That's the size of the hole in my heart right how.
Frank and Jackie, who live next door to G'ma's house on Long Island, went outside the night of Superstorm Sandy and watched the giant pin oak twirling around and around in the wind. Like a windmill, like a whiligig, like a top, like a big scary living thing that was about to crash onto their kitchen, the tree my parents planted on my brother's first birthday in 1955 was behaving badly.
That tree was base in so many games of Hide and Seek and Red Rover and Mother, May I? that it exists on its own, as a character in my memory. Its trunk served as home plate for whiffle ball, and was the goal in the games of Association in which Daddooooo tried to interest us.
Those dark lines outside the ripped away lawn are not gopher tunnels, nor garden soil, nor uneven patches of grass. They are the roots of the tree, the foundation that held it up for nearly sixty years. They are gnarly. I always knew exactly what that word meant. It lived in my backyard. Those roots divided the rooms of my imaginary castle. Those roots were perches from which to jump, escaping beasties. I was much to old to be playing those games, but the tree, somehow, demanded it.
It wasn't very good for climbing when we were young, and swings didn't hang from it until the Cuters were born. Daddooooo rigged an elaborate rope harness which held a baby bucket, then a helicopter, then a wooden plank which could be put up or taken down at a grandchild's request. Mostly, though, the branches were a backdrop for my parents' on-going war with the squirrels. The damn things ate the food from the bird feeders. They built nests just out of reach of the tallest ladder... as if they knew that they were taunting my poor, determined father.
When branches fell down, he made walking sticks.
This is all that's left of that tree.
That tree shaded Big Cuter when he was 3 months old, asleep in his Aprica stroller as Daddooooo mowed the grass. That tree was the backdrop to our annual Jewish New Year family photo, the fall colors a perfect background to our I-wanna-get-out-of-these-clothes scowls. Grass rarely grew under the shade of that tree, and the picnic table was wobblier as the roots became bumpier, but we still carried it from the walkway under the window to its spot under the leaves, downwind of the barbeque. It never mattered where we set it, it was always downwind of the barbeque.
Those family picnics were peaceful times; G'ma inside the kitchen cutting and slicing and pouring and directing, Daddooooo manning the grill and quasi-supervising the children running through the unfenced yards between the houses. My little cousin Ilene was there, tethered to her mom, my Aunt Lilly.
Everyone called her Lilly, though she called herself Lillian. She kept plastic covers on her couches, which seemed eminently sensible to me as I drank soda in the middle of the deep pillows, relaxed and drippy. Aunt Lilly had the first Instant Polaroid camera I'd ever seen. She would let you look but not touch as she peeled the pieces apart, holding them just out of reach. It wasn't Uncle Paul's camera. It was hers. I didn't know what G'ma had that was hers and hers alone.
Her mother lived with them, which sounded pretty wonderful to me. When they came to our house, for the holidays or for a picnic under the tree, she brought her green jello with sliced grapes floating inside like alien creatures. Daddooooo always threatened to drop it on the trip from the refrigerator to the table, but I kind of liked the unpredictability of the whole thing, wondering, with my eyes closed, if I'd get a crunchy or a gooshy bite.
Aunt Lilly always lived with Ilene, first in the house she and Uncle Paul bought in the 1950's in a then-fine-but-now-rapidly-changing neighborhood, and then, when Ilene and her husband were ready to send their son to school, in the new house in a much better neighborhood. She was child care. She was a live-in grandma. She wrote long letters in beautiful penmanship to G'ma, who knew exactly who she was. When I sent her the WWII photos of her husband, my uncle, G'ma's brother, her letter and our phone call brought them closer than they'd ever been before.
When she was diagnosed with lung cancer - she who'd never smoked - my cousin began the treadmill of opinions and treatments and decisions, all of which ended on Sunday when Aunt Lilly died, with her family by her side. She "had all her marbles til the very end," my sister says. When the question of cookies for the grandchild was discussed, Aunt Lilly piped up, hours before she died, "He likes ME. I'm his cookie!"
Hearing this, my aunt was in the room with me. Though I hadn't thought of it for years, she called all the little ones in her realm cookie. "Come here, cookie....." I heard it aloud. She was with me and then she was gone and I sighed and over a squelched sob told my sister, "That's SO Aunt Lilly."
"Don't go there," was her reply; my family's never been big on showing weakness or admitting to sadness.
"After what I've been through, this is a place I can get to fairly easily," was my answer, and then I went on to reassure her that I could be sad without drowning in sorrow.
It took me til later in the night to admit to my loss. Like the tree in the backyard, Aunt Lilly has been a fixture of my life for my whole entire life.... until this weekend... when, poof, they're gone. It's the way of the world, the cycle of life, they were old and they'd had wonderful lives and brought much joy to those who made their acquaintance, but they are now in the past and I'm sad.