The Chestnut Tree

By Rita L. McWhorter & Stephen Terranova

It was just a year or two after your Dad died, as I recall, when the old chestnut tree started looking sick. The leaves sort of shriveled up, and the ends of the branches started to droop. Then the grass under the tree started to turn brown. Not all the grass, just a big circle, as though the boys had been riding their bikes around and around the tree. I know that couldn’t be, because nobody wanted that many slaps in the face from those low hanging branches. I was worried, but I hoped for the best. I watched it through the spring and into summer. Slowly the leaves turned brown. By mid July they began to fall. I put in a call to our neighborhood tree man.

Mr. Carron had been through a lot of tree crises with me. I trusted him the same way I trusted my family doctor. I knew he would tell me the truth, and do the best that could be done.

“I think the tree is dying,” he said, “but I don’t know why. That ring of dead grass around it makes me think it was poisoned. Could that be?”

“Oh, no,” I said. “Everybody loves that tree.”

“We could try some heavy feeding and maybe bring it back, but I don’t know.”

I guess my thoughts showed on my face. Mr. Carron patted my shoulder and moved to leave.

“I’ll just keep an eye on it for the next few weeks,” he said.

I raked the leaves as they fell all that summer, putting them in plastic bags for the trash man instead of on the compost pile. They were sick, I knew. It was a weird feeling, raking piles of leaves next to the zinnias and marigolds full of lush summer strength. And as I raked I lived again the history of the chestnut tree. I threw away the old green sandbox that was rotting away. How many bags of sand had gone into it each spring over the past twenty years? Tons. Tons of sand made into cakes and pies, into forts and roads. How many times had I yelled, “Keep the sand in the sand box.”

The wading pool was always just there, where the grass was thicker. It was sunny in the morning to warm the water, and shady for the dip after naps.

It was the first tree for kids to climb—a learner. It branched out quickly and gently, spreading in a protective, loving way, inviting kids to visit, to learn, to play. It invited Mom and Dad, too, on a few summer nights, to lie beneath and speak of love and commitment when the children were safely in bed.

It grew slowly, and formed limbs heavy and sturdy. It seemed to sense its role would be to support a heavier weight. So it was there as the kids grew up, perfect branches for teens learning to be hippies. They sat on the branches playing guitars and singing brave songs of peace and love.

As I raked I knew the tree was dead. It had been a time of dying. First your father and your grandfather. Then my dad. Now I had to give up my tree.

It was still summer, but the leaves were all gone. I called Mr. Carron.

I walked out into the yard to hear his expected verdict. I stood looking at my tree, my wonderful tree, tears in my eyes. Mr. Carron came over to stand beside me. He put his arm across my shoulders; his gloved hand patted my arm.

“Well,” he said. “I think we should just let it stand. We’ll just lop those branches off there and there,” he gestured, “and let it be.”

I was amazed. Here was respite from death. My tree was dead, but not gone forever. At least not yet.

We didn’t make a shrine of it exactly, but we vented some pretty heavy emotions on it. John took red paint and led its bleeding heart down the trunk. I never decided for sure if he was depicting the tree’s heart or his own.

The bark soon loosened and we peeled it off. Before long the wood bleached in the sun and turned a smooth and handsome white. The tree became the focus of the backyard again. I planted vegetables and flowers in a garden around it, and soon the plants were up and about to bloom. But then, in a matter of a few days, they all shriveled up, turned brown and died. Perhaps the tree had poisoned the soil – not unusual for a nut tree. But perhaps someone really had poured a ring of poison around the tree. I took some soil to the University for analysis, but they came up with no information. So the mystery remains, the case unsolved.

Gradually, I replaced the soil and got my garden. Eventually I put in a flagstone patio, and it was quite an attractive, unique display. Grandchildren learned to climb on its receptive branches.

But things change. Now we have a Japanese bridge that needs a river running under it. The tree is in the way, and I’m tired of looking at it. I’m ready for something fresh and alive.

“I’ve thought a lot about it,” I told Don early this spring, “and I’ve decided it’s time to let the old tree go.”

We went out to take a look. The old tree looked as sturdy as ever, spreading its arms to protect nonexistent sand boxes, supporting ghostly child climbers and guitar players.

Don leaned against it. Without a sound it fell gently to the ground. I couldn’t believe it. Had it been hanging on, waiting for me to let go? Or had I been waiting until I sensed it was time for it to go?

We’ll have one more goodbye. We’ll save a few logs to burn in the fireplace at Christmas. The old tree can warm our hearts one more time before I scatter its ashes over the peony bed.


When Grandmom finished her story, she got up and went into the kitchen. I couldn’t see what was going on from where I was, but there was an awful lot of sniffing sounds. Somebody blew their nose, and I didn’t think I wanted to go in there. Were they all crying or something? I wouldn’t be caught dead in there if they were all sitting around bawling. I stayed put.

Later on that night when I was lying there getting ready to go to sleep, Grandmom’s story came back to me. That tree meant a whole lot to her, and to my aunts and uncle, too. Did somebody really pour poison around it? Did they have an enemy they didn’t know about? Grandmom sure wasn’t going to nose around. She didn’t like to think that people could be mean and cruel, Uncle John would go back to California, so he wouldn’t be able to help. And Mom was too busy, I knew that already. She had a job and she was always busy with us and the house. That left Aunt Paula. And me. It was up to me. I was sure of that. And maybe Aunt Paula would help.

“The mystery remains,” Grandmom had said. “The case unsolved.” We would see about that.


To Be Continued...

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