The tree’s branches reach out to every corner of the front yard. My dad planted it in 1973 after another tree was taken down to save the sprinkler system, an event I remember as overwhelmingly sad. My father must have too, because he planted the new one right away, in a slightly different spot, and has taken great pleasure in watching it grow and thrive over these many years.
My father has always been a person with a great capacity for stillness. He could sit for hours outside in the evening enjoying the cigars he now tells medical professionals he never smoked and watch the sky change from the purple and orange of a Texas sunset to a deep blue star-filled delight. I once took a cruise with my parents to Alaska during which I found my father sitting on deck as the cruise ship lumbered through the inside passage. He was wrapped in a plaid blanket wearing his characteristic hat, watching the glaciers, some calving, some imperceptibly shifting. After a time sitting in silence together, he said to me, “Everything changes. It is the way the world is made.”
Indeed. In two days this house will cease to be a secure base to which I have returned like a migrating bird for so many years. My feelings are bitter and sweet, self-indulgent and generous. Bitter because I know my father hoped he could die in this house and now he will not. Self-indulgent as I relive every path not taken, regret words unspoken, and words that were too sharp. Sweet because through the packing and sifting of the cards my mother saved, my father’s memorabilia, the photograph piles that climb like ivy – I am left with gratitude, not because everything was perfect, it was not. My good hearted, but anxious and perfectionistic mother stressed us all out trying to meet her unattainable standards. For many years there were creepy neighbors, now long gone, that attempted creepy things that I escaped but did not know enough to call out. As an only child, I longed for brothers and sisters. God knows I long for them now. But in the Christmas letters and recipes, the report cards and the invitations, there is evidence of an engaged, hopeful, good life, with deep roots and branches that will forever provide shelter whether I return to this house or not.
My dad and I took a drive tonight, his first since he left the hospital and made the move to his new living situation. When I asked where he wanted to go, he said, “by our house.” It broke my heart but I did it. We sat in the driveway and we talked about the tree he planted so long ago. Eventually, I turned to him and said, “I guess we have to say goodbye to this house.” “Yes” he said. “It’s time to say goodbye.”
The house needs another family. The backyard needs another tree house, another garden filled with tomatoes, radishes, eggplants, and green beans. Children need to speed out the driveway on their bikes in the warm San Antonio breeze to discover how the connecting neighborhood streets lead them to Baskin Robbins with nary a busy street crossing. Those kids need to meet their best friends on the elementary school swings to dissect every seventh grade romance. The special meatballs need to be in the chafing dish for the holiday party, the card tables set up for Bridge, or maybe Mah Jongg, or Lotteria. Another set of parents must plan the Halloween extravaganza in the garage, surprise a delighted sixteen year old with a car in the driveway, and welcome children and their friends home from college with a New Year’s Eve spaghetti dinner before the night’s festivities begin.
A new family will change this house completely, maybe even tear it down and start from scratch. I don’t begrudge them that. But, I hope they see that beautiful live oak tree and allow it to speak to something deep inside them. Something that says, let your roots grow deep; make your house a shelter to all who come through the door; sing and make music in that house; grow a garden that you water with laughter and tears, accomplishments, milestones, joys, and sorrows. Have some fun in that house. Do some good for others in that house. At the end, your branches will stretch, nurturing you and those you love even as you say goodbye. If that new family listens, maybe they’ll say, “ We’re going to knock out this, tear down that, re-landscape this part, and put something completely different back here. But that tree? We’ll work around that one.”