Eulogy for a tree

The big white oak was between 350 and 400 years old, the biggest tree in my town, the second biggest in Connecticut, according to a tree expert.

When my parents first bought the land where they would build my childhood home, it was immediately apparent that this tree was the reason the property was special. Our woods were once a farm; most of the trees are only 100 years old or so, but this tree had been growing before white people came to America. My parents bought the land from a farmer; his daughter told us that she used to bring her father lunch every day in the summer, and they’d sit under that tree and talk.

The author, age 7

The author, age 7

The base of tree was 20 feet in circumference. About ten feet up, the tree separated into three massive parts, two close together, one a little further apart. The gap between the twins and the third made for a nice saddle, and my sister and I would sit there and pretend to be riding horses. Burls made saddle horns, and good hand-holds when you climbed up. There was plenty of room to sit and read, and a hollow spot where you could put your copy of Little House on the Prairie. A vine hung from one branch, and if you ran down the hill, you could grab it and swing out like Tarzan.

Year after year, a pair of raccoons made their home about thirty feet up, and we could see the babies sticking out their sweet faces. Many an owl sat in the upper branches and called at night.

DSCN8047When I was thirteen, the third trunk of the tree had to be removed. The tree had rot in it, and I sat on our deck, watching accusingly as the arborist cut it down. It was like The Giving Tree, except instead of me being the ungrateful brat who abused his friend, I adored my tree, and wanted every branch to remain inviolate.

In the summers of my childhood, I’d ride my horse around our yard, through the woods. One afternoon as the cicadas buzzed and Jenny grazed lacksadaisically, I lay back against her and looked up at the sky, laced through the branches of the big tree. A red hawk circled overhead. It was the first time I remember thinking, “This is a perfect moment. Don’t ever forget this.”

But nature was taking its toll. Oak trees don’t live forever. When I got married and moved back to Connecticut, next door to my mom, McIrish assessed the tree. We cabled the two trunks way up high so if one of the massive branches broke, it wouldn’t come down on Mom’s roof. “The tree really isn’t safe,” McIrish said, but there was of course no way we would take it down.

Our kids sat in the crook of the tree, boosted there, proud and happy and giddy to be up so high. It was like a benevolent god, that tree, lord of the forest, unmatched in every way.

The tree withstood all the storms in recorded history. It survived the Hurricane of 1938, which devastated Connecticut. It endured the ice storm of 1976, when we slept in the family room because so many branches were coming down. Three years ago, a nor’easter dumped a foot of snow in October, and younger, stronger trees all around us snapped and fell. A recent hurricane left us without power for 6 days, trees down all over town, but still the mighty oak stood, watching over us in every blizzard, every hurricane, every thunderstorm.

Until Tuesday. We were sitting on the porch, fully intending to enjoy the thunderstorm, but I had a feeling this one was different. “Get in the house,” I said to my family. “This isn’t normal.” The thunder was right overhead, the trees suddenly waving and bending.

And before we could get inside, a tremendous tearing sound, and the big oak ripped in half, crashing down so hard it shook our house. My daughter wailed; thunder roared and lightning spat and hissed. I was terrified it had hit my mother’s house, but there are too many trees in the way for me to see. I called her, frantic; she didn’t answer. The power went out, and all was black except for the lightning.

When the storm passed, McIrish and I went to see the damage.

IMG_1550In its last act, the big oak fell away from my mother’s house, away from her pool, away from the giant spruce pine, away from the Japanese maple that was my father’s last gift to my mother. Instead, it fell across the lawn, gouging out huge chunks of earth and grass, taking out part of a smaller maple on our property.

It was done.

The next day, we all four got to work, clearing another tree off Mom’s driveway, cutting up the branch that fell in her front lawn. And then, when we were done with the lesser trees, we started on the big oak.

terence and treeAll day, we worked, dragging the branches, stacking logs. McIrish smelled like my father used to, that manly combination of chainsaw oil, sweat and freshly cut wood. I realized I was doing the same job I’d done when I was five years old: dragging the brush to clear the land.

At the end of the day, I asked my family to go over to our house, and I climbed on the fallen oak. Though I am a somewhat ungainly adult, my feet had no problem finding a place, and my balance was sure as I walked up the trunk. Once again, and for the last time, I was in the embrace of my old friend, and I knew I wouldn’t fall. After all, kids know trees. I sat there, some ten or fifteen feet above the ground, and cried, wiping my eyes on my t-shirt.


The kids, standing in what is essentially 1/3 of the tree trunk.

And I was glad, all of a sudden, that the tree had crashed down in a final, tremendous, awe-inspiring act. I was glad it hadn’t been chunked apart by strangers from a tree service, branch by branch. The old oak tree deserved a mighty end, to go out with a roar, and so it did.

My siblings and I will take some of the wood from the tree and make something from it. McIrish and I will plant a new white oak in the crumbling soil and compost of the original, and maybe someday, people will gaze up at it in awe, and touch its bark with reverence, feeling the life within.

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niceypieIn honor of Father’s Day, I figured I’d tell you a few little secrets about McIrish and his paternal skills.

When the Princess was born, he cried. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him cry from happiness. They have a special bond, those two. When I was at my part-time job and Princess was about three, I’d call and ask what they did together. “We sat in the field and looked at the sky,” Princess would report, and really, what could be more wonderful than that?

When Dearest Son was born (emergency c-section, me very, very sick and maybe dying, our son weighing in at 1 pound, 10 ounces), he stayed calm. He was a frickin’ rock, that guy, and when I came out of my seizures every once in a while, I could only ask one question: “The baby…?” wondering if our son was still alive. “Oh, he’s doing great!” my husband would say. “I was just up there, tickling his feet, and he’s really squirmy and lively. Don’t worry.” I would sink back into the nether world for another long while. He never doubted that Dearest would make it.

withdeclanDearest was small for his age for a long time. When McIrish taught him to ride a bike, he’d put his hand out on Dearest’s shoulder and steady him, giving him a push up the hill. When Dearest fell, McIrish would scoop him up and praise him for his bravery, and put him right back on that bike. If there’s a better metaphor for fatherhood, I don’t know what it is.

He made up two strange games for the kids, that only a father could make up. One was called “Wake Up Daddy,” in which he would pretend to sleep and snore loudly as the kids tickled him and wormed their little hands under his shirt to pull his chest hair, and he would laugh and laugh but never open his eyes. The other game was called Wild Pig Ride. The kids would sit on him and he’d buck and jump and they’d scream with joy (and I’d stand by with my hand on the phone in case we needed an ambulance). But everyone was always okay, as it tends to be when a daddy horses around with his kids in a way that a mommy never would.

DSC05985At the first Father-Daughter Dance, when Princess was a freshman in high school, he bought her a corsage, and they both got all dressed up. But she twisted her ankle going out of the house, spraining it, so he carried her back inside, iced and wrapped the ankle, then went out and got them Indian take-out, her favorite. They watched a movie and declared the night much more fun than if they’d gone to the dance.

When we took Princess to college last fall, he was pretty stoic, comforting me the whole ride back, until we turned onto our street, going home without her for the first time. The tears came then. “I can’t believe our little girl is so grown up,” he said, as fathers have said for thousands of years.

When we go to a track meet and Dearest chugs stolidly to the finish line, usually the last of his team, McIrish cheers for him as if he’s about to win the gold medal. Unlike some fathers, McIrish isn’t invested in our son’s athletic prowess. The fact that our boy is there, alive, healthy, amiable and (to our eyes, anyway), running like the wind is more than enough.

Here’s to all you dads out there who are doing it right. Wishing you a nap and lots of hugs and maybe a piece of pie, too.

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Oh, Canada!

IMG_1473I had a great time in Ottawa last weekend! I’ve been to Montreal before (once, with McIrish), and Waterton National Park, and a strange little place called Fort McLeod, but Ottawa was new to me. It’s an old city and a new city too—lots of construction on shiny new buildings, but the castle-like Parliament building and cathedrals that made it feel very old-world.

Here are a few things I noticed:

IMG_1474Ottawans don’t jaywalk. They wait patiently at the light for permission. I do jaywalk, and the Ottawans gazed upon me with awe and wonder as I looked left, right, then walked, light or no light, as they remained at the curb, dazzled by my brash American courage (or so I told myself).

Speaking of traffic, a yellow light doesn’t mean slow down and stop in Ottawa. It means, “The poor guy four cars behind me isn’t going to make this light.”

IMG_1492There is no litter. The city is sparkling clean and puts places like Manhattan and Seattle to shame. I didn’t see a single piece of trash.

It’s very flat and therefore excellent for bike riding along the canal. This was such a pleasant experience! On Sundays, the city closes down a few roads, so bicyclists, roller-bladers, runners, and walkers can get out and enjoy.

IMG_1486All the signs and announcements are in English and French. “Fourth floor,” said the elevator. “Quatrieme étage. Fifth floor. Cinquieme étage.” It was like a Sesame Street language lesson. Rideau Canal, one sign said, and underneath that, for the French-speakers, Canal Rideau.

The notion that Canadians are incredibly nice definitely held up. People were happy to suggest restaurants, guide me to the bike rental place and direct me to the best place for beaver tail. The fact that I was from Connecticut elicited excitement and questions about my exotic homeland (and really, I never get that, being that I’m from Connecticut…we’re not really known for, um, anything). My dinner companions sat back happily to see if I would like their beloved poutine. “Do the cheese curds squeak?” they asked. “It’s best if the cheese curds squeak.” I wasn’t sure if they did, but I can see myself scarfing down more poutine at some happy point in the future.

IMG_1510So if you’re looking for a lovely city to visit for a long weekend, consider Canada’s beautiful capital. And make sure you eat beaver tail and poutine! And ride your bike along the canal. And watch out for the birds at Parliament. But that’s another story.

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In case of disaster

dwayne-johnson-fast-and-furious1I saw San Andreas tonight because I love disaster movies. Dragged the family with me, too, so they too could wince and cringe. We had a wonderful time!

Disaster movies reassure me, because (I think) they prepare me for the dreaded tsunami/earthquake/cruise ship overturning/100 foot wave/getting my arm stuck under a rock and having to self-amputate.

True story: my editor and I recently reenacted this pose. Miss you, Susan!

True story: my editor and I recently reenacted this pose. Miss you, Susan!

Remember, I grew up in the 70s. Earthquake (in Sensaround). The Towering Inferno. The Poseidon Adventure. The 90s, too, were rich with disaster preparedness—Armageddon, Deep Impact, Twister. Titanic, the motherlode of disaster movies. (That headboard could’ve held two, Rose. Just sayin’.)

So here’s what I learned tonight.

  1. Find a father who is a helicopter pilot/veteran with arms the size of small children and have me adopt me, quick. This means my mother must marry Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I don’t have a problem with this.
  2. Never throw out the push-button phone in the upstairs closet.
  3. If a giant shard of glass slices inches deep into a new friend’s leg, just pull it out. Don’t worry about arteries or anything. It’ll be fine.
  4. Should my mother divorce the aforementioned father and start dating a billionaire architect with a private jet and limo, do not trust him.
  5. When a tsunami rolls through Connecticut, quickly get a rigid hull inflatable boat and race toward it. This is essentially my most terrifying nightmare—big waves—but one does what one must.

Okay, lesson over! Time for me to read a book. I’m choosing Worse Case Scenario Survival Guide, in case San Andreas missed anything.

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The greatest week

me and my bannerThis week I was at BookExpo America and BookCon, both giant book shows held in the Javits Center in New York. My family came in, because my publisher had done something special for me, and I wanted McIrish and the kids to see it. My banner. I got quite choked up when I saw it. So did McIrish. : )

Here are a few other things I got to do while in New York…

Thanks so, so much to everyone who came to BEA and BookCon! It was utterly thrilling. There’s no other word for it.


Got to have dinner with my great friend, Robyn Carr, and the family!

Got to have dinner with my great friend, Robyn Carr, and the family!

the line

Got to say hi to all these wonderful people who stood in line to get a book from me…Thank you so much, folks! It’s such an honor for me!

Got to see the beautiful and funny Mindy Kaling and snap this picture just before Security told me to scram.

Got to see the beautiful and funny Mindy Kaling and snap this picture just before Security told me to scram.

I got to pretend to be the publicist for my friend, Katy Lee. It was easy; she's up for a Daphne and a RITA this year in romantic suspense.

I got to pretend to be the publicist for my friend, Katy Lee. It was easy; she’s up for a Daphne and a RITA this year in romantic suspense.

Also got to shill for Regina Kyle, another friend, by holding up her book and saying, "Steamy and delicious!" to all the appropriate-age people who walked by.

Also got to shill for Regina Kyle, another friend, by holding up her book and saying, “Steamy and delicious!” to all the appropriate-age people who walked by.

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Blue moon

UnknownSo I’m sitting here with a blue mud mask on because I’ll believe anything. This product is (allegedly) from the Dead Sea (or La Mer Morte, as it says on the package, totally upping the believability factor, since, you know…French). I know it will work because it has bergamot in it, and whatever bergamot is, I know it’s going to do something fabulous. There’s a fly in our house, and it too is quite interested in the blue mud from the Dead Sea.

Here is what I observe as I sit, waiting for the mud to dry. It’s takes a long time. I know this because I just touched my face, and the mud is still wet, and now I have blue streaks of it on my keyboard. My skin has become very itchy all of a sudden. Still, fifteen minutes it said, and fifteen minutes it shall get. The French know about these things.

Braveheart_1780229cThe phone likes to ring when I have blue mud drying on my face. Also, my glasses seem to be hardening onto my ear. The dog fears me with a blue face. I look a little like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. I just yelled “Freedom!” at the kids, resulting in Dearest Son saying, “You are not only fun, you’re funny.” Such a good boy. Princess laughed and said, “Oh, how blue you are, Mommy!” in the same tone she will someday say, “Oh, how cute you are, Mommy! Now back in your crate!”

avatarWhy the blue mud, you ask? I don’t know. I should be too old for this kind of thing, and yet, skin care products seduce me every time. The language, maybe. The French. The crèmes. The pseudo-science. Made with Q14. That could be horse manure for all I know, but oooh! Q14! The lovely words like serum and perfecting and, my personal favorite, elixir. Also, anti. Anti-sag, anti-wrinkle, anti-oxidant, anti-age. I love them all!

The fifteen minutes have passed. I fear I have left this on too long whilst Googling pictures of Linda Blair in The Exorcist to see if I look like her right now. Time to go carve this mud off! Or, as the French say, “Il y a un meunier qui naissent chaque minute.”

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The woods are lovely, dark and deep

pathAfter a very long winter, spring is in its full glory around here. Our valley is shadowy and mysterious and full of life. Dearest Son saw a black bear cub the other day, can you imagine? The owl family is loud and, I like to imagine, tight-knit, the adults hooting, the little ones in their funny, screechy answering whistle. The wood thrush sings until dark, the last bird to go quiet for the night, and the nuthatch seems to be the first one awake, at 4:17.

fairyhouseWhen I was little, our valley and woods seemed brimming with magic. I was convinced that I’d find a cave with no end, or a tunnel leading to someplace other, where maybe unicorns lived, or where I’d find the secret to flying. I even had a little bag should I find such a place, a patchwork drawstring bag I’d made in Girl Scouts. Inside, I had all the necessities: a pocket knife from my grandfather for tools and self-protection; a candle and matches for that tunnel or cave; and a Twinkie, in case I needed food.

owlI studied uprooted trees for secret entryways, and noted which moss beds seemed to have a shimmer of magical power. I looked for fairy rings (and found a few, I’m quite sure). Like a Druid, I could feel the life of the trees around me, all that green, the shadows and the sunshine. Once, as I sat on a hillside, an owl flew right over my head, its wings silent, and landed in a branch so close to me I could see it blink.

fernsIn our woods, I’ve seen deer and turkeys, coyotes and foxes. Once, I saw a moose, and once, the elusive and sinister fisher cat.

The other day, I went for a walk by myself in the woods, remembering those times when I yearned to find that secret passage to the magical world. Now that I’m an adult, I can see that I was living in it all along.

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Things My Mother Said

By the time my mom was 25, she had three kids in diapers…three kids in three and a half years. To keep things exciting, she also had a new house and a puppy.

YankeesYou’ve loved hearing about how she gets burrs stuck in her hair, how she calls me the wrong name, how she feels about small rodents, bats and birds. She loses things a lot, and sometimes leaves the frying pan on the stove and then gets in the car to run errands, starting a small fire. She likes to tell me how drowsy she gets behind the wheel of the car and, in case that results in her death, to bury her with her Yankees blanket.

She’s a lot of fun. Life is, er…more exciting with her around. And I love her dearly. But because it’s Mother’s Day, rather than tell you a funny story about her, I thought I’d tell how truly fantastic she was when I was a kid. And so, without further ado, here are some of her words of wisdom.

Unknown-1“Work it out.” My mother did not listen to our bickering like a judge, calmly listening to each side’s many complaints about our siblings. Instead, she’d say, “Work it out. I don’t care.” This taught us to do just that…or to ignore the sibling in question. Mom was also famous for saying while driving, “If you don’t knock it off, I’m gonna turn around and smack someone.” Working together…and also keeping it down while someone was trying to drive…were the lessons of the day.

Unknown-2“Go play.” In my memory, we were barely allowed in the house as kids. Every day, we’d play. Outside. We’d run around with the neighbor’s kids, climb trees, brush the horse, make forts. At dinner time, Mom would stick her head out the door and bellow, “Supper!” and we’d come running. After supper, it was back outside until bedtime. This is the formula for a happy childhood, FYI.

“Make it yourself.” Mom cooked for us almost every night. My father never did. Ever. If we wanted a snack, or if it was the weekend and we were hungry for lunch, she’d say, “Make it yourself.” Why, after all, should she stop doing her thing? She had other interests and responsibilities. “I’m not your servant,” she’d also say. We did our own laundry and cleaned our own rooms. Of course we did! Why wouldn’t we?

“It’s none of your business.” This was actually pretty cool…the secret life of adults. Being an adult was mysterious and fascinating. We didn’t live in a household where kids were treated like little bonsai adults. We were children. There was a difference. We were sent to our rooms when big conversations took place. Mom protected us from knowing too much, too soon. Her worries were not our worries, because she was a grownup, and we were her kids.

34-a-daughters-kiss“Go kiss your father.” My dad wasn’t as hands-on as Mom; he worked long hours and valued his space. But Mom made sure we didn’t forget about him as he nursed a glass of wine in the living room. Dad always got his kiss, even if he was too deep in a book to remember to ask for it himself.

“I love you.” My mom wasn’t perfect. But she was pretty damn good. I never once doubted that she loved me. Not for a second.

I love you, too, Mommy! Happy Mother’s Day!

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Marital spats

You guys know I adore McIrish, my sainted husband. He’s the best. He adores me, tookyjfh. So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move onto the good stuff.

Fighting! Oh, yes, it happens! Usually over the same things, lo these 23 years. For example…

The You Didn’t Tell Me That. This is a common theme for fights in marriages, I believe. “I’m going out with the girls,” I might say.

“You didn’t tell me that,” he’ll answer.

“Yes, I did.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I did. I was sitting on the stool right there, and you were making eggs, and I said, ‘I’m going out with the girls,’ and you said—”

“No. You thought you told me, but you didn’t.”

We stare hotly at each other. This works both ways, just so you know. He’ll say, “I told you I have a union meeting,” and I’ll say, “No, you didn’t,” and we go back and forth, each convinced to our dying breath that we are right. (The staring hotly gets kind of fun, to be honest.)

UnknownThe Why Can’t You Do It My Way? Behold, the bed. It’s not that hard to make. A man who can build a house and fix a car and bandage a wound should be able to make a bed without it looking like a two-year-old tried to help Mommy. I think McIrish does this to spite me. I know I use soap on the cast iron frying pans to spite him. Listen. That “seasoning”? It’s grease. I wash the pan with detergent, then dry it, then rub a little olive oil on it. If we lived in medieval times, McIrish would cut off my hand for this offense. But ha! I still do it! I’m fifty years old! I know how to wash a pan!

Unknown-1The Call Your Mother. Clearly, it is McIrish who must call his mother, since I see mine almost every day. I say, “Call your mother. She loves you.” He says, “I will.” A week passes. I remind him to call his mother, as she is sweet and wonderful and he in fact loves her very much. “I will,” he snaps.

“When? Before her death?”

He glares at me hotly. I glare back. I remind him that I too have a son who had better call me at least once a week or I will lay all that blame at McIrish’s feet, since he didn’t call his mother enough. He picks up the phone and has a lovely chat with his mom.

The thing is, we’ve been married long enough that these fights are pretty much autopilot. I don’t expect McIrish to remember everything I’ve ever said (though he should), and he doesn’t expect me to buy into the seasoning argument. S’okay. Keeps things spicy.

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Fly the friendly skies

I love airports. O’Hare is a special favorite, there in the heartland, and that’s where I am now, sitting in a Chili’s, drinking bad coffee, about to head for Savannah via Milwaukee, where I spent a lovely, wonderful weekend with readers and writers at the Barbara Vey Reader Appreciation Weekend.

The first time I flew somewhere as an author, I didn’t know how to go through security. I was so nervous…that person who didn’t realize you couldn’t take hairspray on a carry-on unless it was travel size, who didn’t have her license ready. That was 9 years ago…I’ve been on an awful lot of flights since. This morning, the guy at security said, “Been at this rodeo a few times, have you?”

I guess I’m an experienced flyer now. I know how to pack, and I know how to read signs, and where you can actually sit down and be served a meal. Once, I went to one of those massage places between a long layover and had a chair massage. I know that Seattle has the best restaurants. I know how to get free wifi.

But the wonder of flying never leaves me. All those people, going all those places. Home, or to a wedding or funeral, or a vacation, or to a meeting or job interview. It’s the best place to watch people, which is a great hobby of mine…What does that woman decked out in Coach and Prada do for a living? That sixty-something flight attendant…wonder what her favorite place is? The people who can go through the restricted access doors…what’s back there? The couple with the baby of a different race.

And the captains. I wonder if they’re overtired or if they’ve been drinking, if they still love their jobs, if they could pull a Captain Sully if need be. I feel very safe in the air, as well as that fatalistic view of “Everyone dies someday.” I hope I’d have time to call my family. I hope I’d be calm and comforting to my seatmates. Clearly, I’ve thought about it a lot. : )

Well, it’s time for me to head off, gang! Hope that wherever you are, you’re having a wonderful day. And stay tuned to my Facebook page for pictures of beautiful Savannah, Georgia!

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