Under the Shade of the Family Tree

During those three years in our first house, a time when marital strain, illness and death colluded overhead, having the Greens close by became a peculiar comfort.
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On a Saturday afternoon in 1968, a massive dead maple slammed to the ground in New Rochelle, New York, taking a chunk of our living room with it. The tree snatched the corner of our shingled split level and crashed onto the front yard, a velvety green expanse with a grade just right for rolling.

For some time, the tree stood looming on top of the hill next door, on the corner of our neighbor's property. I can remember my father insisting that they take it down. Twigs fell in light wind, cluttering the hand-chalked boxball courts below, tossing worry, like seeds from a spreader. Dad offered to split the cost of removal, but the people would have none of it. Then he threatened to sue, and the man tried to scare us off, saying he was a big-time Manhattan attorney when he was really an accountant in Elmsford.

It was lunchtime when the maple finally did fall, so most everyone was inside. Nobody was hurt, but Grandma Charlotte wasn't quite the same afterwards. I can still see her tearing out the front door, a pale blue cardigan flapping, her hands straight up by her ears.

"I was in the living room!" she yelled. "I was sitting in the living room on the chair by the piano! I could have been killed! Dead!" she squealed to the people who had come out to see. "Dead. Just like that."

Twenty-three years later, and oddly, twenty-three miles away, I found myself living in my own house, my own first house, a set of glass and wood cubes built just about the minute the tree opened Mom's shocking pink carpet to the sky.

Soon after moving in, I met my new neighbors by the curb, where our mailboxes stood in tandem. The woman thought she taught school with someone who had my last name and pretty quickly, she remembered the first.

"Rosalie Green?" my mother asked, when I told her of her former colleague. "I don't remember a Rosalie. There was a Rosalind at one point, but her last name wasn't Gree...Wait! Rosalie Green? Did you say Rosalie Green? Next door to you?"

I couldn't imagine what this woman could have done to warrant such an outburst. "Yes, that's what she said."

"Don't you remember? She's the lady with the TREE! On Rolling Way. Don't you remember?" my mother screeched.

I suppose that if I were a little more jaded, I'd say the coincidence was just a meaningless bit of probability. Two people, somewhere, are going to encounter this sort of repeat habitation; it may as well be us. But I am not that jaded. I think that pitching our tent through the bushes from the tree people happened for a reason, for some spiritual tidying up. Why else would I have wound up mere yards away, in prime striking distance for property squabbles, strewn-about garbage pails and who knows what else, if not to reconcile the tree incident?

The saga of the fallen maple had been put to rest in 1968. The law firm for which our neighbor would like to have worked took action against him for misrepresentation. Dad decided to be merciful and dropped the suit. Mr. Green paid us for our troubles. Still, I was faced with the sight of Rosalie, through the glass wall of her den, performing Jazzercize exercises in front of the TV. This had got to be for something.

Architecturally and temperamentally, the canary colonial up the hill was more my groove. I thrive in environmental order, defined space. I do not want my dishwasher in the same room as my lingerie. Somehow, though, we chose the contemporary as our own and I had to trust the decision. When I discovered Rosalie next door, I knew we had selected well.

Buying your first real house, where dining chairs are for keeps and the kitchen table, well, the kitchen table and all of its symbolism, its purpose, its solidity... buying your first house has more to do with instinct and aspiration and sheer wonder than with crown molding. It is at once an affirmation of who one is and a wild playground for who one is to become. So it made sense, then, that the tree would come along on the adventure, as so much of one's past tends to hitch a ride forward. It was, after all, our big scare as children, one of those seminal experiences that shake you up and spew you head first into something greater. In 1990, as in 1968, the old maple represented a sort of starting up, a reminder as well as a beginning. The house on Rolling Way was the first one, too, for my parents. They filled it with orange couches and sparkly red drum sets as the years pressed on, made sure to finish off the basement for birthdays.

My first house sat primed like that one once did, ready for children to sleep in its barren rooms upstairs, for extra laps to be squeezed in before dinner. For trees and all else to fall on it.

In the few years that we lived in the house, plenty did tumble onto our roof, plenty that we did not see coming, enough to make us pack up and leave, changed, unalterably. During our short stay, neither Rosalie nor I mentioned the tree. I am certain, though, that she knew just who I was. I am certain, now, that she knew at the start. I was the 7-year-old with the persistent father and tenuous grandmother, her version goes, the 7-year-old on whose home the dead tree crashed because her husband was negligent or the son was in trouble or the likelihood of a disaster, small. Infinitesimal.

Twenty-three years later, I became the unwanted memento, the mysterious souvenir that somehow makes it into your suitcase without ever being bought. A voyage backwards to old mistakes, forgotten? Understood? The tree, for Rosalie and for me, was the close call, and the relief that followed. Everybody needs a close call. Rosalie had put the incident behind her before I turned up across her lawn, I think. She would manage its return to her consciousness by complimenting our new paint color, or chatting when our dog-walking overlapped. Tossing our newspaper to the porch in a heavy rain.

During those three years, a time when marital strain, illness and death colluded overhead, having the Greens close by became a peculiar comfort. For me, they were the familiar, the before, the youth that I so loved. And their tree, for so long the symbol of impending catastrophe, of the futility in trying to control events even when you see them hovering above you, transformed into something to embrace. Something more forgiving, as the future we could not see from our front yard plunged down so hard. So relentlessly hard.

We moved out and tried to begin again.

Ten years later, I bought my second "first house" for my daughters and me, a tiny antique tudor with 1930's stained glass and original oak floors, even in the kitchen. On the way to see the home, my realtor listed its benefits, remarking on its superb location a block from the elementary school, renovated guest quarters and hand-glazed living room walls. We pulled up in front and parked.

"Oh," she said, pulling her key from the ignition, "you have the best defense against Texas sun, two incredible live oaks. Not one, but two."

I stood on the path and looked up. Above me, one hundred year old branches stretched to the sky, weaving a canopy of leaves over the entire cottage. On the lawn, an immense trunk sunk its roots deep into the soil, English ivy running up its bark. The second tree floated above the back lawn, tickling its mate at the ridge of the roof. I felt a smile, and followed my daughters up the steps and through the front door.

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