It’s a Friday night just before sunset, and I’ve found myself with no plans. I’m too restless to sit home, but it’s too early to hit the clubs. After pacing the living room a few times, I find myself in my car and just start to drive. Probably not my wisest move with the high price of gas, but what the hell. I just gotta get out of the house.
My favorite song comes on the radio, and I crank it up along the back country roads. I haven’t been out this way in years and am surprised to see how many homes have popped up.
I smile to myself as I pass by the old Miller farm. We used to have some wild parties in his field, until we got caught that is. As the memories wash over me, my eyes are drawn to the old tree still standing alone. I can’t believe it’s still there. It’s been dead for as long as I can remember. I stop and take a picture of it with my cell phone. Ya know, in tribute to my younger days.
Standing there staring at the tree, I almost feel stupid and hope no other cars pass by. How could a tree so obviously dead it looked fossilized stand so tall and perfectly erect? There wasn’t a single green shoot sprouting from anywhere. Yet the funny thing was it had an eerie feeling of life about it. My mind started to wander, as I imagined two buzzards sitting in the branches scouting the area for their next meal.
However, the longer I stared at the tree, the more it looked like a face was staring back at me. The two bottom branches looked more like arms stretching out with spindly fingers. While the branches up top seemed like wild, untamed hair. I blinked my eyes to clear my head and started back to my car. I needed to go find some people to hang out with. My imagination was definitely getting the better of me.
I looked back one more time before getting in. A feeble, old woman was staring at me. Where had she come from? She was standing below the tree hunched over from years of age. Her course gray hair sat unruly on the top of her head. Gnarled fingers wrapped around her crudely carved cane. Her other hand clutched her tattered shawl around her shoulders.
She continued to stare at me until I finally asked, “Can I help you?”
“No, but I believe I can help you,” she answered with a cackle in her voice.
I slowly walked back with a raised eyebrow. I wasn’t in the habit of talking to strangers, but I admit I was curious.
“I was hoping you’d stop by. It’s been a while,” she began.
I didn’t have a chance to ask her what she meant. She kept right on talking as she hobbled to a nearby rock.
“It gets so lonely these days. Everyone passing by in such a hurry. Used to be people would stop and sit for a spell or longer if truth be told. Not anymore.”
She groaned, and I swear I heard some bones creaking as she sat down. I know my face registered confusion, and my voice was on hiatus as I tried to process this bizarre turn of events.
“I used to be like you,” she pointed a gnarled finger at me. “Full of life. Always wanting more. I thought I found everything when I married William. He was every girl’s dream. He owned a large plantation right on this very spot. It didn’t hurt none that he was positively handsome. With the war having ended, I had every intention of submersing myself in William’s world.”
I noticed a bit of southern charm coming out in the old woman, and the fact that she talked about the past like she were there hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“I performed all of my wifely duties perfectly and soon gave William a beautiful baby boy, named his junior. I quickly realized I loved playing house, dressing that baby like a doll. However, one child was enough.”
This old woman looked lost in a memory, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a point to the whole story.
“I quickly realized I found the touch of my husband repulsive, and babies grow up, you know. My only true love was society, the parties, the dresses, the gossip.”
I gave a raised eyebrow as I scrutinized the wrinkled old woman and tried to imagine the southern belle of high society that she was describing. However, I couldn’t see past her filmy eyes set deep into the sockets and her weathered face, wrinkled with the signs of a long life. It was more than my imagination could conjure up.
“Before I knew it, William Jr. started a family of his own, and life had given me a second chance. He had the most adorable daughters, mirror images of my handsome son. A grandmother should dote on her grandchildren, brag about them to all of her friends, spoil them rotten.
“I can admit now I was a complete failure with them, too. If life wasn’t revolving around me, it held no interest. If those girls didn’t behave like I thought they should, I broke ties with my son for months at a time. I realize now it was my shortcomings, not theirs.”
“Ma’am, I don’t mean to interrupt this fascinating life story, but why are you telling all of this?”
“Because, my dear,” she explained. “Life is so short. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, and it’s so true. One day you’re young with your whole life ahead of you. The next you have a family. They have their family. Then you’re gone from this world.”
She began her journey back toward the tree, and I followed quietly behind.
“I passed away right under that very tree, and no one came looking for me until the next day.”
I stopped in my tracks not sure if I heard her correctly, but she kept walking never looking back.
“At first I was furious. How dare they take so long to find me? And then a funny thing happened. From my temper and self absorption, the leaves on the tree started to wither and fall. However, once I saw my family’s faces as they carried me away, I was filled with joy at seeing them again.
“The leaves on the tree flourished, and I watched my family live and grow. I heard their laughter, watched them play, and enjoyed the simple moments. I finally learned what was important in life.”
“What happened to cause the death of this tree?” I asked too caught up in the story now to notice its absurdity.
“Slowly, one by one they all died. The land was sold off, and my descendants have moved on. I have nothing to “live” for. I learned too late to appreciate the people in my life more than myself.” Her face grew tight as if she was going to cry, but no tears came. “It’s too late for me, but it isn’t too late for you. You were sent here to hear my story. Every so often one of you is. It’s the reason you drove down this road tonight and stopped to take a picture. Now run along, I must be getting back.”
I left her at the tree with a smile and turned towards my car. Her words made perfect sense, and I intended to take them to heart. My life had become self indulgent and all about me.
I looked back to ask her one last question, but she was gone. Staring at the tree one last time, I no longer saw the face. The branches no longer looked like hands or wild hair. It just looked like a tree, a dead old tree.
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