In the Northeast, every city, every town, every blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village has at least one, a grove of trees that will never know the cut of a saw. Syracuse has an extra-wide median full of them, shading the Thruway from one end of the city to the other. Rochester has verdant blocks interspersed with new construction in areas that used to be full of abandoned factories and crack houses.
In Brockport, the grove stands in and around the cemetery, so that the gravestones snuggle up next to the trees. It makes a sort of sense, I suppose, but sometimes it confuses the girls.
We go there, to Brockport’s grove, every Sunday from first thaw until mid-autumn, my daughters and I. I try to make it a fun thing, a family bonding, though I know as they get older, they won’t want to bond, will want less and less to do with their old man. We take a picnic, trying to avoid the mourners, not wanting to diminish their grief, park at the bottom and walk up the long stone-paved path to the top of the hill.
Zel waits for us up there, where the sun shines first in the morning, where the dirt is good and rich, where the big old oak tree shelters her from the bulk of the wind. She’s always waiting, of course, has been for the last five years. She will be as long as I can take the girls up that hill, and for a long time after that, long after the girls are dead, or have joined her there, in the grove.
Today is special. It’s a Sunday, much like any other Sunday, but today the girls and I have decided it’s time for Zel to meet Thea.
It’s legal, of course. Even the Church sanctions it, after a certain appropriate time of solemnities. Zel may have moved on, but the girls still need a mother around, and I, after these long years, find the bed is too empty at night, the breakfast table too quiet in the morning. No-one will fault me for it, not my first wife, not the good people of the town, not the law. Still, it seems awkward and uncomfortable to be walking with Thea up this hill, and I can’t bring myself to hold her hand.
She understands. It was a month ago – on a Saturday – that we walked down the Syracuse median together, her and I and her son Jacob, and talked to Jeremy. I pass, I’ve been told, at least conditionally, but she didn’t hold my hand then, either.
As I said, Zel is planted just leeward of an ancient oak, so old his name has been forgotten by time. The girls always hug him when we visit, and today is no different. He waves to them, and a gentle breeze through his branches, whispering “hello, children.”
“Hello, Old Man Oak,” they say politely, but today they’re too excited about other things to play with him for long. He understands, I think, although it has been a very long time since he was young.
We step around him, and, as every time we do this, my breath catches. It’s not quite a sob; I have shed my tears for her long since, and what’s left can’t really even be called regret. But sometimes I forget, and I expect, because I know it’s her, to see my wife standing there, the lovely woman with the hair just starting to grey and the eyes that always seemed to know more than she told. And… that Zel is long gone.
The maple tree that stands there in the lee of Old Man Oak is, I notice again, growing bigger every year while never outpacing our daughters’ ability to reach all the way around her. That will change at some point, I’m sure, but by that point, the need to hug their mother will, I hope, be less pressing.
Her presence is with us almost immediately, a breeze that isn’t there brushing a hello through her leaves. It hurts, and is beautiful enough to make me sing for it, how much more alive she sounds now. When she chose to put down roots, the cancer and the treatments for it had sapped most of her energy. Now, she is healthy, strong, and beautiful. Now, nature willing, she will outlive the girls and me both, growing old and woody with the Old Man and the others here.
A branch brushes my cheek, and I can tell she’s looking over Thea. “A grove-widow,” the wind sighs. It shows, somehow. “Good, Josh.” A whirlybird, a little two-winged maple seed, lands in my new love’s outstretched hands.
“Take care of my family,” the wind whispers. Now, I do cry, though I try not to let the girls see it. I know what this blessing means. Zel has always been very talkative, very aware for a grove-tree. But we all knew it couldn’t last forever.
Thea cradles the little seed like the infant child it is. “I will,” she promises. There are tears in her eyes, too: she understands.
“Thank you.” A warm wind embraces us, and we lean against her trunk. This isn’t mourning: Zel lives, and will live on. But, even with Thea’s arm around me, even with my cheek against Zel’s bark, I find I still miss her embrace. And Thea understands that, too. There are worse things to build a second marriage on, I think, than an understanding of the cracks the grove trees leaves in one’s heart.
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