Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Boat and the Weeping Willow

The weeping willow is my favorite tree. I have good reason for that.

I put flame to candle just now. As I watched the wick burn, I saw it, four of us in a small boat gliding on a pond in late spring. The willow was just ahead, branches dripping into the water at one end.

We all needed refuge. T., J. and their little brother lived in a lovely new house that shuddered with the fighting and rage inside. And in my home, for years the alternating chill and warmth felt like menace because it was unpredictable.

The woods behind my house offered easy solace. But escape was not so simple at T.'s. We had to stay inside most of the time, for one reason or another. Still, the girls were allowed weekend guests sometimes.

T.'s beautiful mother was always glad to see us. Her father was courteous until my parents left, then his cold silences returned and he disappeared into his bedroom or den. He worked odd hours at the airport nearby, so when he left, we took off as fast as we could, out the side door, through the garage, out. Into freedom.

Somehow, I can smell water. So it didn't take long to sniff out the pond. They had no idea it was there. They had moved to a new house in a development built on cleared farmland and had not ventured far from home.

We found the pond one beautiful day in late spring.

I remember the light. It scattered diamonds on the water's surface as we jostled and pushed each other while running over the grassy hill that had concealed the pond from the road. It was even more beautiful than the two ponds in the woods behind my house. Because bushes, wildflowers and grasses surrounded nearly every inch of water. And a huge weeping willow dripped branches into the water on the far end.

I fell in love that day. With a setting. And it had only just begun.

I saw it first. Something was underneath the shadowy surface at the shallow end. A piece of wood, an old box, maybe. I felt it with my hands, then started pulling. I yelled for help. We pulled and pushed and I am sure began to scream when I realized what we had.

A boat! A boat!

It was small, a little rowboat that someone had used once to float on that pond. We dragged it to the banks. And to our astonishment, it seemed largely intact, with a hole at one end. Then we found an oar, I don't remember where. But it was intact too.

The next thing I remember is getting buckets. We must have gone back to the house, a sneak mission. Because we were bailing water out of the boat. And then I found a long branch suitable for steering. Then I launched, testing whether the craft was seaworthy.

It started sinking. But I was living an old dream long lodged in my young heart and I was not giving up. I had a boat!!!

So T., who was sweet and girly, my opposite and my best friend, was assigned to bail along with my little sister/loyal assistant. They were the easy ones. T.'s younger sister J. was wild and prone to sass just like me, so I'm sure she argued for the pole position. But I had found the boat, I reasoned, and therefore was in charge. I also was the oldest, by one month, and certainly the bossiest. So she rowed.

We were wet and muddy by then and should have been freezing cold. But we had fallen into the arms of a bliss that transcends physical discomfort, then shelters in the heart for a lifetime. So we held onto the boat sides and pushed into the water and jumped in -- launched!

I know we were loud and raucous as we figured out how to stay afloat on that pond. But we managed. Eventually, we were balancing the boat with our weight to keep the hole out of the water, or mostly, so the bailers could take a break.

At first, I took us around the shallow edges of the pond to make sure we could stay afloat. My sister and I swam like fish, thanks to Mother for introducing us early to the lively waters of rivers and creeks. Then finally to my father's method of taking us into the middle of Flint River and releasing us, standing just short of our flailing arms, forcing us to "stop fooling around and swim." And we did!

Once established, we found a rhythm. We moved around the edges, through the middle, around again and then through the willow branches. That was the part I liked best. I will never forget those moments.

We fell silent as we approached the weeping willow, moving from clear bright spring sunlight into a deep green curtain that I pushed aside first with the pole, then my hands and arms. Suddenly inside the veil, the air was cooler and so still and quiet that we did not speak. If someone whispered, another shushed. Something ancient and mysterious was at work within the shadows of that tree. We did not understand it, but we clearly fell under the spell.

It calmed us. We spent hours at that pond, quietly rowing, then sitting, drifting, letting the wind gently blow the small boat through the water. Four little girls, two rarely quiet, sat in silence, suspended in time and space until the twilight began to steal through the cracks in the trees bracing the sky.

But then T.'s mother found us. And we were banned from the pond.

We slipped back once or twice and the boat was gone. I'm sure T.'s father removed it. T.'s mother was upset with herself for letting us be gone for so long. She was terrified from then on, worried we would go back and drown in that pond. I protested that little sister/loyal assistant and I would never drown.

But her children never learned to swim like that. Or roam. Or discover what the world held for them. Held tightly, encapsulated in a prism of fury not of their own making, they each in their own way stand apart in some way even today.

Which is why, not that long ago, I made T. come with me one day when I was visiting home. Ignoring her questions, I walked her through my sister's field to the pond and made her climb into the little flat boat. And I pushed us into the water despite the mosquitoes and the little snakes she kept looking for warily. And I paddled us into the middle of the water.

And we laughed about the old pond and the sunken boat and the willow tree. At a distance, I could see my little sister/loyal assistant, now all grown up, watching me as she has done her entire life. And then T. and I sat in silence, letting the twilight flow over the huge oaks onto our skin and into our lungs like a sweet cool wind.

And just under the orange sun dipping low, I swore I could see it. The weeping willow tree. It's still there. It is always still there.


  1. This is a lovely piece, Glimmer with just enough menace in the opening lines to keep me fearful that one or other of you might have come to grief. I'm relieved that none of you did.

    You convey a child's love of the natural world, of friendship and adventure beautifully. Thanks.

  2. Your stories remind me of my childhood and all of the magic which we captured as we roamed the woods and dirt roads and sat on docks over the river, just us kids, allowed to be children.
    I wonder if children ever get these sorts of experiences any more. It makes me sad to think that so many definitely do not.

  3. Lovely. You are one of my favorite writers, Glimmer.

    Sending love, SB.

  4. To be a child in a carefree world...to be a child with adventure, bugs, snakes, water, dirt...yes to live. To want to find those places from childhood and relive those memories....yes...

  5. Nice story about the old boat and the pond and the willow tree. We had a lovely willow tree on the home place in Virginia. Unfortunately, after many years, it died. I still find these trees so graceful.

  6. Thank you, Jo! I love that you came back.

    Elisabeth: Thank goodness nothing bad happened. My parents were quite wary of people, but felt we were safe out in nature.

    Which brings me to Ms. Moon's comment. In the zeal to protect children, they've been cut off from the magic of nature. I took my son to Alabama for long weeks every summer to try to make up for that (my sister's pond, which I mentioned). And stayed where we are because for years it was like a neighborhood in the '50s.

    I'm not the only one who has done that kind of thing. Little Guitar has a country place, Richard Beene takes his daughters to Savannah from CA (and I wish would send me with them) and my friend K. moved heaven and earth to keep her house on the lake. Yes we wanted for ourselves but it was crucial that our children have it.

    So, yes they do get them. Not in the quantities we had them. But they do get them. And I'm going to write about that too.

    Ellen: It helps me get through it, the deepest part of winter. I have always had a rough time with the cold. And if I can remember, if I can BE there for a little while, it helps. It really helps.

    Syd: Some people don't like the "trash" they drop. But they can drop all they want, I would be happy to clean up after them. I think weeping willows are hypnotic. Of all trees, they are the most alive, to me. Full of secrets.

  7. SB: You are one of my favorite writers too. I'd like to put you in an envelope and address you to a few people, in fact. Sign my own name. Express mail! Much love back, my friend.

  8. This is lovely and so evocative! I can see you, commandeering the boat, with the others bailing water out with buckets. Too fun.

  9. How lucky was I to grow up with a father who held the reins gently, letting me explore river and field and forest. My mother called him irresponsible but blessed be, I was not her favorite child. This story makes my breath catch in my throat because I was there. I was muddy and suntanned with dozens of bug bites on my bare arms and legs. Today, just for a minute, I was a child in summer and my dad was still alive. Thank you.

  10. Such a beautiful story. Weeping willows are my favorite as well. My neighbor had one when we were growing up and we'd sneak over to sit under it to hide from the rest of the world :) xo

  11. TKW: I was a bossy thing! Which continued into high school, when one of my nicknames was Lucy, for the Peanuts cartoon character.

    Spellbound: Your comment brings to mind the whole morphic resonance theory, which I am fascinated with. Because it is about things I have known or suspected but haven't been able to explain. And now I have found someone who is explaining them. And I'm still trying to wrap my brain around it! So thank you for saying that!

    Thank you, Shannon. They are the most hide-y tree in the world, as well as being the most beautiful.