My next-door neighbor has a small weeping willow tree in her backyard. A neighbor across the housing edition’s common space has sunflowers. That’s what inspired this post.
When I was a kid, my mother’s parents had a house in Chittenango, New York. I remember a lot of things about the house, but some of my favorite memories have to do with the yard. For one thing, I remember that my grandfather had a small garden. I don’t remember what he grew, other than tomatoes and sunflowers. He was the only person I knew who specifically grew sunflowers, and I absolutely loved them. I don’t know that I ever actually touched them, or even wanted to go too close to them. I wasn’t specifically avoiding them, of course, because I thought they were fantastic… but I think somehow, even as a kid, I knew that I just might like the idea of them more than the reality of them. I still don’t know anything about growing them; I don’t know how their stems feel against the palms of my hands, or if they have a noticeable smell, or what sort of work you have to do in order to keep them alive. I just loved that my grandfather had flowers that were so much bigger and more intense than any flowers in the yards of anyone else that I knew. They were flowers out of fairy tales, as far as I was concerned.
They also had a weeping willow tree, with a homemade swing hanging from it. The swing was great — of course, all swings are pretty great — but I loved the tree. Just like with the sunflowers, I didn’t know anyone else who had a weeping willow. I remember being heartbroken when they cut it down, and by then I think I might have been a teenager already. But when it was around, I loved playing by it, swinging from it, even just looking out the small window by the table in the kitchen and seeing it there, branches flowing with the breeze like it was underwater.
In my memories from childhood, the sunflowers and the willow tree were so incredibly huge. I know, obviously, that some of that is just perspective. I’ve seen plenty of sunflowers and I know that they don’t grow as big as I remember Grandpa’s sunflowers growing. The willow tree — well, that I don’t know. Some of those get pretty gigantic. But to me, as a kid, it was the biggest tree that ever grew outside a forest. There was something about it that was almost magical. Like the sunflowers, it felt as if it were from a fairy tale.
After my grandmother had passed away, when it became clear that my grandfather was no longer going to be able to live on his own in that house, I visited one last time to “claim” some things that he wasn’t going to need. The emotions of that day were powerful; I think I grieved for my grandmother in a way that I hadn’t even done at her funeral. Some of the items I claimed were ones that I had fond, specific memories of — such as the board game “Careers” that I remembered playing with my cousins and siblings time and time again. Others were items I had never actually played with or held before, but that I had secretly built stories around — such as a hand-sized Model T that seemed to be made out of scrap hardware pieces like washers and nuts. I couldn’t even really remember the stories I had dreamed up about it, but in the shadows of my memory it had meaning and importance.
I remember going to the window that looked out at the yard. I remembered how I occasionally used to sit there, forcing myself to eat the slices of banana Grandma had put into my cereal because if I could just get through the banana, there would be a molasses cookie after breakfast. I remembered how it was seated at that small table that I had first seen a junebug, and how it had scared me with its size — a giant bug that was, like so many other things at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, from a fairy tale. I remember Grandpa flicking the screen and the junebug arcing away from the window, only starting to fly when it was halfway to the ground. Grandpa was a minor hero that day.
I looked out at the yard. There was no garden, of course, although sometimes in my memories of that day I see heat-tired, somewhat scraggly remnants of sunflowers that just couldn’t make it without Grandpa’s attention. I have no idea if this memory is real or something symbolic my mind has created. And the willow was long gone. And the hill that led up to the neighbor’s yard seemed so small compared to my memories from childhood.
Grandma was gone. Grandpa was clearly going. And the fairy tales were over.
Grandpa suffered from a long, lingering dementia — almost definitely Alzheimer’s, although if I understand correctly they can’t technically diagnose that with 100% certainty until an autopsy, and I doubt there was any point in doing that for Grandpa when he passed away. At various times, he would answer questions about what he had done that day with brief explanations of how he had milked the cows (something he probably hadn’t done since the forties or even the thirties). He didn’t remember that his siblings and friends and his wife had already passed on; instead, he remembered (or imagined) conversations they had “just had.” It was terribly confusing and sometimes terrifying for him, although I am certain that it was more painful for us. Sometimes, I think that what he was remembering was something that really happened; sometimes, I think he was reinterpreting his own secret fairy tales.
It would be unrealistic to say that I “grew up” that day, feeling that the fairy tales were gone. I was old enough by that point that I’d experienced plenty of disappointments and realistic setbacks in my life. But it still felt like a loss. The memories were so big and wide, and the reality was so small and faded.
…But I have a daughter now. A daughter who is going to grow up with a small weeping willow tree in the neighbor’s yard, and sunflowers across the way. I don’t know if those are necessarily going to be part of her fairy tales; maybe she’ll latch on to something else entirely that makes her happy simply for the reason that they’re bigger, or prettier, or more something than everything else she knows.
She has the wonder — already, at seven and a half months old — that all children should be blessed to have. And as I’m starting to see things through her eyes (that dog is so exciting! that plum looks amazing! Daddy, look at your hands! Have you seen them? Look at them!)… or maybe as I start to imagine how she sees things… I’m discovering the fairy tales aren’t gone. I just stopped reading them.