29 November 2010

The Tree at the Center of the World

The countryside is a particular shade of gray-brown outside of the towns, everything the luster of a dirty hen's egg laid bare in the wan November sunlight.  It is a color that has no name, I think, or at least not one you would care to remember.  Because who would want to remember something that reminds them of ghosts and distant love?

The trees all start to look the same, except the pines (of which there are more than a few) and the occasional leafy holdout showing off in a  last gasp of red or gold glory.  Even those few specimens look downcast, like a king who just lost the war, taking off his crown to hand over to the victor.  The only thing missing is a cast of crows alighting in the barren fields.  The few birds to be seen usually manifested as seagulls and waterfowl down by the many rivers crossed on this journey.  Every rule has an exception it seems, and this day was no different.  Somewhere close to the halfway point a quartet of turkey vultures was observed sitting on the ridge line of a small outbuilding on a farm that was passed.  Fitting for the time and mood, they had their backs to the sun and wings outspread, like exotic flowers soaking up the heat on a cold fall day, their feathers the petals.

The radio kept to a murmur, because the flower of my heart was napping in the backseat.  There are only so many farms she can see, barns and twisted oaks before the novelty (for her) wears off.  I didn't mind so much.  She needed the rest and I needed the quiet.  This drive through the eastern Virginia tidewater flatlands, from my boyhood home back to the place where my adult self keeps a bed, it lends itself to reflection and rumination.  There is a general lack of elevation, a scattering of 'artifacts' of civilization (silos, houses, tractors, signs) in combination with a sparseness of actual humans in the landscape.  I am attracted to this terrain, yet unsettled by it.  I want to live in this place, but fear I'd be more alone than I feel now.

So how far away is far enough?  How close is close enough?  These thoughts loop over and over as cruise control takes me closer to where I'll sleep tonight.  Almost all of the family that gave me life is slipping further and further behind.  I am a lighthouse keeper on a far, frozen rock and I'm watching the supply ship sail away into the mist.  I wave until my arms ache, the ship dissolving into the gray rim of the horizon, and I can only hope things will last, that the ship will come back.

It is no ship I'm on, only the 12-year old fading gray seat from which I captain the nondescript vehicle that is my car.  The wheel is worn under my hands, as is the shift lever, but they feel good.  Solid, in their own way.  The analogy I can think of is like well-made tools used for decades by the same craftsman, or perhaps a well-worn saddle perfectly broken in.  I do not kid myself that this car is a miracle of modern engineering, like some Swiss watch on wheels.  It does make me a tad melancholy to think that soon I may have to replace it.  It has indeed served me well, but the pasture beckons, as it were.

If only I had the stable in which to keep it.

Lunchtime approaches, as does the small town which is home to where I will eat, as is my new tradition.  The daughter isn't so thrilled, claiming she doesn't like their food, but my craving for a fried oyster sandwich will not be denied.  We always stop here on our way back.  The restaurant proclaims it is a family "tradition since 1938" and that simple phrase sends a pang through my heart, as we sit and scan the menu.  I look around at the old wood paneling, the heavy brown wood tables, the lines on the faces of some of the patrons.  A few look as if they have been coming here since 1938, but today I don't see that as the punchline to a joke.  I see it as a lifeline.  A thread.  A root connecting people to their past, through the soil of the present.  I am envious.

There is no drama to our order, the fried oysters a fait accompli for me, and Her Majesty confessed that she might eat a turkey sandwich, should one be brought before her.  And so it was.  I devoured mine with gusto, she had to be alternately plied with humor and threatened with loss of wishing well privileges in order to secure passage of a few nubbins of turkey down her gullet.

The wishing well is in the back, a treat for the kids, where they use a small "fishing pole" to snag any one of a number of plastic fish from the bottom.  They can then redeem the "catch" at the register for a trinket selected from a case at the front.  Her choice today was a plastic link bracelet, multi-hued and adorned with a green frog motif cast into the surface of each link.  Quite fetching, she thought, and just the sort of thing that her mommy would like. I smiled as she tried it on, and we turned to go.

It was then the insight flashed on me.  Watching my daughter skip-hop-march to the car,  I felt my earlier envy fade.  I have my lifeline, my thread: she is right there in front of me.  As she laughs in the November sunlight, I feel my roots spread out a little further, a little deeper.  Home may not be so far away as I think.


  1. Dude.


    I just sat with my fingers on the keyboard for five minutes, unable to move.

  2. Home is wherever she is. Beautiful stuff Gumbo.

  3. I tried to post this last week from my phone, but no go. But I wanted to be sure you knew that I really appreciated this post, and especially the first paragraph, which was one of the best I've read. ANYWHERE. Good on ya.


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...