Ivy League

I was the master of procrastination before I could pronounce the word. At bedtime, in 1994, I’d ask my dad to take me around the yard, and sometimes even to the median across the the street — to say goodnight to all of the trees, each of them, individually. Our house on Woodmoor Drive was special to me in so many ways, and the trees were my favorite part. They were much older than the house, and so strong, assuring me that they would be there forever, standing guard over my little universe. In the summer, we would count the fireflies as we made our rounds. I would make those nights last forever, prolonging bed time with each hug of a trunk and quick kiss of a branch, as if thanking each tree for being there for me through the night when my parents would be sleeping and I couldn’t look after myself.

Everything changed inside and outside of the house over the years, as a family home does. A three person unit became a family of five with the arrival of Jack and then MaryClare. We knocked out the single car garage and expanded our kitchen to make space for the holiday festivities and graduation parties that would follow. My bedroom eventually came to be my little brother’s, and baseball wallpaper was plastered over the periwinkle paint. The walls in the kitchen were a deep red, like my mom’s evening wine, for a while, and then pink — the kind of bright pink that made Mom happy even when it was grey outside. My dad and I joked that it was Pepto Bismol colored, which did not go over well. As for the outside of the house, that changed too. The stone walkway that led from the latch on the white picket fence became evenly laid symmetrical bricks, which reduced trips and falls, and made shoveling the snow a little easier.

Some changes happened quicker than others. There were immediate transformations, like the weekend my mom decided to paint the white whicker furniture on the side porch bright turquoise; and gradual ones, like the plants in the garden changing with a few choices here and there from one season to the next, until you barely even noticed that the flowerbed had become a collection of completely different colors and shapes than it had been five years ago.

The changing of the seasons was the only unchanging inconsistency one could count on, and my favorite way to watch them change was through the leaves on the trees. I have memories of those trees, each of them special for some reason or another, unique to me from the time I was four — the nights when I would bid them each a goodnight; said thank you for their shade, and breeze, and leaves, and the way their branches waved good morning through my bedroom window (making me privy to the first sign of snow on a snow day on their stiff, frozen twigs, or the first hints of spring emerging with little green buds in April).

The V shaped tree looked the oldest, with its bark a graying light brown, and particular flakey, its branches yielding leaves that grew in spurts, like bald spots in its mane of hair. Nuzzles, my calico kitty, got caught up in the highest branches one day when she was showing off just how high she could climb. Her eyes were so round and pale green looking down at us in panic, when her front paw slipped and she realized she was a cat cliche — stuck in the tree. I’d never seen her so scared. My dad was a hero that day as he climbed the ladder, like a fireman, to rescue Nuzzles, even though he always complained about how much hair she shed and how she bullied our sweet black lab, Nellie.

My mom’s favorite tree was the oak tree by the driveway. It was one of the older trees in the yard and its branches spewed like a canopy over the cars, welcoming us in the side door entrance to the kitchen. Her favorite part about it was the emerald ivy that crawled down the length of the trunk and weaved its way around the pickets of the fence, and overtook the top of the wooden mailbox on the corner. My Dad worked so hard on our yard, and this year, in the final, steaming days of August, when all the ivy leaves had turned a baked brown, and Mom and I were back-to-school shopping at the mall, he did a little “landscaping” on the oak. It must have taken him all day, because when we came home as the sun was setting, there was something different about the way the driveway looked upon approach. The space looked bigger, somehow, more empty. Mom knew immediately. “Oh NO!” she exclaimed with genuine sadness, completely contrasting my father’s oblivious face, beaming with a sense of accomplishment as he waved the minivan into the parking space, showing off his handiwork.

“What did you do?” She said through the oncoming tears. And I had to admit, that the sight saddened me a little too. It looked like the tree had gotten a bad haircut. The mailbox, which we could now see in full view, was crooked. The pickets that were previously covered in the picturesque vines were discolored in the places where the sun had not shown all summer. So it was bad hair cut, and tanlines situation. Dad couldn’t get his head around why she was taking this so hard. The ivy was taking over, he reasoned, plus, it was hard for the mailman to get to the mailbox; it was tricky to see around the leaves when you were backing out of the driveway. All valid points. And his most valid — it’s a plant (technically weeds for God’s sake!) it’ll grow back!

But that was where he was wrong. The thing with most ivy is that when you trim it, the entire vine dies, and takes years and years to regrow. We would be looking at that light brown bald trunk, crooked mailbox, and dirty fence for years. My dad is the most rational of men, but he is also the most kind, and I could see the empathy cross his brow — not sad for himself and the long days’ work he had put in to be met with fury, but sad for my mother’s tears, and the fact that he didn’t have a way to fix it. Not today, or tomorrow, or next year.

The ivy incident went down in history and eventually, and perhaps most importantly, led to a collaboration between my parents as the landscapers. My mom’s eye for color in the home translated well to the gardens, and she found places for plants in every crevice of earth that surrounded the house, and cleared away bits of mud to make room for mulch. We had a summer of fresh tomatoes, and a lovely herb garden another year. The basil was so fresh and she loved skipping over it at the grocery store because that was “one thing crossed off the list already.” But the best were her climbing roses. The most delicate pink roses; beautiful in every stage of bloom, but particularly, she loved the way they climbed up the brick wall of our house, almost all the way to the roof, like they had a life of their own and wanted to keep reaching higher.

The years passed, and I would come home from college on the weekends in my red beetle and as I rounded the corner, I’d see my dad mowing the lawn, and my mom knee deep in her latest “transplanting” project. Together, they created and cared for a garden that looked beautiful in and out of bloom — even in the snow or rain. Over the years, they mastered selecting the plants that even the meanest of winters couldn’t snuff out. It grew and grew. And so too did the ivy again, slowly, without anyone really noticing it, except maybe the mailman.

I met my dad at BWI airport in late August. I was coming home for a full two weeks — the longest time I would be in my childhood home since I had moved to New York for graduate school five years prior. He was picking me up from an international flight, as I had been working as an assistant across the Atlantic. I felt lost going through customs, much more used to LAX or JFK’s broad terminals by now than the humbler halls of Baltimore-Washington.

We drove in silence, except for the static of the baseball game on the radio, and he let me talk when I wanted to, and listened with that kind empathy of his. Over the years (and definitely since the most recent election) he had lost a sense of the surprise which he used to possess when someone talked about crazy experiences, or painful experiences, or ones that he’d never imagine for his 26 year old daughter to go through hundreds of miles away from home. But he listened stoically, and he took it in, and was, as always, happy that I was home, even if he didn’t say it out loud.

As we rounded the corner onto Woodmoor Drive, I saw Mom notice his car through the kitchen window, as if she had been waiting. She disappeared for a second and reemerged, busting the screen door open with a clatter. She met us at the driveway before we had pulled all the way in, and embraced me in a long hug, one that made me feel years younger, and made me want to cry for reasons I thought I could handle inside my own mind, alone. We both wiped a few tears and walked to the door, but first, I had to comment on the ivy. After all of those years — after that decade, actually, the ivy had grown back. I knew because she had told me on the phone months ago, and we laughed about the Great Ivy Incident of 2002, which my father may not ever live down. But I noticed now, that it was trimmed again, but not with the same disregard for the beauty of the way the leaves laid across the mailbox and the fence and nestled into the bark of the tree. It was trimmed with care — no cuts to the vine itself. “What’dya think, Jos?” my dad said, as all of us remembered. I glanced at mother, who, beaming, shrugged. “Sometimes you have to cut something off so that everything else can grow.”