I remember the scent of the fresh-water marshes. Decomposing vegetation, wild roses, pine trees, and salt-laden breezes drifting back from the ocean filled my nose. It was not unpleasant; it was quite the contrary. Even today the scent transports me back to one of my safest refuges: the willow tree. My father, in an attempt to help bring my mother out of her most recent depression, purchased a large farmhouse when I was barely six years old. Our old home had been a tiny thing. Three little girls shared a largish attic bedroom, while the newest sister slept in my parents bedroom. The new house seemed like a mansion to us, with a separate bedroom for each girl, a kitchen that seemed larger than the entire first floor of our old house, a formal living room and an informal one too.
Life at this time was not good for us. My mother was in the hospital for a long time, and my father brought in friends to help care for his four daughters, a mere six years between the eldest and the youngest. The farmhouse, with its great barn, needed a lot of work. Our heat that first year was almost exclusively a wood stove in the kitchen. There were many mornings, in the coldest parts of winter, when I awoke to find ice in the drink I had left out the night before.
We girls did not know it, but we were very poor; living on soy burgers before they were popular and drinking powdered milk for our bulk, generic cereal. What we did have, though, was land: four acres to farm and explore. Our property line was a stream that ran through the marsh, wrapping around the back, and finally intersecting the road used to access a commercial chicken coop. On a small outcrop of land, overhanging the marsh grasses and cat tails, was an enormous willow tree.
My neighbor next door told me once that the tree had been planted there when the house was built, more than 200 years before. While the house had been through not one, but two fires, the tree had thrived. It had a central trunk that took three of the sisters, holding hands, to encircle. There was a fork about five feet from the ground, and two great branches grew out from either side. I fell off the larger of the two branches when I was thirteen and broke a rib, but that is a story for another time.
The great willow had eventually budded a child, a smaller tree a mere fifteen feet from the enormous base. This younger tree was still old enough to have a trunk that my six-year-old-arms could not wrap around. It was my friend, my companion, during the more difficult days of my childhood. I could not climb the mama, the mammoth tree, when I first met her. I could, however escape up into the branches of the smaller one, hidden from the house, hidden from the painful things that awaited me there.
One part of my tree had been damaged in a long-past storm. The nook that resulted held my most prized possessions: a metal lunch box containing a my latest reading book, a small pad of paper for sketching, an assortment of pencils, and my imagination. I would climb into the tree and watch the marsh. I taught myself to recognize the calls of the various birds that hunted there, and I would try to mimic them. I read my book. I drew what I could see. Sometimes, I just sat silent, listening to the world around me. I drank deeply of the scents of water and mud and ocean air, and I was safe.
The last time I visited my parents, for they still live in this house thirty-five years later, the old mama tree had been wounded during the most recent tropical storm. One of the major branches had come down, and she looked ill. Her child, though, had grown even bigger and stronger, though the waters of the marsh washed over the roots when it rained. I can finally climb the giant willow, but it will always be her child that I love best.