar had three indispensable virtues: it kept the weeds down, helped conserve moisture, and allowed plenty of space for him to zip around on his Grasshopper mowing.
And he spent many hours each summer mowing after he retired from farming. Though there was no harvest to bring in, I still returned, but earlier, May instead of late June, when one could sustain the illusion that this climate was livable. Each time I arrived, turning the corner toward the house I would hold my breath, to see which of the trees had made it another year. Every year it was every tree, alive, flourishing.
No tractor to drive, no wheat to combine, we would work in his shop together making wooden objects, vases, end tables, chests. I would help with the mowing, running the push mower while he wheeled around on his big toy. I trimmed the trees high so he could get under the branches without ducking. Those last summers came and went without me going to the river for another tree. It wasn’t that the yard couldn’t use them—I pictured one here, one there, constantly—it was that I lost the need to do so, perhaps because the spindly saplings were turning into honest to god trees. The one out the back door was even high enough to cast some shade on the house by mid-afternoon so that when you came out of the house instead of getting instantly broiled you could choose a gentle poaching. And that was the tree, one of the first I planted, that had its crown broken off in a storm and was cut to the ground. Those tall and graceful branches were suckers, basically.
I loved that tree. I loved them all.
Each summer I did more work on the yard. I climbed on the roof and pruned the trees away from the house (two beautiful ashes, trees that were skybound already when I was a boy). I cleaned the gutters, weeded and mulched the flowerbeds. Mom said, “Ilona said we have the nicest yard in Collyer.” And they did, though the competition was not fierce. I was careful to make changes that entailed minimal maintenance. Who’s going to take care of it when you’re gone? still hung in the air, though it probably didn’t matter one way or another with Mom. She would have found work wherever she looked.
One summer Dad cleaned out the well where the old house once stood and hooked up an electric pump. He was spending more time in the garden, more time watering. He watered my trees. I saw him doing it and I didn’t say anything. I almost felt like apologizing, saying, you don’t have to do that. We had made peace.
They were getting old, he and Mom.
They had to move. He had fallen asleep at the wheel driving down the interstate and ended in the median strip. “Don’t tell the kids,” he had implored Mom when the highway patrol had escorted him home. The morning after the sale, hours before we turned over the empty house to the new owners and drove away, I watered the trees.
“Take me back to Collyer,” he told my sister last week, the last day he was conscious for more than moments. He breathes as I write. Soon he will get his wish.
I won’t drive the quarter mile from the cemetery to see what’s become of the house and the trees. Some things are not bearable.