Lucky: A Tree Tale

A Facebook friend recently posted that two of her favorite trees are dying and must be taken down. She was genuinely sad about it. I could relate.

I have a love/hate relationship with our trees. My husband and I live in a 1940s bungalow in a neighborhood where ancient hardwoods tower over the houses. When it doesn’t rain for weeks and weeks—like late-summer this year and now on into the fall—we worry about their shallow roots drying out and letting go. When it does rain, we worry about their shallow roots getting saturated and letting go. When it storms, we worry about wind and lightning.

And yet, we love our trees. We love the canopy of shade. We love it when they bud out in the spring, yellow against the sky. We love them in the fall when they turn. We wouldn’t trade our trees for the world, even though they can be scary and dangerous.


When Katrina roared through Jackson, Mississippi, still packing 75-85 mile-per-hour winds, we “lost” a tree. The big oak on the north side of the house had a forked trunk; at the base, the trunk must have been seven feet in diameter, but maybe fifteen feet above the ground, the trunk split in two. One part leaned south, toward our house; the other, north, toward the neighbor’s.

At the height of the storm, the “south” trunk snapped first and came down on our den, knocking a huge hole in the roof. My husband went out, determined to place a tarp over the hole, but the ladder shook (I was holding it; could I have stopped it from falling? I doubt it!) and the tarp kept blowing off. We gave up and retreated inside. We started moving things out of the den as the rain flooded in. While my husband carried out books, I unloaded china, including my mother’s, from the antique pie safe, the one with its original pierced tin doors. I don’t know why I stopped, but I left the room—maybe to check on my twenty-year-old cat, who I thought was dying—and while I was gone, the other trunk, the one that should have fallen on the neighbor’s house, not ours, came down on top of the first, splintering the rafters and filling the room with massive, broken tree. The pie safe was still standing in the corner of the room, but a big limb had stripped the opened tin doors right off. Later, in the debris, we found the tin panels crumpled like newspaper.

I’d just been standing there, right there, in that spot. Minutes before, my husband had been in the middle of that room. We held on to each other.

We couldn’t stay in the house; it was too dangerous. There was the poor cat, though, my beautiful calico, Portia, the last of four generations dating back to when my sons were young. I couldn’t leave her in the house, but our car was inside the garage, blocked by the tree. I called our vet’s emergency number, and she told me to bring the cat to her. She had a generator, she was taking in animals, and she wasn’t going anywhere, she said. So I asked our neighbor (looking back, I can’t believe I did) to drive me to the vet clinic, just a few blocks away. God bless her; she did. We drove through wind and flying debris and heavy rain, and I left my sweet cat in the arms of the vet.

We spent the night at the neighbors’ house. Sitting in their candlelit den, I couldn’t stop looking out the window. The storm had weakened, and the sky was strangely light. I could see the trees whipping in the wind. My husband and I couldn’t sleep, and finally, about five in the morning, he was able to get a call through to our insurance company—a crucial step, since the lines had been jammed earlier and most likely would be later, too.

In the light of day

We went out early the next morning and surveyed the damage. Devastating; we’d lost a major portion of our house, but we were lucky.

We were lucky to get a “tree man” that same day to start removing the massive tangle of broken tree. We were lucky to find a young architect who was also a builder/contractor to take on our rebuilding. Nearly nine months later, we had a brand-new 400-square-foot space in our house that is much nicer than it was before. Compared to the folks on the Gulf Coast, we were lucky, indeed. We had our house back. We were alive.

Portia — photo by Clay Jones

The cat, my sweet Portia, died, by the way. The vet called me the morning after the storm. “You’d better come,” she said, “if you want to see her again.” And so another neighbor drove me back to the clinic where I sat and held Portia, already cool and nearly lifeless, while she slipped away.

The neighbor drove me home, and I got on with the business of cleaning up.

Ten years ago, all that

And still, every time it storms, which it does here in the deep South, my husband and I get nervous. Huge limbs of a neighbor’s oak tree overhang our bedroom; through the skylights, we can see the trees dashed about by wind. There’s no safe place in our house, really. Oh, maybe an interior closet in case of a tornado, but I have a feeling not even that closet is safe from a hundred-year-old tree that decides to let go of its hold on the earth.

Every region has its bad weather. I’ve lived in places where it snows from October to April. Not for me. I think I’d rather hedge my bets against our majestic trees, especially this time of year when they start to turn, when the autumn sunlight has that shimmering quality and the sky is so intensely blue it looks like the filtered effect in a photograph.

Yes, I think I’ll stay. Trees and all.

Where you live, is there an element of nature that you both love and fear?

History: a photo essay plus a few thoughts

Back in the summer, #3 son, his three older children (seventeen, fifteen, and eleven), and I “toured” my home town. His youngest, only six, stayed home; she’ll have to get the genealogy tour later, when she’s ready. Son wanted the grandchildren to learn about where I—and by extension, they—came from.

I worried that in Pontotoc, Mississippi, a town nestled in the red clay hills near Oxford (the home of Ole Miss), there’s not much to see: the square, now virtually stripped of the old trees I remember, with its Confederate monument. The store my dad once owned, now an antique shop. A museum housed in the post office, itself an historical building. The house where I grew up, and the one where my parents lived later.

It turned out to be a drizzling, sticky day, and I must admit when we left the hotel in Oxford that morning, I didn’t have high hopes. I anticipated bored kids and a general disappointment with grandmother’s roots.

I was wrong.

As we drove through town, I pointed out landmarks: the square, the courthouse (hard to miss), my dad’s store, the store on the corner that had once been my uncle’s grocery, the flaking ghost of an old painted grocery ad still evident on the side of the building.

After the post office museum where we spent maybe half an hour and the women volunteers told the kids stories and connected with me—”Now, you’re so-and-so’s daughter?”—we stopped by the Presbyterian church I grew up in. I had emailed the church ahead of time and learned that its doors are never locked; we were welcome to drop by any time.  No one was there, but we walked right in.

I had not been inside that church since my grandmother’s funeral in 1994. Indeed, my last three visits there had been for funerals, so maybe that gloom had affected my memories of the place.

This time, I was stunned by how beautiful and meticulously maintained the church is: the polished dark woodwork. The breathtaking stained glass windows. At the back of the sanctuary, the tall folding doors with the same stained glass that, during my childhood, partitioned it off and made it smaller and better suited to the congregation. The only times I ever saw those doors open were for weddings and funerals. They are a magnificent work of art and architecture tucked away in this unpretentious place.

It had never occurred to me to ask about the history of the stained glass; isn’t that terrible? But history means more to me as I get older. I intend to find out, and I will certainly share it with my children and grandchildren.

We explored: we lingered in the prayer room at the back of the sanctuary, its walls lined with books. We went upstairs to the room where I dressed for my first wedding when I was twenty-one years old.

So many memories for me. The kids responded with curiosity, love, and awe. They listened to my stories. They opened doors, peeked in nooks, touched things–the books, the glass, the dark wood–not in a bad way, but as though they wanted to take something of this place away with them and lock it in their memories, too.

There’s a photo I didn’t share here: one of me with the three grandchildren, standing in the narthex of the church. That one is private, a connection to them and a precious time we shared.

If you have not “gone home” lately, I encourage you to do it. More importantly, go with someone you love. Share the place. Share the stories.

If this piece inspires you to remember, share a memory here in a comment. If it inspires you to write a post, share your link. I would love to read about your special, remembered places.





The Sisters’ Story

I have never “reblogged” one of my own posts before, but here I am, on the eve of Mother’s Day, thinking I should write something about my mother, and I just ran across this post I wrote back in 2012. My mother is long dead; the women I write about here were still around at the time this piece was written. One of them, Mother’s best friend, Eleanor, died not too long ago, which makes this piece, especially the ending, all the more poignant for me. So Mother, this is for remembering you: your beauty, your fortitude, your laughter, your sadness. Your love for my dad and for me. Your sacrifices. Your truth.