Memory and Moment
14 Apr. 17
James stepped out of his Jeep, quietly pushing the door shut behind him. There was no one around to disturb with the noise but he felt the silence and he did not want to shatter it. A burst of wind from the approaching storm pushed its way through the trees, creating brief tornadoes of leaves that danced in the scattered pools of sunlight between the massive oaks.
He walked down the steep bank, not bothering to watch his step. He had made the trip here so many times that he could, and often had, made his way in the dark. His destination was several hundred yards into the old hardwood forest. James and his grandfather had found the spot nearly half a century before and would often come out to the spot and sit, James would listen in rapt silence as his grandfather would tell stories about what the trees had seen.
The leaves from last years fall were dry in the heat of another hot southern spring. James walked steadily along the bottom of the low ridge as they crackled under his boots. His destination was unmistakable now despite the wealth of old, gnarled great oaks that stood like silent guards all around. He reached the end of the ridge, its abrupt end a testament to the power of the river that ran through ten thousand years before. He looked up at the tree he had come to sit under. It jutted upward from a point halfway down the slope, its top towered nearly seventy feet above him, its base was so large that three grown men could not link hands around it. James smiled at that memory. The year before his grandfather had passed into heaven, James, his father and his grandfather had tried to encircle the old tree but had come up at least a foot short.
James clambered up the slope, walking along the gigantic roots that lay exposed like the bones of the earth itself. The wind played in the limbs above him, waving like the familiar greeting of a long time friend. He sat down in the spot his grandfather had first set him in so long ago. In those early years James had fit between the roots like they had grown just for him to fit there. Even now, with so many decades of time between that first discovery and today’s visit, the roots still fit perfectly for him to sit and lean back into. As James had grown and matured, so had his old friend. He looked up, peering through the branches and the dark green leaves at the pale blue sky and the swift moving wisps of white that heralded the oncoming torrent.
Looking out over the forest floor he could still tell the track that General Johnston had followed north from Corinth to meet his fate at Shiloh. The same track that General Grant had followed south only a few days later. James could almost see the columns of grey walking confidently toward the river a few miles away and the endless line of blue that went the other way soon after. He closed his eyes and almost heard the tree whisper his grandfather’s tales back to him.
This tree had been where James came for clarity and peace for so long that he knew no other way to find it. Here, underneath the sky and the leaves, James could think and decide. This is where James had decided to become a soldier when he was only seventeen. Here is where he had decided to reenlist three years later, the bullet wound in his shoulder still aching. He had made the same decision three years later, a cane leaning beside him because of the shrapnel below his knee. This is where he had decided to close that chapter a few years later, a shiny new cane leaning on his tree from the still sore wound in his hip.
James opened his eyes, the clouds had grown heavier. The brief glimpses of blue now the exception as the thunder rolled far to the east. He needed clarity, but had gotten only memory. This perch between the roots of his tree was where he had decided that she was the one back in 1996. It was also where he had decided to close that chapter twelve years later.
When grandfather had passed, he left this land to James, it had been their place for so long that it needed to be his place then. James had skimped and saved for many years to buy the land to the north and to the west. Grandfather had left the land to the south and the east to his own son, James’ uncle. When uncle passed he left that to James as well. The rest of the family had been angry at grandfather and uncle, but they had chosen money over memory. James could have as well, he smiled a little at this. The world thought that now was all there was or would ever be. To him, his place in a changing world was anchored to an ancient tree deep in a forest that no one could touch.
That spot was where James had brought his newborn son and set the boy in his spot between the roots and whispered his true name so that only the three of them would know it. Two years later, he and the boy had brought James daughter here and set her in the same spot and whispered her name so that only those that would love her forever would know it.
James looked up again. There was no blue above him, only grey and the leaves tossing in the rising wind. The thunder pealed and the ground rumbled, he felt the chill of the coming rain but he had not found what it was he needed. He and the great tree would weather the storm and relive the memory held deep in the roots until James found his answer.
He had come here when his father died. James and the tree replayed a lifetime of memory until he had reached a place where he could look beyond the grief. James had come here when uncle died and they had relived the stories and the lessons about the forest and the animals that lived here. The remembrance flashed through his minds eye, time meant nothing as decades played out in seconds in living color and with the voices of those gone now from new adventures and quiet conversations.
James had new memories to explore and new decisions to make. Life had been a series of lurches forward and stumbles back for a while now. He had spent his life in the discipline of a soldier, a husband and a father. Honor, duty and respect were all he had ever known. This new age knew nothing of that code. James had not had time to see the new world until recently. It had proven to be a cold, alien place that his memory had no grasp on. He had learned though, he had explored this new landscape. He had reached out and been pushed back only to reach out again and this time find a welcoming hand. From the perspective that had been shared with him James had learned that while the world had changed it had learned nothing.
Everything that had been true in his life had been abandoned for cliché and simulation. Like the products that line the shelves in brightly colored boxes, today was a throwaway moment whose purpose was to trick you into living for tomorrow when all it truly offers is the empty promise of more of the same.
James felt wetness on his cheek. The rain had come. The fat heavy drops filtered through the leaves and fell with a gentle thud onto the leaves and onto his face. Around him the storm raged, rivulets of water flowed down the hillside carrying the old leaves and exposing the new growth underneath. Above him though the great tree waved its limbs, catching the torrent and slowing it to a gentle drenching of warm southern rain.
Now James understood what had brought him here once again. He stood, almost smiling as clarity came to his mind. He looked out at the old wagon track, he saw again the lines of grey marching north in pride and stubborn resistance of the change that swept down toward them. He saw the lines of blue marching south to bring change and build it from the blood and bones of those that would resist the tide. He saw beautiful blue eyes and blonde hair in the east Texas moonlight. He heard himself whisper a name in his daughters ear. His memory laid to rest his father, his uncle and so many more. He felt the sting of a bullet in a jungle. The rush of wind as he leapt into the darkness of a desert. James heard the smile as he said “I Do” and the choking sound of “No more”.
James made his way through the dim light and the pouring rain, laughing as he slipped in the wet leaves. What had made him come out here to visit his old bark covered friend had been a false alarm. He understood now that while most live for today and others live for tomorrow, we all really only live in the past. No matter how hard people try, the moment is gone and tomorrow may not come at all. He won’t waste his time on people and things that are not worth remembering. He will be the tree. His memories will be of adventures worth the risks and loves worth the time. He was done playing the game. We come into life alone, kicking and screaming at the change and spend our lives looking for more. We go through life looking for that “other” that can give us the change we instinctively crave.
James was done. He would be the tree. He would dig his roots deeply into his little patch of earth and live his adventures and create a past worth remembering. He would welcome those that want to create those memories with him. The rest of the world can go buy another fleeting moment off the shelf.
14 Apr. 17