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My Oak Tree
An oak tree grows slowly, rising gradually to a height of perhaps eighty feet, its stem ever so gradually swelling from a slender, flexible wand with smooth skin to a massive truck armored with thick, rough bark.
My father retired from the military and came home. For about half my life he had been aboard a ship for eleven months out of the year, but then he was home all the time. He had chosen this place to settle after World War II: the Great Lakes, with its forests and many opportunities for hunting and fishing. And now he was home to enjoy it all the time. Six months later he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
For the next twelve years he was in and out of the hospital, undergoing the beginnings of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, like a guinea pig for the doctors back in the sixties. They did not seem to know what they were doing. He lost his senses of taste and smell, his teeth, his hair, and at last, his strength and his voice. Only when his throat was swollen shut and he was forced to breathe through a tracheotomy tube did he quit smoking.
He smoked Velvet pipe tobacco hand rolled into Zig Zag papers. He was an expert. When I was a teenager all my friends admired his ability.
He got a job driving a school bus for kids with developmental disabilities. We didn't have a lot of money. It was 1963 and we were driving a 1951 Plymouth. The driver's side door was a little stubborn and made a barking noise when it was opened. One day he was picking us up from school. He reached for the door handle to get into the car, gave it a yank as was necessary to get the thing open, and the handle came off in his hand.
Beneath its massive parent, nestled in the moist spring earth, I found an acorn split by its own root. Fascinated by this new life, I brought it home. I was six or seven. My dad said if we planted it, it would become a great tree. I looked up at him and smiled.
He planted the acorn in soil from our garden in a Velvet tobacco can and set the can on the window sill beside his patriarchal throne in the living room. Through the summer it grew to be about four inches tall. As I played with my little sister on the living room floor, sometimes I would glance up at it as Dad sat in his chair, wreathed in bluish smoke. Once a day he would lift me up so that I could water our tree.
Planting the Tree
Beside our house was an old foundation where another house had once stood. Dad had turned it into a kind of rock garden, framed by roses, lilacs, day lillies and a mountain ash tree. We planted my oak tree in a place where it would have some room to grow, away from the other trees. It seemed so small. Just a twig with a couple of leaves. In the fall, when the leaves fell off, it looked like a little dead twig, and I feared it would never come back to life, that the shock of transplantation had been too much for it.
But in the spring it sprouted new leaves and new growth. Soon it had four leaves and stood six inches tall. I was proud, and I was careful when I played, that I should not trample it. Years went by, and it only grew and inch or so each year. I thought I would be an old man before it began to look like a real tree.
A Tree Grows
At school, I found things difficult. I was different in a place intolerant of difference. I was in many fights because I was quick to resort to my fists, taking insults seriously instead of laughing them off. As a result I became a means for others to vent their frustration, an easy target.
About when I did, the oak tree had a couple of growth spurts, shooting up a foot or more each year.
I turned to music to soothe myself and was in some way successful. Music gave me the sense of worth I lacked with my peers, and it gave me an avenue of escape. I would take up music in college. College became the light at the end of my tunnel and I put all my energies toward getting there.
Dad and I locked horns on more than one occasion and about more then one issue. In many ways he was bigoted and closed-minded, and in 1968 I was inclined to be more liberal. He would have much preferred me to pursue an engineering scholarship from General Motors, but I wanted to play music. It was all I wanted to do.
The oak tree had grown taller than me by then, and its branches spread, and it cast its bit of shade upon the grass like a grown tree. Its trunk was almost too thick for me to get my hand around it.
Along the way, puberty struck me like a plank up alongside the head. I was a mess. I am lucky I lived through it. I noticed that along about that time my oak tree flowered and produced its first acorn.
As Dad's condition worsened, things got tougher around my house. For a while he was a violent disciplinarian, but his strength failed him and he had to relinquish that role and allow us to find our own success or ruination. He took up permanent residence on the fold out couch in the living room, his sick bed, where he could see the TV. He was fed through a latex tube in his belly and he breathed through a stainless steel tube. Mom prepared his liquid food and cared for him around the clock.
Shortly I graduated from high school and went off to college two hundred miles south in Eau Claire. At the end of my freshman year, Dad died. I had seen him once during the year. He had given me his bridge coat. I took a hat insignia from one of his uniforms to remember him by.
That was my last summer at home. I worked for my friend's dad, who was a carpenter. We built a house. Summers after that I stayed down in Eau Claire and got jobs there. After my third year in school I dropped out and moved to Boston. I had planned to go to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but those plans fell through. Instead I did various day jobs and played music around the city.
After a few years I went home to visit my mom. She had mentioned that my brother-in-law had built her a garage where the old foundation used to be next to our house. When I arrived, I saw that the garage was a lot bigger than I imagined it would be. I said hello to Mom, put down my bag and went out the back door to see the back of the garage where my oak tree had been. Mom followed.
"We tried to save it," said Mom, waiting for my reaction.
I smiled. "With winters like you have up here, you need a garage," I said. And I gave her a hug.
She pointed out the other oak trees that Dad and I had planted, but of course it wasn't the same as that first one. But perhaps when I am gone, someone will read this and imagine our oak tree. And then it will live in their minds as it did in mine, all my life.