Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Cherry Tree

Conversations surrounding the cherry tree out front of our new home started the weekend we moved in. My father-in-law and his fiance chattered about what kind of cherry tree it might be - it looked unique. They've since followed up with texts, phone calls - photos have been exchanged.

Apparently, it is a certain kind of cherry tree. A special kind. But I haven't quiet caught the name of it. Rather, David has told me but I can't remember it. To be honest, as soon as I hear "cherry tree" or think "cherry tree," things get a little fuzzy. Words become incomprehensible and I feel a strong force pulling me back to a lush and vibrant memory.


I spent the early summer months of 2007 living with a widow in her thatched cottage in northeastern France, just outside the city of Dijon. (The birthplace of mustard!) While the house was in a neighborhood, it felt remote - miles away from public transportation and quiet as if it had been deserted many years ago.

Silence. That's what I remember most about my time there. Silent mornings, not even birds chirping - the smell of coffee brewing. My host mother  in her dressing gown padding around the living room, snipping leaves off of small plants on windowsills. She was a small and frail woman with a short, playful haircut and a deep sadness creeping in from the edges of her face. Her eyes always appeared as if she'd just been crying; her mouth, a small crooked link of pale pink, rested in a slight frown. Even when she attempted a smile a frown always found its way in.

She had lost her husband, an esteemed train conductor, a few years back and she had started taking in foreign students to fill the emptiness in her home upon the suggestion of a close friend. She talked to me about him regularly in broken English, her voice breathy and jumpy. She missed him, her other half. She was a severed whole - now a half just trying to get by without all of her moving parts. 

"Ma cherie," she called me; French for "my dear." I like to think she pretended those of us who stayed with her became adopted children. A mother of three boys - now men - of her own, she played the role of mother well. Preparing coffee and breakfast before my classes and deliciously fresh dinners of stuffed tomatoes and peppers; roasted leg of lamb; warm and slender baguettes baked just hours before. Lecturing me for my long, late-night phone conversations back to the States. Wanting to know my plans, where I would be going, when I would be home. Correcting mistakes in my French, asking me to repeat words back to her until I got the pronunciation right.

Despite her hospitality, the piece de resistance was the small fruit-bearing cherry tree in her backyard. After dinner, she'd reach for the smooth ceramic bowl and push it toward me. After the first time, I didn't need instruction. I would make my way to the backyard - among the roses and rare flowers lining the back fence, breathing in the warmth of the summer evening - and pick cherries. My longer slender fingers weaving in between the equally slender branches, plucking the small red globs with a snap of the wrist. I can still hear the rhythmic sound of them plop. plop. plop-ing into my bowl, interrupted occasionally by my stealing a taste of the bounty.

Snapshot of the roses in her garden.
We'd sit in chairs on the back porch popping cherries, watching storms roll across the sky, hearing bees buzz and flit from flower to flower. I don't remember a single conversation we had out there - only the silence and the taste of the juice on my tongue. The perfect calm. My worries and fear, my past - all of it an ocean away. Her sadness, confusion tucked away for a while longer. There was, at once, so much and nothing at all in the world to say.

I'll never forget the last time I saw her. She brought me to the train as I left the city for the last time. I was fleeing my studies and heading south to Greece for the last leg of my trip. After many hugs and tears, I left her and slid into a window seat. I sat there watching her for a long time - she didn't move or fidget. She didn't check her phone. Her eyes stayed locked on mine, where they remained as the train slowly came to life and began sliding forward, pulling me - her temporary stranger - away from her. Maybe it was the memory of her husband, of her sons growing up and moving away from home, of the torturous cycle of "hello" and "goodbye" over and over again. Or maybe it was me, our secret bond of so many quiet evenings spent side by side. Her body jolted; she clutched her handkerchief and covered her mouth. I could see she was crying. She waved and blew kisses, the day's mild wind picking up the edges of her red scarf and making them dance. The train was picking up speed; there was nothing I could do about it - no power within me to stay. A heavy sob rose from my chest and I waved back furiously, hoping a simple gesture could express all of the things I wanted to say to her all of those evenings that the silence had kept at bay.

More than "Merci." More than "I'm sorry." More than "I'll write to you."

Something like: I will never forget you, your generosity - the love I felt in every hug you gave me. It seems impossible but I know one day you'll find another broken half that will make you feel complete. And I want you to know I will think of you throughout my life, every so often, when a stranger shows me kindness or offers me a warm meal, when I'm lost in the stillness of a summer evening, and - strongly, almost unbearably - whenever I see soft, doughy blooms hanging loosely from the limbs of a cherry tree.



alison hughes said...

What a beautiful story. I just filled up reading it. It almost sounded like a dream. It's so nice that you could be there for one another.

Deforest Bouve said...

I love this ... I wish I had been able to visit but Aidan was just taking his first steps and so was E.

DoshTate said...

What a lovely post and memory. Her kindness endures forever with your heartfelt story!