[The tree in the center of this picture (taken in 2009) is a fast-growing softwood that Dad transplanted there about sixteen years ago. It stands about ten feet north (left) of where the ash tree described in this post stood. The breezeway, white trim, and circle drive were not present in 1994 when this part of the epilogue takes place.]
The old ash tree stood about ten steps from the front porch. It was one of the many large hardwoods Dad did not remove when he cleared the site for the house. Two men reaching around the trunk could barely touch fingertips. The first branches were nearly twenty feet above the ground, and they were as big as trees themselves. It was not the biggest tree Dad had ever felled; that may have been the rope-swing oak he'd taken down ten years before
. After standing where its acorn took root for well over a hundred years, the oak had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and got struck by lightning; this ash had stood nearly as long but was also in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mom wanted a circle driveway to come up to the front porch, and the ash was right in the way.
It had been nineteen years since we moved from Roseville to the unfinished house, and after all those years, the back door of the walk-out basement was still the way we entered and left home. When company came, they parked out back or along the trail to the barn, and entered at the basement. When company left, Mom would gently remind Dad of her wish for a circle driveway to the front porch: "Don, it would be nice if people didn't have to walk through the laundry room, past the fruit cellar, and up the stairs to my kitchen just to sit and visit in the living room."
(The truth is, I've talked to friends and family about this, and in all those years of coming home for visits through the back door, it never struck us as odd. It was a habit, and even years after the circle drive was done, we often came in through the basement door.)
It was a hot day in late June without the slightest breeze. Too hot for this kind of work, but the lack of wind made it a good day for taking down a tree so near the house. Dad pulled the start-rope of his biggest chainsaw and notched the ash in the direction he wanted it to fall (in this case, toward the north across the driveway and away from the house).
The notch was cut well past the half-way point of the trunk (as seen in this picture of a different tree). With the butt of an ax, he knocked out the heavy wedge of damp wood and marveled, as he always did at this point in the process, that a hundred feet of tree-weight could still balance on what little was left to hold it until his coup de grâce,
the final gnawing back-cut that loosened the hinge of wood.
When a tree that big is cut this way, it's as if the outstretched limbs above resent the cruel betrayal, and for a split second the branches somehow cling to the air in vain resistance until the wedge cut, like a gaping mouth, begins to groan, and the trunk's defiance gives way to the sounds of rending wood. The limbs reach out to break the fall, but the ground shakes when the tons of trunk hit flush against the earth, and the tree lies waiting facedown in the dirt like Goliath. And just as David's swordwork followed the sling
, the idling saw revs up again to clear the limbs and branches from the thing now lying where its shadow was.
Mom, Kathy and Jack were with Dad, and they urged him to take a break. Kathy later told me his face was ashen. She’d seen him work hard in sweat-soaked shirts many times before, but never had he looked like this in the face. He’d stop to gulp down a glass of water from Mom, but it seemed not to quench his thirst. He was edgy and irritable and did not seem to appreciate the spectators kibitzing him as he did a job he was perfectly capable of doing alone. After he bucked the limbs, he stood drenched atop the main log. Mom handed him another glass of water which he gulped down never lowering the glass.
"Don, you need to take a break."
"I'm fine," he said without smiling, "but I could use another glass of water."
Mom stepped up the porch and into the house to refill the glass once more.
“You look awful, Daddy,” Kathy said.
“Well, thanks a lot.” Dad sighed.
“I don’t mean it in a bad way,” she added.
"She means 'awful' in the good way," Jack joked.
“I mean your face looks gray," Kathy clarified. "Are you alright?"
Dad stepped away without speaking. He took the measuring tape from his belt and gauged the gap between the house and the garage. He knew this measurement by heart, but measured it again to be sure, walked back to the log, hooked the tape on the end, stretched it one foot longer than the gap, and marked the log with an ax.
“This is the log I’m going to make into beams for the breezeway,” he said with satisfaction. Mom stepped behind him with his third glass of water, and Dad sat down on the conquered trunk of the tree. "Thank you, Mother." (He often called his wife "Mother" if we kids were present.)
"Don, can't we just build the breezeway like most people do? Do we have to use logs?"
"We're not using logs. I'm going to make two beams out of this one big log. They won't even show."
"Like you did the beams for the front porch?" Mom asked.
"No those were made of telephone poles. I just had to square them with an ax and draw-knife. I should be able to rip this log with a chain saw."
"How long will that take?" she sighed
"Bev, how am I supposed to know how long it will take?"
"I just worry that's all, Don. You're retired. You're sixty-five. Let's just buy two beams like anybody else would and then you won't be worn out before you even start."
"Sure, we could do that. If that's what I wanted to do. But I don't. I want to make the beams."
“I think what she means, Daddy, is that we feel bad seeing you working so hard like this," Kathy said with concern, "If they aren't going to show. Is there an easier way?"
"There's an easier way to do almost everything, Kathy. Show me one thing around here we did the easy way. Why buy beams when we've got the wood right here?" He patted the log. "Believe it or not, I still enjoy doing this stuff."
"It just sounds like a lot of hard work, Dad," Jack said.
"And in this heat, Daddy, it isn't good to be working so hard. You really do look pale."
"I told you to take a break, Don,” Mom said, taking back the empty glass.
“What do you call what I'm doing?” he said, mopping his brow with the front of his shirt. Typically, a smile or tired laugh would have followed such a remark, but when the shirt showed his face, it was preoccupied with thoughts that had little time for this conversation. He slapped his hands to his knees, stood up, started the chain saw, and began slicing through the girth of the log.
I was not there when the ash tree came down, but I heard about it and the conversation many times in the days to follow.
While all the above took place, my family and I were driving home to Michigan from Iowa where Julie and I had been teaching for over ten years. We would eventually live in Iowa for eighteen years; it's where our three daughters were born, but in all those years, we still caught ourselves saying we were "going home" whenever we headed back to Michigan. (We also said we were "going home" when we went to Kansas to stay with Julie's folks.) For decades, this was our idea of "vacation," beaching and boating with the family and all the cousins as had become our summer custom. Days spent there at the house or up in Port Huron swimming at the end of Holland Avenue or in the river under the bridge were a glorious change from the miles of endless cornfields in the Hawkeye State.
The end of our ten-hour trip was always the same: Our girls would see the world's largest tire
(80 feet high) on I-94 and know we were less than an hour away. A while later, our little dog would begin getting antsy as we slowed to take the 23 Mile Road exit. He somehow sensed the long road trip was almost over. We drove the three miles east past all the many businesses and developments that had sprung up since we bought the property. We turned right onto Sass Road, passed Kathy's house, turned left at Mom and Dad's mailbox, and idled down the winding cement-slap driveway.
It was that way every time, but this time I noticed the sunshine where the ash tree used to stand; I noticed the huge log Dad had drug with the tractor to the trail that lead to the sledding hill. [A log, I might add, that is still in that very spot nearly sixteen years later. It has lost its bark and is soft and damp with time, but it still rests where it was dragged that day the ash came down.]
I have wrestled with this part of the epilogue for many weeks. There are two longer drafts of it in which I detail the actual chain of events between the felling of the ash tree in late June and the first day of April, nine months later. The task of writing about those events, however, seems beyond my skills at this time. Besides, I have explained that the purpose of this epilogue is merely to explain how the house was finally finished. So here I'll simply say that two days after the ash came down, Dad was taking down some smaller trees and got that ashen look again. He was sure it was just a bug. It was, in fact, his heart.
On the evening of June 28, Kathy, Jack, Julie, and I went out to eat for our anniversary (which we share). Shortly after finishing our meal, we received a message that Dad had been taken to the ER. We joined him and Mom at St. Joseph's in Mt. Clemens within thirty minutes.
The attending physician told us in private that he wished Dad had come in the first time he had the symptoms. True, they caught this before it took him; true, they were hopeful about his recovery; but irreparable damage to the heart was done. He was transferred to St. John's in Detroit for angioplasty and he returned home the next afternoon. Things seemed fine. Dad's biggest complaint was a strange tightening of his chest whenever he tried to swim in the cold waters of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River. Those waters in Port Huron never really warm up much, and he had always enjoyed the refreshing jolt they brought on a hot day, but the jolt was now more painful than refreshing. He still came with us to the beach, but he merely stood in the damp, stony sand where the waves break. As he watched us swimming without going in himself, his eyes and smile seemed as if he were looking at a picture of a long-lost childhood friend.
Then in December, while shoveling snow, he had another mild attack, followed by another angioplasty. It was a week before Christmas Break, but I was allowed to come home early. We stayed for nearly three weeks. Jim and his wife were living in Arizona at the time, but everyone made it home that year.
A few days after Christmas, we all went to see Gillian Armstrong's "Little Women
," the beautiful 1994 remake of the classic. I did not know it at the time, but it would become a film my own daughters would fulfill in many ways in the decades to follow (right down to the playful hours in the attic). In the theater that day, Mom and Dad and their kids and grandkids took up two long rows. There was a bright, snowy scene that reminded me of us skating on the creek. The reflection of the front wall lit the room, and I studied the faces of loved ones around me, eyes fixed on a flickering screen of family joys from 130 years before. I remember looking at my mother when Jo, the writer, was sad to see her older sister fall in love. Jo says to Marmee: "Why must we marry at all? Why can’t things just stay as they are.” It sounded like something I would have said to Mom in those years when our own dominoes began to fall
. That particular film, in those particular circumstances, triggered something just behind my eyes. Perhaps I sensed it, though it would have been unbearable to know, but that was the last time we would be together like that as an extended family.
The next morning, Dave left for Pennsylvania, and the day after, we left for Iowa. Mom always made a big todo of our good-byes in the driveway. We'd hug every few steps it seemed, but Dad was a one-hug kind of guy. I remember standing in the opening of the driver's side door, when he said good-bye. I remember him adding an extra squeeze...I remember thinking that I could not say the thought that occurred to me at the time...I could only squeeze back a little harder, a little longer...and then let go.
On Saturday, April 1, 1995, I received the call at about 11:00 PM. Mom and Dad had gone to a dinner and dance put on by the local VFW. They had just finished their last dance when it happened.
I remember the details of the funeral days. I've hinted at them elsewhere. I've mentioned in a poem to Jim
a pair of black shoelaces that he bought me that day when he noticed mine had broken. There are hints of these days throughout my writing
, but here I'll only mention something I've never shared before. The evening of the viewing, I met a bunch of the young men who worked with Dad at EDS. I bumped into one of them at the sink in the men's room.
"You're Don's son, aren't you?" the suited man said.
"Yes, I'm Tom."
"I met you a few years back when you visited the site."
"I thought you looked familiar, but couldn't place you. I met a lot of people that day, and there was a lot to take in. I'd never been in such a secure setting."
"You get used to it. You kind of stood out that day because you were with Don. We hadn't seen that happen before. Are you the one from Iowa."
"I'm from here, but yes, we've been in Iowa for a long time. In fact, I think the reason Dad had me shadow him that day was he wanted me to quit teaching and move back here. He didn't come out and say that, but like you said, you'd never seen a father bring his son to EDS before, so..."
The man's face dropped in disbelief. "No. That can't be right. He loved that you were a teacher. He talked about you all the time. Your brother is a teacher and your sister is a teacher. The other one works at Ford and the youngest works at GD. Right?"
"Your dad talked about you guys all the time. He goes out to visit you in Iowa every spring, right. You teach English and direct the school plays, right? Believe me, he didn't want you to stop being a teacher."
"I never thought that, but that day at lunch, he told me he could get me in."
"Oh, he could have spoken the word, and you would have been hired. But believe me, he loved that you were a teacher. Makes sense to me because he was a teacher, too."
I looked puzzled at him in the mirror. "Dad a teacher?"
"Sure that's what he did with us every day. We'd all earned degrees, but to be honest, we needed a teacher when we were doing those installations. That's where your dad came in. He was a great teacher. That's why I say there's no way he wanted you to change jobs. He probably just missed you since you were out in Iowa and wanted to make sure you were happy doing what you do."
The young man smiled and stepped out the door as if he had not just told me something I would never forget. That day of all days, I needed to hear from a stranger something about my dad and my life that I had not doubted but had also never quite heard aloud. I stayed there at the sink and threw some water on my face. It was an old trick I saw my mother do whenever she'd been crying and had to put on a happy face before re-entering a room.
The day after the funeral, we had a family meeting. We all learned for the first time that Dad had left Mom well-situated. Not rich by any means but comfortable. It was those last five years at EDS that made it possible. He had given her his blessing to proceed with the house-projects left undone that he had hoped to do himself: to have the breezeway built by a contractor; to have the trim of the house changed from black to white with all the "ginger bread" as Mom called the fancy trim she added; to have the hewn telephone-pole porch columns replaced with nice white ones; to have the circle drive put in. She also replaced the Ben Franklin stove in the living room with a fireplace with a huge oak mantle. They had had differing opinions on these details for many years, and he wanted her to know she was free to change things as she wished, and to Mom’s credit, she did. (Many years later came the new kitchen and bay window.) All these changes were now very possible without affecting her budget; and with Kathy's help, they were accomplished in the months to follow.
As you can imagine, it was a bitter-sweet thing through the years to park at the front porch and step into the front door; or sit on the front porch swing; or spend evenings in the breezeway, which had a fireplace, TV, carpet, sofa, and plenty of room for the grandkids to sit and watch a movie with Grandma. It was the perfect transition room from the garage to the kitchen. But more than that, it was a gathering place. It's where Mom put up her Christmas tree for a decade or so. The living room remained a quiet place to sit and reminisce
, but the breezeway became the "lived in" room and Mom's favorite place in the house for many years.
Some closing thoughts about this "Unsettled" writing project will be posted next weekend.