Monday, April 4, 2011

Farewell, Oh Beautiful Swing Tree

A few weeks ago during a tremendous storm we lost our beloved swing tree.

The enormous old twisted oak that was the anchor for our new home, on whose swing I first fell in love with our property, silently gave up the fight. She had been unwell for a while now and we'd cut the swing's ropes a couple years ago to prevent a terrible accident from happening. She fell down over our pasture fences in the middle of the night, didn't even wake us up. Though Mark and Harry have sawn up much of her limbs and branches, her huge trunk still lies across a part of our field and when I look at that fallen tree I grieve her loss. We designed our house around her architecture, we watched her leaves bud out each March in fuzzy pink new growth, we enjoyed the screen she gave us from the road when popping in our hot tub on the deck, and the shade she gave the equines in summer.

In honor of the tree I am remembering one of my favorite books from childhood: A Tree is Nice by Janice May Udry. And, I am posting, below, a piece I wrote eight years ago about our decision to move up here to Sonoma county. Our beloved swing tree figures in essentially, at the very read it all!


Blame it on Cooperstown

You’re not sure if it’s the stretch of white board fence, the old white clapboard house, or the verdant green lawn shaded by trees, but your eyes are pulled over to that little photograph in the back of the magazine. You are ruefully perusing the section they have every issue that advertises old, sometimes ancient by your California-girl standards, houses for sale across the country. This one has definitely caught your eye. “Horse Lover’s Fancy” it reads. “7 acres of beautiful countryside, lovely 5 bedroom home, plus carriage house and 8 stall stable. Excellent condition.” There’s more, but you speed through the details. You’ve already peeked at the price. You can barely buy a shack where you live for that.

You sit back and sigh. There you are, tucked away in your comfortable Northern California neighborhood, each home within spitting distance of its neighbor. Your eyes wander back to the ad. “Near Cooperstown, NY.” You take a quick look at to check out the exact location of the city of Cooperstown in the state of New York. Far north. Not even close enough to the in-laws to justify a cross-country address change.

Whoa! What was that? Here you are innocently reading the ads, like they’re open houses on a Sunday afternoon. (Just because you like to look doesn’t mean you’re going to buy, does it?) And suddenly you’re planning, actually looking for a rationale to move. To Cooperstown, NY.

It’s probably the horses. The possibility of horses. You’ve been a horse-fanatic from the age of 3, but never did convince your parents to buy you one. Living in urban Los Angeles didn’t help, not exactly horse country. And even though your knees hurt every time you’ve ridden in the past ten years, having a horse of your own isn’t a fantasy you’re prepared to give up just yet. Even at 40.

Maybe it’s the seven acres. That’s a lot of land. You can’t even picture seven acres if you tried. Your mind drifts out of the office, down the stairs and into the bedrooms of your three sons. Lately, you think, lately life has been loud and chaotic here in your snug house in your snug neighborhood. Your mind flashes to the postage stamp-sized brick patio you knew would never be enough. Three boys need a place to run at full speed. Like an expanse of lawn. Three boys need some trees to climb. And maybe their mom needs a horse. Or eight.

You plot driving directions from Cooperstown, NY to the Long Island house your in-laws have lived in since before your husband was born. Maybe it’s not so far.

Later that night you casually ask your husband, “How far is Cooperstown from your folks?” wanting some verification that it’s just too far. Some really good reason to abandon this fantasy. “What’s it like?” you ask. He laughs, and describes winter in Cooperstown. Snow, piles of it. Weeks and months of it. You can barely imagine that much snow. At the high school you went to in Southern California, you could take surfing for P.E.

But that vision won’t go away. The next day you find the website dedicated to the sale of “Horse Lover’s Fancy”. Just for the fun of it you search their other listings and find yourself gazing at a ranch in northern Montana, copper-colored grasslands with a view of snow-covered mountains. And then there’s the home in southern Oregon on 40 acres (why dream small?) with miles of trails already groomed for you and your horses.

A visit to your therapist feels like the thing to kick this tickle-that-feels-like-an-obsession-brewing out the door. But when you mention “I’ve been dreaming about moving to the country,” she says “Go with it,” and you go deeper and uncover some visions you have about your sons, about the over-stimulation that comes with city living, about how you gave up on the big backyard when you were looking for the bigger house because big yards are just hard to come by in the city. And you talk about your husband, now one-year unemployed, a casualty of the dot-bomb era. Even though you were the one who convinced him to stay home and enjoy a slower pace for a while, you’ve been worried about the rut he’s gotten into, the amount of time he spends on computer games, and the grayness that seems to be hovering around him like an aura.

At the end of the session your therapist says, “Go with it,” again. So you return home thinking about moving to the country.

When your husband asks how your session went (he does that more now that he’s in therapy, too) he’s pretty surprised that you didn’t talk about him and the fight you had the other day about your sex life, or your lack of sex life. He’s shocked, really, when he hears what you talked about and he even looks a little worried. He knows what you can be like when you get an idea in your head.

And, like a bull dog you persist. Later that night in bed you have a long talk about this fantasy and he says, “I’ll look into it with you, but I’ll tell you right now I’m not moving.” The first part of his statement is really a victory and you know that. Before this year off and the time he’s had for his own evolution (therapy) he never would have entertained even thinking about something that scared him like moving. You remind him that when you moved into your current house he said, “The next time I move is in an urn,” and you both laugh. You, nervously.

Calendar pages fly off the wall. Hours spent doing research on the internet and in books and magazines. You love a project like this. Ordinarily, you do this for trips, but this adventure is more than just looking for motels, restaurants and museums, you’re looking for schools, community organizations, and local newspapers. Together the two of you make lists of pros and cons of moving and staying. Together you name the things you need and the things you want. Need: Good schools. Want: Good politics. Need: Jewish community (three bar mitzvahs are on the horizon). Want: Good produce. There’s even a list of what you can’t abide: Rednecks. Skinheads. Airports three hours away.

You notice he’s gotten interested. He’s been doing some surfing, too. Eyeing pieces of land in the Sierra foothills. And then he suddenly bites onto the concept of building the house himself. He’s an engineer, he knows his hammers from his rat tail files. He has a workshop in the garage that he never gets to use because it’s too cramped and there’s no room to spread out. He did contracting work in college. He’s a fine carpenter. Your favorite piece of furniture in your whole house is the big kitchen table he made from a length of bowling alley. He can do the electrical and plumbing, too. Loves that stuff, in fact.

All of a sudden, this adventure is taking shape. You can feel the movement and you no longer feel that you are in control. The electricity that sparks between you is making you stronger. The fantasy becomes a project and the project is driving you.

The worries arrive just about then. The questions and regrets. You start a new ritual: the listing of the things you’ll miss. Walking to school, your friends, short drives to the market, the preschool you love. And suddenly the house you live in is perfect, the city you live in is perfect and the friends you felt were only acquaintances are professing their love and admiration for you. Your nine-year-old has a teacher who completely understands him. Your business is picking up. Everything seems to be gelling. How can you entertain the idea of moving away from all this?

The more people you tell about what you’re contemplating, the more their responses make you question your choice. You never knew how many people harbored dreams of moving to the country. They live vicariously through you. But you weren’t someone with that long-term dream. You feel like a fraud. You want to stay put. One friend warns you about other friends of hers who had problems in their marriage, moved to the country, built a house, and when the house was done their marriage fell apart. Those stories make you think of all the people you know who had the problems, stayed in one place, and then their marriage fell apart.

You bring the boys up to the country to see different properties you’re considering and they always freak out. These wild, grassy, overgrown places intimidate them. The one who’s always adventuresome becomes clingy and the other ones get bored and whiny. “They have to learn how to play in the country,” someone says.

Then one day you find yourself swinging on a tree swing on a property in western Sonoma county. The swing has incredibly long ropes and when you swing you go out over a slope so far that at the farthest, highest point you’re probably about 20 feet up. It swings so slowly that you feel like you’re flying. You look around. The place is scruffy, there’s no verdant lawn, only an old vermin-infested mobile home and a rickety three story well tower. There’s no white rail fence, but lots of beautiful gnarled oaks, more than you can count. It’s only four acres, but that seems like plenty.

You sit back on the swing, hang on the prickly, lichen covered ropes. You pump your feet, push off from the ground as hard as you can. You want to go high, higher, higher. You fly. You fly on that swing and you can feel your chest expand. You breathe deep.

Your mind floats off the swing and up into the trees. Slowly it comes to you that it’s not about the horses anymore. It’s about living your life as big as you can.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

Aw, Susie, what a beautiful piece. I love how you describe the process of change and a dream taking on momentum when your partner catches the same vision. There's nothing like it, no substitute. I'm so sorry about your tree. A good swing tree is terribly precious.