The Secret Tree: A Personal Essay

18 Oct

My grandparents both passed away in the month of September, three years apart. This past September marked the end of the first year without either of them, and it put me in a melancholy and commemorative mood.

For 50 years Granny and Pop lived on a farm in McDonough; my dad and uncle grew up there, and my brother and I were half-raised there ourselves. Although the farm had mostly ceased to operate as such before I was born, there were still cows in the leased-out pasture and a tiny orchard that bore figs, pears, tomatoes, and muscadines. My brother and I loved to run around in the “Field”–a postage stamp-sized piece of fallow crop land–and dance on the “Stage”–a rusting flat-bed. Our favorite place to play was The Secret Tree. It was at the corner of the property in a little stretch of woods by the creek that my dad used to dam in the summer for swimming as a child. Split by lightning, half the tree had crashed completely to the ground, but by some miracle of nature it continued to grow and bloom, year after year.

But the years wore differently on the human inhabitants of the land. Granny and Pop became overwhelmed by the upkeep of the place. When I was in college they sold it to a nearby church to turn it into a youth recreation center and lived the rest of their days in Peachtree City.

I didn’t go to the dedication of the farm to the church, even when Pop asked me especially. I had a rehearsal for something, but more than that, I was sore and sad about the demise of the farm that held so many childhood memories. I didn’t want to bear witness.

“I made them promise,” Pop said, when he was telling me about the sale. “I said: now, I’ll give you this land on one condition. Don’t you cut down The Secret Tree. That’s where Pop’s punkin and pal play.” My throat tightened. What did The Secret Tree matter when the farm was lost to us? I thought.

Not going to the dedication is one of my only real regrets in life. I have a picture in my wallet of my grandparents taken on that day in front of their soon-to-be demolished house, beaming ear to ear in the sunshine.  Pop proudly threw the first pitch on the baseball field. Whatever I may have felt, they were obviously happy.

I didn’t meet my husband until long after the move to Peachtree City, and I always lamented that he had never had a chance to see the farm.  I didn’t even know the last time I’d been there–like so many lasts, I hadn’t known it to recognize it. I’d also never revisited my grandparents’ graves, which were nearby. This, at least, didn’t have to become a regret: McDonough is less than an hour away. I could show my husband and son the land that had once been the farm, reminisce a bit, and put flowers on the tombstones.

So on a Saturday afternoon, we loaded up the diaper bag and made the trip south. The ride was pleasant enough, but soon we realized we didn’t know exactly how to get there. I had no idea what it looked like now, if the address was still the same, if you could drive straight to it. Eventually we found the church itself, and the massive spread of fields rolling away from it. Not knowing in exactly which direction the old farm-land lay, we parked and started walking, relying on impressions stamped in my memory rather than any true sense of direction.

We walked on, dowsing rod-like, past a playground and several ball fields. It was extremely hot, as September often is here, and the red clay dust lay all around. Bugs found us. P and T didn’t complain, but I knew this was hardly impressive. What’s more, it didn’t feel right. I hadn’t been here in a long time, but nothing was the same. Could it really have changed so much that I didn’t even recognize it? Most of the land was designated for parking. I thought of the Field, of a family of rabbits I’d once seen there. They’d let me creep close enough to see the trembling of their whiskers. I felt in my heart they hadn’t kept their promise to save the Secret Tree.

At the edge of the parking fields was a stand of scrubby pine, and around the base of it, leading left, a sort of dirt path that had been hidden by a crest of land. The very hot and tired P and T waited while I ran round the curve to see if anything was on the other side.  The path bent out of sight of my family and fell into shade. All was still and quiet as I stepped out of the green, leafy tunnel and stopped short.

Directly in front of me was the Field. The orchard was gone, but the land stood as it always had. Beyond it was the avenue! Not much more than a driveway in reality, the tree lined,  pine straw-covered dirt track led from the road to the house. How I loved driving down the avenue as a child, watching my reflection fly through the trees in the window of my mom’s little white Honda, anticipating my grandparent’s bear hugs and another fun visit. To the right I saw the barn where the tractor was kept, and directly beyond, the carport and the house, looking as if they had been plucked straight from my head. They hadn’t torn it down. It was all here! Just the way it had always been!

I felt unsteady, like time was folding in on itself, or perhaps stopping entirely. But then I saw my husband, following the sound of my voice round the bend, and my little boy, who had only just begun to walk, toddling toward me from through the pines. I scooped him up and breathed in his baby smell, a lump in my throat thinking that my Pop, so central in my own young life, wasn’t here to see this, that he would never know my son, that T would never know this place as I had known it, that my own father who had once held me like this was now this child’s Pop, at the sheer and dizzying magnitude of the march of time.

The place was deserted, so we took our time exploring. I was sorry to find that the house was locked, but through the window I could see it was being used as a bread kitchen–a long table set up in front of the stone fireplace, the orange shag carpet with the burn spots replaced by tile. Granny and Pop would have loved the sign affixed to the barn-style door: Pray for those who enter this place.

The barbed wire fence enclosing the pasture was gone, as was a dilapidated barn, but I was happy to see the horse arena restored to its former glory as a pair of little league-sized baseball diamonds. The arena was abandoned in my time–Granny had warned us to stay away due to snakes. But she’d told us of the many years she’d spent there with the 4-H Club, when my dad was my age and a champion horseback rider. The concession stand was set up as it must have been then; I imagined a young and beautiful Granny–perhaps the age I am now!–behind the counter setting out hot dogs and sodas for the boys.

P and T were taking it all in. They followed me, and I followed my feet, which seemed to remember better than my brain the way to the Secret Tree. I was no longer afraid it would be gone. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was both smaller and bigger than I remembered, the branches still lush in the Indian Summer, the gaping wound in its trunk yawning at us sleepily in the afternoon light. I held T up to the tree and he slowly reached out his little hand, ran it along the rough bark. I expected to feel time stand still for a moment, but instead I was overwhelmed with a feeling that it was flowing fast–past me and over me and around me like a stream, never the same and impossible to hold. Things would keep changing. I’ll never see my grandparents again in this life. The farm will never be our home again, even though I know I can visit it now whenever I choose. My baby will grow into a man, and one day have his own little boy who he might bring here, to a home that will be ancestral by then. The Secret Tree, unchanged save by the seasons, bears witness to it all.


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