It is a warm night for November, even in Texas. Thanksgiving is a few days away, and the warm weather, interrupted by a cool snap, has returned, reimposing itself like an unwelcome guest on an autumn background of falling leaves and brown, seemingly endless prairie stretching north to distant Canada. Southeast from Waco, along Highway 6 to Bryan and the Gulf Coast beyond, Santa has made his first appearance, starring in a light show (“Santa’s Wonderland”) staked out in a cow pasture bordered by barbed wire and the cracked pavement of the highway. I turn on the air conditioner to cool the stuffy car interior. My wife shakes her head. “Welcome back to Texas and eighty degrees at Thanksgiving.” I need a Dr. Pepper.
Welcome back, indeed. Sitting on the porch of my parent’s home in Houston, I’m watching a grey squirrel bury a pecan amongst the leaves and bare roots of a massive live oak and trying to imagine the yard as it was 35 years ago, before all the roads were paved, before city water, before the crawdads and water moccasins disappeared from the creek and the ubiquitous horny toads vanished. In those days, my brothers and I could roam the adjacent fields unmolested. We kept a pet raccoon for a time. My younger brother once brought home a copperhead for my mother’s inspection and was quite upset when Daddy whacked its head off with a hoe. Out near Bear Creek, the farmers and stockmen hung the corpses of slain predators on a fence at a place we called “Wolf Corners.” We used to go out there on Sunday afternoons to inspect the week’s kill.
The air has that smoky look it takes on this time of year, and the shadows are encroaching on the house even at midday. The squirrel finishes his work and dashes up the live oak, grown thick and battered since its early days. The magnolia is still there, its bright green, waxy foliage standing out against the fallen brown leaves of the neighboring sycamore. The twin mimosas are gone. I remember climbing the thick limbs of the larger one that stretched over the driveway, the pinks and greens of the serrated leaves lending an illusory tropical air to the yard. The century plant, prehistoric and fearsome in appearance, bloomed and died when I was in high school.
The kids want to collect pecans, so we take buckets from Daddy’s toolshed and head for the backyard. A recent storm has brought down the last of them, and some are still covered in the green pods that encase the shell and the oily, sweet-tasting meat. The pine near the fence is dying, looking for all the world like the sailless mast of a shipwreck. The huge elm, its ponderous limbs leaning on the roof of the house, the pecan trees, full of squirrels’ nests, the hackberry, and the towering sycamore remain.
Was the sycamore always so big? Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me. Or was it the scale of boyhood adventures that made all trees seem mighty beanstalks stretching to the sky and giants and treasures beyond? My younger brother once climbed to its top, as the tree swayed in a stiff wind. My mother tells me I was nonchalantly munching on a snack when I informed her he was clinging to the swaying treetop and couldn’t get down. I can’t remember just how he did get down, only that the tree seemed so invulnerable, even then. Not even a tornado I once watched dance only a few yards away from it disturbed the invincible sycamore of my memory.
It seems like an act of defiance to allow kids to climb trees these days. Maybe that’s why the sight of my son dangling from the limbs of the live oak gladdens my heart. Or maybe it is something else.
We pick up the pecans, crushing some beneath our heels to snack on. The noise stirs some doves near the fenceline to flight, and I notice the grapevine still clinging to the fence. We used to make homemade wine with its fruit.
Daddy and I sit out on the porch to watch the rest of the day go by, and I ask him about the trees. He claims he planted too damn many of them. The trees, some of them dying, now surround the house, leaving mountains of dead leaves to clean up and causing no end of trouble. Even so, he remembers where he got each one—this one from the property of friends, that one from a relative—and when he planted them in this little patch of coastal grassland where he built a house and raised a family.
That was nearly 50 years ago.
We talk of my parents moving. The city swallowed our little oasis decades ago. Apart from this island of memory and attachment, what was home is no longer a pleasant place to live. I wonder aloud if we could move the house. But a voice in my head whispers, “What of the trees?”