Madeline sat in a chair by the window of the second story bedroom that had been hers as a child. She’d almost nodded off when the chainsaw roared again. Madeline opened her eyes and frowned. How could she fall asleep when those men outside were slicing her life into sections two feet long and stacking them in their truck?
She shook her head then. It was getting old that did that.
The tree was her life, well, at least a lot of her life had revolved around it. Her grandfather had dug that tree from a forest on his farm the day after she was born and had planted it beside the house. It had been slender and supple then, just a little thicker than a broomstick. When the wind blew, the tree yielded to the blast and shook a little, but straightened back up as soon as the wind stopped its assault.
It bent a little when she and her friends wrapped the trunk in ribbons for a maypole dance. She was six then. Madeline thought it odd she should remember something like that when that morning, she couldn’t remember where she’d put her house slippers.
Yes, back then nothing seemed to be able to harm that tree. Even when she was sixteen, it was still that way, just bending a little while the wind stripped a few leaves from the canopy of branches, and then standing back up, as tall as ever. It was like the tree laughed at the wind, laughed at the force it knew could never defeat it. She’d been like that too, back then.
First, it was William. He’d been her first boyfriend and wanted to be her first lover. On their second date, he tried to kiss her. Madeline had let him, but when he began fondling her breast, she pulled away and told him to stop. William had taken her home and said he’d never speak to her again.
She’d been crushed and cried. Her mother talked to her about why what she did was right and that she should remember she was a person with the right to determine who did what with her. Her mother said any boy who couldn’t respect that wasn’t worth her time.
It didn’t happen that night, or the next, but like the tree after the wind, Madeline squared her shoulders, held up her head, and went on with her life.
There were other boys after that, but she didn’t let them get any further than a kiss. All of them except Jack left her standing on her porch with tears in her eyes. With each, she’d cried, but with each, it took less time for her to remember what her mother had said and brush off the rejection.
Jack had been different. Madeline had told him no, but he didn’t get mad. He’d just smiled and said, “OK, but can I see you again sometime?” Madeline had run into the house to tell her mother she thought Jack really liked her.
Madeline looked out the window and saw the limb that reached almost to the window shake, then slowly begin to fall. It picked up speed, then a loud crack split the air as it broke from the main trunk and fell to the ground. Madeline felt the crack as if it had been one of her own bones breaking. That limb had been the way she sneaked from her bedroom to meet Jack when they were both seniors in high school.
Jack would toss a pebble at her window to let her know he was there. Madeline would open her window and carefully step out onto that same limb. By holding on to the limb above it, she’d work her way to the trunk and then climb down. Back then, it had seemed easy, but then, back then she was strong, just like the trunk of the tree had become over the years.
She’d meet Jack under that tree and they’d spend an hour or two together before Madeline climbed back up the tree, edged out over the limb, and went back into her bedroom. By that time, they’d been dating for a year, and he didn’t have to try to kiss her. As soon as her feet hit the ground, Madeline would throw her arms around his neck and kiss him until one of them had to stop in order to breathe.
Jack would always try to touch her, and after weeks of resisting when she really didn’t want to, she let him slip his hand under her blouse. It was there, under that same tree that Jack had fondled her breast through her bra for the first time.
Jack had been so happy when he felt her small breast. Madeline had felt something else besides his hand. She’d felt a stirring deep inside her body, the stirring her mother had warned her about. Madeline knew she should stop Jack, but she couldn’t. All she could do was kiss him again and let the tingles of the kiss join the sensations from her breast and crash together in her tummy.
That summer, Madeline had turned eighteen. One of her birthday presents had been a key to the house along with a note from her mother telling Madeline she could come and go as she pleased now. That night, her mother had knocked on Madeline’s bedroom door. They’d talked for a while about what Madeline was going to do now. Then her mother smiled.
“I got you a key so you wouldn’t have to climb up and down that tree every night. There were a couple of times I was afraid you’d fall.”
Madeline’s mouth fell open.
“You knew about that and you didn’t try to stop me?”
Her mother had touched her hand.
“Maddy, I was your age once, and I remember how it feels. You promised me you wouldn’t do anything you’d regret later. I did watch you and Jack sometimes, and you didn’t let him do anything I didn’t let your father do before we were married. I knew I could trust you so I didn’t do anything.
“Now that you’re an adult, I know I can’t stop you from doing what you want, and I know what you want to do. All I ask is be true to yourself and if you decide to sleep with Jack, make sure it’s what you really want and that you don’t end up pregnant before you’re married.”
Another sharp crack shook Madeline from the daydream as another branch fell to the ground. The men had waited until the limbs had dropped all their leaves and the tree was now just the gnarled skeleton of what had once been a thick, shading canopy taller than the house. As the men cut one twisted branch after another, it was like they were cutting off her own gnarled fingers. Age did that to both trees and people, she reflected, contorted once strong and straight into twisted and weak.
When she was eighteen and Jack had been drafted, she hadn’t given aging a thought. All she thought about every day at the war plant and every night before she fell asleep was Jack, was he all right, and would he come home. The days couldn’t go by fast enough. Now, it seemed like they’d just had Christmas and it was coming around again. I shouldn’t be that way, thought Madeline. When you’re young and have every thing ahead of you, the days should go by fast. When you’re old, they should slow down and give you more time to live.
The night before he boarded the train, she’d told Jack she wanted him to make her a woman, but Jack had stroked her face and smiled.
“Maddy, neither of us knows how this is going to turn out. I don’t want to take that from you when I might not be able to come home and marry you.”
Madeline had held him close for a long time that night, and the next morning, she’d run along the station platform beside the train window Jack leaned out of until the platform ended. As the train pulled away from town, Madeline had turned around with tears in her eyes and then driven back home.
Every evening when it was warm and light enough, she sat in a lawn chair under that tree and wrote letters to Jack. If it was light enough, she’d run her fingers over the heart with “Jack + Maddy” inside that Jack had carved into the trunk with his pocketknife. She’d remember that night, smile, and then begin writing how things had gone for her that day. She ended every letter with “Until you kiss me under the tree again, Love Maddy”. She read Jack’s letters under that tree every Sunday. He didn’t have time to write more often, and Madeline would always wait until Sunday so she could read his letter more than once before having to do something else.
When it got cold, she’d sit in her bedroom to read his letters and to write to him. It wasn’t the same as sitting under the tree where he’d kissed her the first time, but she could look out the window and see the branches, naked and sometimes with white lines of snow, and remember.
Four years took forever to end, but Jack did come home. She met him at the station, and when he stepped off the train, Madeline smothered him with kisses and wet the shoulder of his uniform with her tears. Two weeks later, when Jack had found a job, he proposed while she sat in the same lawn chair where she’d written all her letters. They had a short honeymoon at a hotel a few miles away, and it was in that hotel room Madeline had finally given herself to Jack.
Madeline smiled as the chainsaws stopped while the men loaded the small branches into their truck. Looking back, it was funny, that first night they were together as man and wife. Neither one really knew what they were doing. Jack would just try something and then ask Madeline if it felt good. Most of what he did was good, good enough that Madeline had been eager for him to kneel between her upraised thighs and make that first thrust that would end the girl and begin the woman.
She’d yelped when that happened, and had tears in her eyes for the few moments it took Jack to groan and thrust fast and deep. She’d been sore afterward, and Jack had said he could wait since they had forever ahead of them.
The second time, Madeline tensed when Jack knelt between her legs. He’d been so gentle she barely felt the first push. She felt his second, relaxed and let herself open, and when that didn’t hurt, her hips lurched up all by themselves. Madeline didn’t remember much else about that second time except the end. That came with a tension that built, then caused her to arch her back, then took her away from everything as waves of agonizing pleasure swept through her. She was still feeling those waves when Jack groaned and then collapsed on top of her.
The chainsaws started their grating, whining roar again as Madeline looked around the room where she and Jack had spent the first years of their marriage. It hadn’t changed much except for a new bed and new wallpaper.
Madeline’s father had passed away during the war, so she and Jack moved into her old bedroom in her mother’s house. Madeline didn’t mind. Her mother had Madeline late in life and was getting on in years. She needed someone to mow the grass and to make repairs on the house when needed. Jack loved Madeline’s mother almost as much as he loved Madeline, and he was happy with the arrangement.
A year and a half later, Madeline needed help doing things and her mother was there to help her. Little Kimberly was planned, but Madeline hadn’t realized how much work a baby could be. Her mother patiently showed her how to take care of a baby, and once Kimberly could walk and eat by herself, Madeline’s mother shared the responsibility of looking after her. That was good, because Madeline was eight month’s pregnant again. Jack Junior was born two years less one day from Kimberly’s birthday.
A branch scraped the side of the house just then, and Madeline remembered the ice storm the year her mother had passed away. It hadn’t been cold enough to snow, but it had been too cold to rain. What fell from the sky was a sort of slushy rain that stuck to the limbs of the trees and accumulated. All that night, Madeline had lain in bed next to Jack and heard the sharp pops as branch after branch yielded to the weight, snapped, and brushed the side of the house as they fell to the ground.
Jack had just gotten all those branches cleaned up when her mother complained of a pain in her chest. Her mother thought it was just indigestion, but Jack wasn’t convinced. Jack took her to the doctor who sent her immediately to the hospital. He called her from there to tell Madeline her mother had passed away, and that he’d be home to get here as soon as he could.
It was that same year that Kimberly married Jerry. Jerry was a good boy, Madeline thought, and he treated Kimberly well. She and Jack had moved downstairs when her mother passed away, so she told Kimberly she and Jerry could live upstairs until they could find a place of their own.
One Saturday afternoon, Madeline went upstairs to put some clean sheets in the hall closet. As she passed by the door to Kimberly and Jerry’s room she heard Kimberly gasp and then cry out. Madeline smiled until she heard Kimberly say, “God I love when you do that. Now screw me.”
Madeline grinned then. She hadn’t been happy that Kimberly had used such coarse language, but she understood.
Jack’s job was working as a maintenance man for the local university. He was putting a new door on a closet in one of the dorm rooms one summer and found a paperback book on one of the shelves. He brought it home with him, and he and Madeline spent half an hour reading it together that night.
The book was a collection of stories about men who give oral sex to women. After they read a few of the stories, Jack turned to Madeline and grinned.
Madeline didn’t say anything. She just took off her nightgown and panties, stretched out on the bed, and opened her legs. Jack had tentatively licked her lips, and then began doing what they’d read about.
Madeline smiled. She’d done the same thing she’d just heard Kimberly do. At first, it was exciting because it was new. After a while it became more than exciting. Jack’s tongue was taking her there faster than she’d ever before experienced. At the end, she’d cried out, arched into Jack’s face, and gripped the sheets until her knuckles turned white.
When her heart stopped beating like a jackhammer, Madeline had grinned and said, “That book was right, but I’m still aroused. Do me like we always do, right now.”
As another branch popped and fell to the ground, Madeline grinned again. That night, Kimberly had asked her why she was grinning so much. Madeline had just said she was happy, but inside she was remembering the many times Jack had taken her that way, first with his fingers and tongue and then by joining with her.
There was a loud thunk from outside, and Madeline went to look out the window again.
The skeleton of the tree was now just a bare spine. The thunk had been the very top falling to the ground. Now, there was just the ragged trunk, stripped of its limbs, and standing alone and awaiting the next attack from the chainsaw. Madeline could almost feel how the tree must feel. She’d felt that way when she was sixty-eight.
For a while that year, she’d wished she could just die and get it over with. Jack Junior had decided upon a career in the military. He’d made it through two tours of Vietnam and come home as a Staff Sergeant. Madeline had sighed in relief when the Vietnam War ended. Jack Junior wouldn’t have to go back.
Jack Junior would be safe now. He’d serve his remaining time before retirement in the peacetime army and be safe. She was pleased to hear he’d been assigned to the Canal Zone in Panama. He wrote the weather was great and the scenery more than she’d ever believe. He’d also been promoted to Master Sergeant. He wanted her and Jack to fly down the next summer for a visit.
Just before Christmas that year, the news on television said the US Army had invaded Panama. Madeline was worried when she hadn’t received a phone call or letter from Jack Junior by New Year’s Day. On the 2nd of January, a black sedan pulled into their drive and a man in an Army uniform got out and walked up to their door.
Three months after she watched the aluminum coffin being lowered into the ground, she woke up to find Jack already up and sitting in a chair in the living room. She asked why he’d gotten up so early. Jack said he couldn’t breathe very well and he couldn’t sleep. He looked pale to Madeline, so she took him to the doctor.
It was nearly the same scenario he’d described about her mother. The doctor looked at Jack, listened to his heart for about three seconds, and then called an ambulance. Madeline rode in the ambulance holding Jack’s hand, and heard him say, “I love you”, before he slipped quietly away.
She’d lost the two men who mattered most in her life, and Madeline didn’t know if she could endure that. For weeks, she moped around, sometimes crying, but usually just sitting and thinking. It was in April when the tree began leafing out that she went outside, sat down in the lawn chair, and ran her fingertips over the heart carved into the trunk of the tree. It was hard to see now, but it was still there after all those years.
That heart made it easier to accept her loss. As long as that carved heart was there, Jack was too, at least in her mind. Jack Junior was too. When he was seven, he’d found Jack’s hatchet and tried to chop down that tree. When Madeline had asked him why, he said the teacher had told them a story about George Washington, and he wanted to be like George Washington.
The marks in the bark were still there, though time had mostly healed them. Like the tree healed its wounds, Madeline had once again stood up, straightened her shoulders, and lifted her head. If her tree could live through wind, ice, and Jack Junior’s attempt to chop it down, she could live on too even though she’d lost so much.
Madeline laughed quietly as she looked out the window again. She and the tree had grown so much alike over the years. When they were both young, they were both slender and supple. As the years passed, they’d both gotten a little thicker. Now, they were both wide at the base and thinner at the top.
Her breasts had grown from small to large once she turned fifty, and Jack was happy. Now, they lay flat on her chest. She knew Jack wouldn’t have cared. He’d told her that when he found the lump. The doctor sat them both down and explained that complete removal was the best choice, but there were other options and that she’d have to decide.
That night, they’d sat down with a cup of coffee and discussed those options. Jack had tried to make her decision easy. He just said he loved her, not her breasts, and that whatever she decided wouldn’t change that.
Madeline had thought about that for two days, and decided she’d rather take the risk of just removing the lump. Taking her breast would be taking away part of what made her a woman. Jack had just nodded, then held her close while she cried on his shoulder.
The last section of the trunk fell to the ground with a thud, and Madeline walked down the stairs and then outside. One of the men with the crew walked up with two small slabs of the tree.
“We got ‘em, Ma’am, just like you wanted. It was kinda hard to find the heart, but we got all of it. The hatchet marks were easy and we got all them too. Oh, and that last section of trunk we left six feet long like you wanted. It’s over there by your garage.”
Madeline thanked him, picked up the two small slabs and walked over to the garage. Tim, the man who had married her granddaughter Melody, liked woodworking. He said if she wanted, he’d mount the two slabs in frames and if she’d let him have a piece of the trunk, he’d make her something.
Tim was a real gem, almost like Jack, she thought. That’s why she’d offered to let them live in her house after they were married. They didn’t have much money because they were both in college. Tim did a little woodworking in addition to his part time job at the university, and was doing pretty well at selling what he made. He wanted to be an architect, and Madeline had no doubts he’d make it.
She turned at a different sound and saw the tree men running what looked like a giant saw over what remained of the stump of her tree. In less than ten minutes, all that remained was a pile of sawdust and dirt. Madeline sat the two small slabs of wood inside the garage and then went into the house. Her tree was just a memory now, and she felt tired.
The little girl held on to the trunk of the sapling planted just a few feet from the house and shook it until the leaves rustled. At the sound, Melody looked up from her book.
Madeline, don’t pull on that tree. You’ll break it.”
The little girl trotted over to Melody’s side.
“I wasn’t going to break it. I just like to hear the leaves.”
“Well, your great grandmother planted that tree just for you, and she wouldn’t like it if she saw you shaking it.”
“Mommy, why did she plant a tree for me?”
Melody shook her head. Madeline was almost five and every other thing that came out of her mouth was a question.
“Honey, she planted it because she said every little girl needs a tree.”
“Why do I need a tree?”
“I don’t know, Honey. The day I brought you home from the hospital, there she was with two men planting it. She just said you needed one so she was planting one in the same place her tree used to be.”
“I don’t remember her.”
“No, Honey, you wouldn’t. You were only two when she went to be with Great Grandpa Jack.”
“Will she ever come back?”
“No, Madeline, she can’t come back. I think maybe that’s why she planted the tree, so you’d have someway to remember her.”
“Do you remember her?”
“Yes. She was a very nice lady and sometimes she told me stories when I went to bed.”
“Did she tell me stories too?”
“Yes, Honey. You were just too little to remember.”
“Will my tree grow as big as the rest of our trees?”
“Yes, Madeline. All trees do, just like little girls grow up to be women.”
Little Madeline frowned.
“I don’t want to be a woman. I just want to play. If I don’t shake it anymore, can I go play under my tree?”
“Sure Honey. I think your great grandma would like it if you did.”
Melody watched little Madeline trot off to the tree. Some day, when Madeline was old enough, she’d tell her some of Grandma Madeline’s stories, the same stories Melody had started hearing right after her eleventh birthday. Those stories would help little Madeline understand about the tree. Until then, she could be just a little girl playing under her own tree.