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The Pine Tree by Joy Weitzel
“Pollen from the male pine cone will drift with the wind, hoping to reach a female pine cone…”
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The Pine Cone
Pollen from the male pine cone will drift with the wind, hoping to reach a female pine cone. Within the female pine cone, fertilization will occur. The male pine cone will be shed from the tree. He will drop to the ground, useless. High above the earth, a seed will begin to form in the womb of the female. She will not mourn for the lost male; she will begin to ripen.
June 2, 1731. Martha Dandridge is born. She will grow to a height of five feet and be topped with brown locks. She will attract the attention of Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy Virginian landowner, and marry him. She will bear him four children. Only two will survive past five years of age. Martha will weep.
I will ride in the back of a pick-up truck down the back roads of Arenac County. This will be vacation. Grandpa will sit in the driver’s seat and drive slow. His arm will hang out of the open window, clad in blue flannel rolled up to his elbow, white hair trembling in the moving air. Take note of the green pines bordering yellowing meadows and fields. Look in the shadows beneath the tall trees.
The female pine cone will release her seeds. In the end, she will fall from the branches of the pine and land at its feet. Her duty will be complete. Her seed will be ripe and ready to fall or be carried by the wind or an animal to the earth, successfully leaving the parent.
July 8, 1757. At the age of 26, Martha Custis will become a widow. Daniel Parke Custis will die, returning to the dust. While mourning a lost love, her duties will expand as she will care for two young children and a plantation of three hundred slaves. She will harvest tobacco, manage finances, and lend money to neighboring planters, all the while, raising Jacky and Patsy. In eighteen months, she will marry the young military man, George Washington.
I will ride in the back of a pick-up truck as the sun fades from the sky. I will pass beneath the shadow of the pine trees lining the road as dust kicks up from the dry dirt road. The wide truck bed will give me ample room to hide from the flying specks of dirt. Gripping the cold plastic, I will crawl towards the cab, where Grandpa’s eyes will smile at me in the rearview mirror. Everything will become dark and cool in a matter of minutes. All I will want is to be back at the little white cottage on the shores of Lake Huron. Yellow light will shine through the windows beneath tall pine trees. Mom and Grandma Doris will be there, and it will be warm.
The seed will die as a young sporophyte breaks out of it into dry, sandy earth; earth that is of little value for anything else. Earth that is common to much of the northern hemisphere.
June 19, 1773. Martha Washington will watch her daughter, Patsy Parke Custis, die from epilepsy. Patsy will be seventeen years old. Martha will weep. She will weep and weep as she places her child into the dry earth. Martha will suffer nightmares of loved ones contracting illnesses, seizing uncontrollably, and dying in her arms.
I will ride in the back of a pick-up truck down the back roads in Arenac County. I will come back to the white cottage beneath the pines. There will be ice cream waiting for me: Moose Tracks, my favorite. My brother and I will fight over the largest chocolate chunk. My brother will win. Grandpa will stride into the small living room that is one space with the kitchen, a smile on his big, broad face. The loose skin around his eyes will wrinkle, and he will give a cough-like chuckle as he eases his tall body into the brown chair by the back door. Outside, the breeze will blow over the dry, sandy earth near the shores of Lake Huron.
With its roots spreading to find food, the pine tree will begin its journey upward. Its green, needle-like leaves will be a source of nutrients during harsh winters for deer and other animals, while squirrels and chipmunks will find its pine cones a tasty delicacy. Cows, however, will suffer from pine needle abortion when they eat the needly leaves from the branches or off the dry, sandy ground. They will eat these out of boredom.
February 22, 1775. Dinner will be served in two courses at five o’clock in the evening in the green dining room at the Mount Vernon estate. Martha Washington will prepare Virginian ham, oysters, and sweet potato and apple casserole. For dessert, she will order a great cake and hoecakes, George’s favorite. After dinner, the slaves will clear the area while the men and women converse and prepare for the dances. Once the green dining room is ready, George will open the dancing with a minuet. In three-quarter time, he will plié and zigzag across the floor. This will be followed by the quadrille, the Virginia Reel, and other such popular dances. Martha will not dance. The night will end with the men having their smoke and alcohol, Madeira for George’s birthday. Martha will enjoy conversation and tea with the other women. She will kiss her husband goodnight.
I will sit at the dinner table and quietly listen to my parents’ conversation. They will mention something about Grandpa, something about cancer in the esophagus. What is the esophagus?
The pine tree will grow prickly green needles and brown bark. It will grow wide and thick, oozing with sticky sap beneath its rough surface. It will carry the scent of Christmas. It will be the color of the woods. It will be green all year and sway with the wind blowing through its upper branches, creaking in a voice of its own, echoing in the stillness of winter. It will produce cones and seeds to carry on the life cycle.
November 5, 1781. Martha will watch her son, Jacky Parke Custis, die from camp fever shortly after joining the Revolutionary troops in Yorktown. He was to be an aide to his step-father. In autumn, she will hear the eerie creak of the pines in the wind and be reminded of her loneliness, of the coming winter, of the death that surrounds her life, of her sadness. Martha will join George at his winter headquarters every year. She will fear an empty house—a house empty of children. After the war, Martha will adopt two of her grandchildren, both infants.
I will ride in the back of a pick-up truck somewhere in Arenac County. My thin blond hair will blow in my face. Don’t worry about that. Just keep looking in the shadows, under the pines that stand on the edge of yellow fields. The truck will stop. Grandpa will point out of the window, directing my attention with his tanned, withered hand. He will whisper, “You see them?”
The pine tree will stand in memories as a picture of woods, of a time that has passed, holding a mysterious magic for those beneath its branches. Deflected gun shots will leave imprints in its solid trunk. Against its base, a man will die, blood staining his blue overcoat, a useless musket limp in his cold fingers. The pine tree will be rooted in American minds as lining the path to liberty. On a white field, the pine tree will wave upon a flag as an appeal to Heaven, a symbol of justice against the land across the ocean. It will bear the message of freedom.
December 14, 1799. Martha Washington will watch her husband, George Washington, die from catching a chill in the air. Martha will mourn, isolating herself from the world, burning almost all of the letters they had written each other, never entering her husband’s upstairs bedroom again. Martha will pass the rest of her life in silent sadness.
Near dusk, I will ride in the back of a pick-up truck down the back roads of Arenac County. Grandpa will pull the truck to a halt, and I will see them, grazing in the yellow field, brown, elegant bodies. Their heads will pop up from their dinner, and their large ears will turn toward us. The white of their tails will flicker in agitation as they try to assess who, or what, we are. Some will bound away towards the cover of the pines. Others will watch us as we watch them.
The pine tree will live one to two hundred years. Forest fire, logging, drought, domestic development will hasten the pine tree’s doom. It will fall to the ground, crashing against the trunks and branches of other trees. It will dry up, needles becoming brown and brittle. Its roots will no longer spread beneath the earth.
May 22, 1802. Martha Washington will die.
I will wear the dark blue dress Mom picked out for me and take my place with my family. I will see people I do not know as they share memories and tears with Mom and my uncles. It will be sad, but I won’t cry. My eyes will tear up, but even as they lower my grandpa into the ground, I will only remember riding in the back of his pick-up truck, looking for white-tailed deer in Arenac County.