I was married under a maple tree. June 18th. Surrounded by dozens of family and friends on a country lawn at the edge of the forest. My bride in a wedding gown styled after the Twenties. A judge for a short ceremony. A violet gemstone ring for her. (Her color.) A rolling ring for me. (Made in Hoboken.) Under the robins and blue sky of Quaker Hill where her family had weekended since her grandmother’s generation. Her grand mother’s white cottage extended with a painting studio on the north side for her step-grandfather and a brick patio in back always surrounded in summers by tall well-tended flowers in purples and oranges. The summer gathering grounds for parents, cousins, and friends. Some swam in the small pool. Others sat with the grandmother, a charming petite woman with tales to tell from her years of running the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (Once Arthur Miller had brought his wife to lunch, Marilyn Monroe.) I often went off on long country walks on the unpaved road lined by stone walls and old maple trees that led down off the north end of Quaker Hill. Carless and living in Hoboken, I treasured these country ambles, the closest I could get to my teenage and college years of backpacking and outdoor adventuring. At the bottom of the hill, I discovered, to my amazement, a Boy Scout camp where I’d once tented for a night on an Appalachian Trail hike in seventh grade when scouts meant everything to me. It was as if my life had come full circle, from one love to another. There was never any question that we’d marry under the maple tree that ruled the backyard with its leafy green crown. The only question was the weather. Which turned out to be perfect.
Years later, after the grandmother died, I visited that cottage for the last time, as later recalled in a poem.
After “hellos” among my fiancee’s family and cousins,
I slipped away from her grandmother’s pool party
into the woods with my first field guides.
Hours later I returned to describe my discoveries:
a wood thrush wore mascara dribbled down its chest,
a warbler sang squeaky as a bicycle wheel
in a sassafras tree, jewel weed seeds tasted of almonds,
hickory nuts made my hands smell of lemons.
The greatest treasure was a sixty foot chestnut tree,
a rarity eighty years after a catastrophic blight.
Catkins flowered on its green canopy like clusters
of foot-long fingers dressed for a wedding.
An American Lady butterfly fluttered nearby.
A decade later when her grandmother died,
my wife and I closed the country house one weekend.
We emptied dusty liquor bottles down the drain
that smelled like mouthwash. We swept dead bees
off bookshelves. Saturday, we were busy with the plumber,
real estate agent, and negligent lawn service that let
the grass grow a foot and seed with dandelions.
We hardly had time to visit her neighbor, tending
his bee hives, pouring a tin can of smoke to calm
bees inside. Last year’s hives produced no honey,
he said. The queen had been too weak.
Sunday morning, I woke early and watched a doe and fawn
graze, as I finished my coffee. While my wife slept,
I slipped into the woods a final time, surprised
by dozens of mushrooms: white parasols, violet caps,
orange trumpets, red amanitas sprinkled with flakes
like granola. I picked samples: a pancake brown boletus,
an old-man-of-the-woods scaly as a pine cone,
Indian Pipes like miniature candle wax saxophones.
On the kitchen table I arranged them by color and shape
for my wife to admire this strange kingdom of life.
But waking for coffee, she complained she felt nauseated
at seeing these slimy things like an alien’s organs,
at seeing me play so fondly with death.
In 1996 my marriage ended when I left Manhattan for a Catskills log cabin. Yet life has its blessings. In time my former wife and I became good friends again. At first she rebounded well from our break-up. She had a good career as an editor at New Woman magazine. A new boyfriend, a smart lawyer, whom she remained with after he transferred to Denver. Every so often she and I got together to share memories with great affection and laughter. Once when we had drinks on the marble balcony of the Met on a Friday evening to the music of a string quartet, a setting lush with the romance of Manhattan that I missed in a log cabin, she was so radiant that I thought if she wasn’t my ex-wife I’d ask her out on a date. Alas, a year after her mother died she fell into a suicidal depression and was diagnosed as bipolar. A decade later depression struck again. Though hospitalized twice she committed suicide on October 14, 2009. I wasn’t there, but I have the picture firmly in mind. The black and white tiles of the kitchen floor. The chair back where she hung her coat. The window she lifted open. Elsewhere in the large Park Avenue apartment where she worked the maid heard her come in and later upon leaving, seeing her coat on the chair, assumed that she’d gone out to the copy shop, and so closed the window without thinking anything of it. Not until midday did someone in a neighboring building happen to look out into the back courtyard to see her lying on the cement.
Perhaps you never recover from hearing news like that. But I went on to do something that perhaps I shouldn’t have. I made impromptu pilgrimages to places that had been important to the two of us. The following spring I happened to join a friend for a hike near Kent, Connecticut. Afterwards, I pulled out my road atlas, for I knew I was no more than half an hour from Quaker Hill. After a few false turns, I found my way onto the unpaved roads that lead up the north end of the hill. I was surprised by not recognizing the terrain. But then I reached the uphill turn between those stone walls and the memories came back. The walks with friends from our married years whom I’d rarely seen since. (One moved to Amsterdam. Another became the publisher of Penguin Books.) The old maple trees too old to age anymore. The time a cluster of ruffed grouse scared us half to death, bursting like feathered cannon shots from behind the stone wall. After the road flattened at the top of the hill, I passed the stately white house in a yard of heavy limbed spruce that I hadn’t thought of in years. A modest estate with forest green shutters. Then the bee keeper’s more modern house across the street. Nothing had changed.
Then just before the dirt road joined into the paved bend of Quaker Hill Road the grandmother’s cottage. But unlike everything else, the white cottage hadn’t remained ambered in time. It had turned feverishly sick with paint blisters and peels revealing gray wood. Tall weed stalks grew in rows through the brick patio. At the banged up mailbox I found junk mail pasted together by who knows how many seasons of rain. Though I knew the place had been sold after the grandmother’s death, I hadn’t known it had been abandoned. Inside, for the doors were unlocked, dust balls and molding chips on the floors, plywood covering a gap in the kitchen floor, somebody’s boxes of Architectural Digest in the old bedroom. Perhaps a detective could have readily figured out who’d lived here last, but I didn’t want to know. Not just the ruin, but I was shocked by how small the low-ceilinged cottage was without the step-grandfather’s paintings on the wall, the long wooden dining table filling the kitchen, the bedroom mattresses on soft springs, the energetic generations of family sharing excitements and complaints. How could so many people have done so much living in such a small space? How could that be so forgotten? Now the rooms had only the gray light of the windows.
And out back the wedding tree had died. It stood like a giant weathered spike, forked and shorn of bark. My former wife died again in my heart at that moment. Time can be merciless. There’s no going back. Yet I’m always going back. That dead tree looked ready to stand for years before it might fall of its own rot and dead weight. Back at the patio I took a loose brick as a souvenir. A souvenir of what I don’t know. It sits on my kitchen counter to this day waiting for meaning.
Reading Susan Sindall’s “Woodland Setting” from her book What’s Left brought back these memories. But it did something more for which I’m grateful. It stung me with joy. An older poet who lives in Woodstock, Susan doesn’t treat her old age as a time for tabulating losses, though there are many she acknowledges, but as an opportunity to appreciate the small wonders that have survived through time. Her poems have the jolt of revelations. She has brought the wedding tree back to life.
From the tree
behind my son and his bride,
apples and silver chestnuts
may rain into our quiet
before they exchange vows.
My son’s hands clasps hers.
Her shoulder presses his.
Heads lifted, their closed eyelids
trap the sun into themselves.
bind them to each other with
vines twisted with rope, red silk,
and ferns punctuated by daisies.
My son’s roughly
copper thick hair
springs above his gold jacket.
Her dress of taffeta silk,
a blood cloud to her feet.
You can’t tell them
at these moments
how you love them;
they would burst into flames.