The Simple Son
And what does the simple son say? ”What does all this mean?”
—The Passover Haggadah
I am with Grandma in her front yard. Starnes Road, outside Ellettsville, Indiana, the driveway sloping down to the road a hundred yards ahead.
It’s a downy September day, just cool enough for jeans and a plaid flannel shirt knotted at the waist. Grandma invited me to walk with her to the barn to feed her horses, so she’s wearing her duct-taped rubber galoshes that come up to her knees. Her scoliosis has folded her backbone and shrunk her about a foot over the last couple decades, so her head is level with my armpit. Before we turn to walk around the back of the house, I ask her what kinds of trees line the driveway.
Three days ago, I realized how little I knew about trees when I googled cedar trees, curious what they looked like. I imagined hardwoods that turned red or yellow or orange in the fall. I discovered they are evergreens.
Grandma stands with her back to the driveway and says, “Most of them are maple, I think.”
“What kind are the rest?”
“Well, do you want to walk down and see?”
So I follow Grandma down the drive, stop at each tree to touch green leaves and rough bark. I begin to associate shapes of leaves—tear-drop and star-shaped and oval and Canada-flag—with names that have, until now, floated nebulously in my brain: silver maple, sugar maple, red maple, northern spy apple, sweet gum, white pine, oak, European beech, dogwood, mulberry, cedar.
Grandma points to the long brown pods that hang on the mimosa tree near the garage. The bark on the river birch is not white like I assume birches to be, but gray and rough like shale. The bark of the sycamore tree is paint-by-number peach and gray and pink. We stop under the black walnut tree, its green fruit heavy. “They’ll probably start to fall in the next couple weeks,” Grandma says. She will pile them under the wheels of her pickup to let the tires knead the flesh off the knobby shells.
“This is a sassafras tree. I don’t know if you’ve heard of sassafras tea, but people make it from the roots.” She breaks off a twig to prove her point, and I can smell licorice from three feet away.
She pulls a branch from the red pine tree down to her height to count the needles in each twine collar. “That’s the difference between red and white pines, how many needles are bundled together.”
She tells me the story behind each tree: The sycamore was there when the family moved to the house back when my father was five. The golden delicious apple tree is missing a limb because she and Aunt Ann accidentally chopped a dead black locust tree onto it. The northern spy has only yielded a few good apples the last few years because the spring weather has not been conducive to her de-worming spray. She planted a white pine she got for Arbor Day in the sinkhole near the road because she didn’t know where else to put it, and somehow, it’s still alive. The persimmon tree in the back yard suffered a fatal gash when she backed into it with the lawn mower, but a shoot grew out of the stump and the tree is now healthy and bending at the ends with fruit. Grandma now pays someone to mow the lawn.
Today, I ask for a catalog of the trees in Grandma’s front yard and instead hear a history of broken branches and headless trees and wars against worms. What does all this mean?
That Grandma’s sanctuary is the row of trees throwing light like stained glass windows down the driveway, is the row of pear tomatoes and green bell peppers lined in her sunny garden like pews, is the cornucopia of daylilies and dianthus and impatiens huddled in the shade next to the house like Jews around a Torah.
That soon, we will go feed the horses and return to the house to pour the grape juice for Kiddush tonight, but now we pause to touch the bark of trees older than me and wipe the dirt on our jeans.
That Grandma’s back mounds where her spine thrust her muscle leftward, but she still stands straight.
Rachel Belth is a technical communicator, creative nonfiction writer, and poet with a particular affinity for foreign words and Dostoevsky. She is excited about her impending graduation from Cedarville University, when she will receive a Bachelor of Arts in Technical and Professional Communication. She writes by turns from Cedarville, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Indiana.