Like the Who's down in Whoville, my extended family stood in a circle holding hands. As the family reunion host, my father booked the church basement and planned a special surprise for his five brothers. To honour their parents' community work, he arranged with the city to plant a memorial tree in the tiny park across from the family home.
Planning the memorial, we had discussed an appropriate tree. My mother admired the variegated leaves of a harlequin maple. My father savoured childhood memories of swinging from the elegant branches of a willow.
As my father made the announcement, nods of agreement and murmurs of approval whirled about the room. Amidst the buzz of excitement our grinch of a great-aunt burst into the centre of the circle, screeching, "A tree? What good's a tree?"
Jaws dropped. Sentences remained unfinished. We stared in shock, unable to protest, as the tiny 85-year-old cursed the city, its tree and nature itself.
Turning to confront the entire clan, she flicked arthritic fingers at the ground. "They drop their leaves. They sit in the dirt," she spat. "Birds poop on them. A tree? That's insulting."
She spun on her heels, stomped across the room and planted her bony bottom on the wooden chair. With arms clasped tightly to her chest, she scowled through grey eyebrows, challenging anyone to support my father.
"When Marge goes," my sister's boyfriend whispered out the side of his mouth. "I suggest we plant a crab tree in her honour."
"Or a hawthorn," my cousin suggested, leaning close to join the conspiracy.
As aunts and cousins tried to calm the irate matriarch, uncles skulked to the sidelines. As Marge gestured frantically at the ground, I saw the leaves she detested and my mind drifted back to the tree-filled days of my tenth summer. A cherry tree grew outside our kitchen door, dropping petals onto the drive, which we inevitable tracked into the kitchen. Now long dead, it once filled my childhood with fruit and fantasy.
A third of the way up its trunk, one limb stretched horizontally, and then lurched into the air as if it had changed its mind mid-growth. When the leaves fell, it looked like a cyclist signalling a right -hand turn.
Ten-years-old and full of "Anne of Green Gables" whimsy, I transformed the tree into a reading nook. Book in hand I raced through the kitchen and out the door. My mother followed me as the screen door slammed behind me.
I tucked the book under my arm and struggled to climb the tree. My mother stood in the kitchen door, arms crossed, head to one side and watched.
After a few unprofitable leaps, I shoved the book in my waistband and jumped as high as I could. I grabbed the bicycle signal limb and hung, face to trunk, toes swaying inches from the grass. Feet pressed firmly against the bark, I walked up the trunk like an awkward monkey. With ankles and wrists wrapped around the branch, I drooped like a human "U". Inching myself up, with a twist of the hips and a grunt, I flopped my belly on the branch. I lay there, clinging and panting, my cheek pressed against the rough bark.
"What are you doing?" my mother asked from the kitchen door. Her words drifted through the blossoms. I lifted my head, but could see only from her feet to the bottom of her apron.
"Reading a book," I said.
"No," I explained as I pushed myself up. "I want to read in the blossoms." The book dug into my stomach as I sat up.
Straddling the branch, I cautiously turned to face the trunk and leaned back, wedging my spine against the curve that reached for the sky. I pulled the book from my jeans and thumbed for my page.
"Is that okay?" I asked, afraid she was going to order me down to read on the patio or in my room.
There was another pause. "That's fine, dear," she said. "If you fall out and break your leg, I'll call an ambulance."
The door clicked behind her.
I settled back, breathed in the blossoms and opened my book. For several minutes I soaked up the sound of the breeze in the leaves. I memorized delicate white petals blushing into pink. Ants crawled about, a bee whizzed by. It was as if Monet had painted that tree and placed me in it. "Girl with Book in Tree" he would have called it. Every petal, every leaf, the perfectly curved limb. And a mother who let me be.
For one summer, I retreated to the tree on sunny afternoons. Petals fell, leaves sprouted, cherries ripened. Pages turned, memories formed.
"What good's a tree?" Marge's cries of disgust shot across the room like a dart and jolted me into the present.
My mother rushed to explain the beautiful symbolism behind the offer. "Now Marge, trees represent growth, the cycle of life." But Marge's mind was as clenched as her teeth and my mother's kind words slipped off her like rain.
I smiled at her protestation. Yes. Trees drop their leaves, they sit in the dirt and birds poop on them. But sometimes, if you let them, they hug you.
Bio: Charmian Christie is a freelance writer and editor. She uses quirky
family members and strange travel events as fodder for creative nonfiction.
She recently completed "Seven Hours to Lisbon", a one-acct play retelling
her hitch hike through Portugal. She hopes to branch into fiction, but is
afraid her imagination won't be as fertile as her own life. She can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org