Was there a tree that scared the crap out of you as a child? You know, an old decaying stump, a gnarly skeleton of scabby branches, or a lone tree in a field that just felt like a beacon for lightning? Trees should be the opposite of creepy: they are life-giving, even in death, but thanks to childhood talltales and movies like "Poltergeist", singular, abandoned trees often got a bad rap. I still can't even think about those spiteful, grabby apple trees from "The Wizard of Oz!" I had a tree. It was a bad one. It took me 40 years, but I finally faced it nose-to-trunk.
My great-grandmother lived in a swampy, sleepy town called Belhaven, NC. If you read my essays and posts you probably know a bit about this Faulknerian whistle-stop. When storms blew in from the Atlantic Ocean, across the whitecaps of the Pamlico Sound, and into the Great Dismal Swamp, it was a scary place for a four-year-old to be! Especially at night, in her old clapboard apartment house (now a bulldozed waterfront lot).
The swampside storms were just so much more fierce than the ones I was used to in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Maybe it's because everything was old (the walls, the creaky floors) and it made everything louder. Maybe it's because I was with an 85-year-old woman who had to mete out her patience to attend to my constant bellowing about the rain and thunder. Maybe it's because, in the sleeping room, whenever the lightning flashed, I would see two things strobe against the wall: a framed, black-and-white photo of my granddaddy, who died long before I came along, and the terrifying Fu Manchu-like fingerhooks of THAT TREE NEXT TO THE HOUSE. With every breeze, every lightning flash, the tree would lunge at the old, wobbly glass window, do a death dance of spiny reflections against the wall, and recoil into darkness while I waited for the next flash. Momma would come in and close the gauzy cotton curtains. I would quiet. But then the lightning would flash again, and the curtain merely made the tree shadow look fatter and stronger!
I recently went back to visit Belhaven and stayed at the B&B right next door to the old lot. My bedroom window happens to look out on this very tree. A stormy day was predicted and I felt embarrassingly nervous about facing a night with this tree right outside, even though I'm 42 and God knows how old the tree itself now is. There is was, right there in front of me. The stuff of the darker side of my memory palace. A few limbs have been sawed off but it still has foliage, still is at least as tall as the house.
As charcoal grey clouds began to overtake the white ones and turned the Sound from blue to brown, I had to deal with what was coming. I had to reframe the fear as I've learned to do in times of anxiety. Was the tree an inanimate object? Well I think that's a bit harsh and not really true. Was it trying to get in and hug me? I think not, and maybe that's just as scary to think about! Well it needs a name then. The tree's leaves began to curl back in anticipation of the storm and lashing out at me and the old window pane. I had to name the damn tree HERMAN and then I just laughed at myself.
I went out and stood right in front of HERMAN. Looked straight up. And realized HERMAN was still trying to get my attention. It got to live in a beautiful world I actually never got to know. A "Giving Tree" of sorts. He shaded my great-grandmother's wooden porch on 100-degree days, presided over who knows how many conversations, my mother's first teenage cigarette smoke, a fair amount of porchside tears, and hugs and greetings from the long-lost and beloved. The tree survived scores of hurricanes and floods, and probably always had wet roots since it seeded, yet never failed to grow larger or withstand the torrents.
HERMAN got my attention, as a child and an adult, and that's a gift in my book. A tree that wanted to be remembered, and wanted me to remember things and people. Now I know why MeeMaw didn't just cut that sonofabitch down! It had a job and a life, just like us.