The white oak that stands at the end of our road has a soul like mine. Momma says it’s blasphemy to say such things. I don’t think Momma’s ever seen the tree — not really.
We walk under its sprawling branches burdened with snow all winter long on our way to the market. And in the heat of a summer’s day we rest in its shade before continuing home with our bundles. But that’s all the tree is to her — a moment of relief from a tiresome day. I believe that the tree sees through me.
When I was eight I walked home from Mildred Spooner’s birthday party after she doused a glass of fancy red punch on the dress Momma had made for me. I thought I’d burst from holding in the tears. When I got to the tree I felt my heart turn inside out, leaned my forehead against her bark and let my teardrops water her roots.
The day Danny Kebold tried to steal a kiss as he walked me home from school, the leaves on my tree were the same fiery red as my face, and I wasn’t ashamed at all to dance under her branches.
When Pa got sick, Momma became bitter with the work of caring for him. I stayed longer at the tree each night before walking the final mile home. One night I hung from the y-shaped branch by my knees and heard the shudder of thunder in the distance. I brought my feet down and curled my toes around a heavy root, watching for flashes in the sky. My toes touched something cool beneath the dirt and I hoped to find a smooth stone or a lost coin, but instead I uncovered a rusted clasp. Crouching down, I dug my fingertips into the soil, scooping the dirt aside until I uncovered a tiny, tattered purse. I opened the clasp and touched each coin as I counted one, two, three, four, five. The sky turned an eerie, rose-dyed blue and a chill ran across my skin. This wasn’t like finding a lost coin spilled from someone’s pocket. I’d uncovered a secret and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. The wind picked up and I watched the tree’s branches shake and sway. I’d always been good at keeping secrets. I dug the hole deeper, placed the purse back in the earth and covered it up good, packing the dirt with my heels.
Every once in a while I’d dig the purse up, and I wasn’t the only one. The second time I unearthed it and counted the coins it held seven. Then ten. One time I waited a whole month before checking and when I dug it up it bulged with twelve heavy coins.
Some days Danny found me at the tree hanging from my knees or whistling a tune we’d sung in church on Sunday. He’d sit next to me and hold my hand and he’d always try to steal a kiss before he left. I thought about telling him the secret, but it felt more exciting to keep it to myself. Instead, I tapped my foot over the patch of earth that I knew held the purse — someone’s secret, someone’s treasure, someone’s dream.
“I’m tired of you coming home filthy from playing at that tree,” Momma said one evening, and it became my own personal forbidden tree like in the Garden of Eden. But Momma didn’t understand that it was my tree of life, too. It seemed to hold my world together.
Things went on like that for a long while: Momma forbidding me to do things and me not understanding how I could live in the world without them. First it was the tree, then it was Danny. When I saw my tree for the first time in autumn, having lost all of her leaves, I knew how she felt.
One cold day before winter set in, I came home after school but Momma wasn’t there. I searched the house and the yard, looked at Pa with that empty look on his face and wished he could speak. Finally, I laid the supper dishes out on the table and headed back down the road. I’d just spend a few minutes under the familiar wide branches before continuing on to meet her at the market to help her home with the dinner packages. The sun dipped behind the trees before I began worrying. I went on to the market, but by then a feeling inside told me that she wasn’t there. I ran back to my tree and pushed away the dry leaves by the heavy root where the purse had laid for months. The earth was turned up, the purse was gone, and so was Momma.
I couldn’t help but feel betrayed, not only by Momma, but also by my tree, who’d been a silent witness to the secret my mother and I had unknowingly shared. Still, I go there now to run my fingertips over the heart that Danny carved into its bark with our initials. I go to smell the damp earth after it’s rained. My tree reminds me to keep my roots anchored in the ground and my head lifted to the sky, and each time before I leave I tap my foot over that patch of earth that held my mother’s dream.
Ruth Schiffmann shares the trials and triumphs of freelance writing with her husband and their two daughters. More than eighty of her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in publications both in print and online. After homeschooling her daughters K-12 (and loving it) she is now enjoying living a writing life, following her heart, and discovering where it will lead her. To read more of her work, visit www.RuthSchiffmann.com.