Friday, August 12, 2011

The Odyssey of a Small Thing

Once upon a lifetime ago, Rob was a little boy. When he was in either 3rd or 4th grade as an Arbor Day project, he was provided with an evergreen tree to plant in our yard. At that time, we lived in a small ranch house on Third Street. Our yard was not very big. As luck would have it, neither was Rob's tree. I still remember him going out into the storage shed in the back yard and extricating from it a shovel with which to dig the hole needed to marry his tree to our terra firma. Margaret is nothing if not practical. After looking at the size of the tree and weighing it against the size of the shovel, she determined that a much smaller tool was the correct one for the job. Whether it was a teaspoon or something a bit bigger I cannot recall. All I can say with certainty is that my wife intereceded in order to keep a certain sledgehammer from being used to swat a certain mosquito.

On that day lo those many years ago, the little stick with growth upon it that Rob named "Sparky" did something remarkable. It lived. And then, shepherded by my son from stickhood to actual "treeness" it did something truly astounding. It grew. We lived in that little ranch house on Third Street until the summer that Rob graduated from 8th grade. A couple of Chistmases before we moved, Sparky had grown sturdy enough that he could support his own string of Christmas lights. We had a small string of Coca-Cola Polar Bear lights with which we adorned him. That first Christmas he was decorated it was not quite a scene plucked from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" but it was pretty damn close indeed. Sparky being Sparky he bent but did not break.

Sparky was family by the time we sold our little ranch house on Third Street in the Spring of 2000. So much so that the contract for sale of the house specifically identified him as an item that would accompany us on our long journey all the way to the other side of town. Leave it to a lawyer to negotiate for something miles ahead of his ability to actually pull it off. I had no idea how we were going to transplant a tree that was by that time roughly five years old without killing it.

If there is a theme that is consistent in my life it is that most of the things in it that work do so in spite of me. Sparky's successful transplant from Point A to Point B is yet another such example. On the morning that we moved, prior to helping us move our furniture and our boxes and such to our new home, Ronnie (a great little dude from Honduras or El Salvador who worked for my brother-in-law Frank), came to our soon-to-be former home on Third Street to measure Sparky. He told us he needed to know how big he was so he knew how big a hole to dig for him at his new home. He then proceeded to go to our soon-to-be new home and dig said hole. Rob worked right alongside him. Then, after he helped us get moved in to the new digs everything that needed to be moved, Ronnie returned to Third Street and with the deft touch of a Harvard-trained surgeon removed Sparky from the soil there, transported him over to Delaware Avenue and inserted him into his new home.

I went to sleep that first night - and many nights thereafter eleven summers ago - expecting to look out on my front lawn and see a dead Sparky. Woe me of little faith. Ronnie's transplant was a raging success. Sparky flourished in his new home. Only a few short years after we moved in, he had outgrown my ability to adorn him properly with Christmas lights. He was simply too tall for me to reach his upper branches even when standing on my toes atop our tallest ladder. He was a simply beautiful tree.

Silly me. I never took a photo of him when he was all dressed up for Christmas. But last April (2010) when Margaret and I were cleaning up the front yard a bit in preparation for Spring, I snapped a photo of my favorite wife and my favorite tree:

There were times when I thought - foolishly as it turns out - that Sparky was indestructible. I arrived home from work Monday night to confront face-to-face the folly of my position. For years Sparky had provided a home to countless birds and squirrels. Apparently either over the winter or perhaps the early part of this Spring, one of them repaid his generosity by giving him the gift of disease. The grand old man was attacked from the inside out, ravaged with an illness that attacked him with a vigor and a venom that was almost cancerous. He died right before our eyes. Monday, my landscaping guru (who had zero responsibility for Sparky's care and upkeep by the way) Frankie came over to do what had to be done. He took Sparky down.

I surveyed the remains of our once-great tree as I wandered around our front lawn for a while Monday evening. Frankie does murderously efficient work. There was hardly anything left of Sparky at all, save for the stump that Margaret asked him to leave, a couple of thin branches and a single pine cone:

Being the utter cornball I am, I of course swooped up the pine cone and brought it inside to show Margaret. If not "Proof of Life" then at least proof of a life lived. And being the utter cornball she is, she did what I presumed she would: she placed Sparky's pine cone in a Ziploc bag, which she then identified for posterity's sake.

Once upon a lifetime ago we envisioned our home on Delaware Avenue as a place where grandchildren would come visit and where we two would grow old together. While the dream lives, we have concluded that it shall bear fruit in another zip code. This house shall not be the one in which we grow old together but rather one in which we lived a portion of the journey, before moving on to the next stop. The best-laid plans. Indeed.

I will not even bother consoling myself in the thought that Sparky likely could not have made yet another move (not to mention the fact that Ronnie has not been heard from in these parts in years and the tree was too damn big for me to mess with alone) so that his unexpected and sudden death is for the best. Nope. Rather, I will take comfort in the fact that Sparky, mmuch like us humans with whom he shared two homes, grew up a hell of a lot in fifteen years. The journey he made from where we first picked up his narrative on Third Street to where he lived out his life - while not a long one geographically - was metaphorically a cross-country trek. When Rob was but a little boy and needed a little bit of a boost and a little help ensuring that he grew up sturdy and strong, he found it in the form of his Arbor Day giveaway. Something from a childhood lived a long, long time ago.

And it was for that reason that we mourned Sparky's passing on Monday night - and likely shall for some time to come. He was a link to something that is long gone. Nostalgia after all is about real things gone.

Maybe not long gone. Maybe not in its entirety anyway. We still have that damned pine cone. Maybe the Missus and I will grab a tablespoon, dig us a hole and see what happens.


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