Seeing the tree, not the forest l Chuck's World

Aug 08, 2018

I’ve made this mistake many times. I continue to make it.

The benefits of aging, which are underappreciated in my opinion and mostly center around still being alive, come bundled with hidden dangers. Experience and education are tools that grow and continue to pay off, but looking backward is walking on treacherous ground. There are land mines, booby traps, and quicksand waiting on the path to the past, one small step away from disaster.

I’m talking about old photos, by the way. Very scary stuff.

Thirty years ago, I spent a few weeks wandering around Snohomish County with a real estate agent, dubious but doing what my wife told me to. I was still in my 20s, and home ownership seemed a daunting concept, something for adults to do. Being the parent of a 3-year-old seemed enough at the time.

Yet here we are. After we made an offer on this house, we came up to walk through a second time, my wife carrying a camera. I’ve seen those photos, many times. They show essentially the same house as today, except with clean carpets.

Outside is a different story. My house looked lonely in 1988, as if it had been plopped down on a vacant lot (this is exactly what happened). Landscaping was nonexistent, and in a photo we took in 1988, my house looks lost.

I’m in the picture, standing on the front steps, gazing toward what I understood was a backache destined to happen. I wasn’t a stranger to lawn work, and I understood what was waiting for me. I was 29, wearing a red windbreaker and paying no attention to my daughter, who was running on tiny legs toward her mother and the camera.

I walked outside the other day and tried to recreate the photo. I never got the angle quite right, but it was close enough to compare. Photo-editing software allowed me to change the transparency and align the old picture on top of the new one, erasing parts until I had a nice combination of the two.

This was the mistake. My daughter and I appear as ghosts from the late 1980s, shimmering in bleeding colors and fuzzy outlines, out of place in 2018. It took my breath away, before I closed the program and thought of better things to do with my time.

It’s all about time, anyway. A few months after moving into this house, I took my daughter to her first day of preschool. As I write this, she’s dropping her son off for his first day of school, far away in Texas. The red-haired girl churning her little legs, running toward her mother, is just a wisp of time, preserved in an archaic medium, long since digitized for posterity.

I barely remember her, I think.

That 1988 photo is also remarkable for what it doesn’t show. The skyline looks oddly empty, and it takes a moment before I understand. The summer after we moved in, my in-laws came to visit from Texas. My wife’s dad liked to walk around the neighborhood, and bothered by the lack of trees on the south side of my house, he borrowed a few clippings from stray branches and planted them around the yard.

I mowed over most, and all but one of the rest were finally removed when they grew too close to the house. The last one, though, now towers over my house, a massive evergreen that appears permanent, ancient, buried in concrete and constructed out of calendars.

That tree could tell some stories.

As could I, obviously. I didn’t plan to stay 30 years, but then I didn’t plan on anything. The foresight we showed in buying real estate in the late 1980s, before Californians discovered how far north I-5 went, is only special if you assume that we knew what we were doing. We just needed a place to live.

Of my 10 closest neighbors when we moved in, four moved away, four have died, one is now in assisted living, and one remains. We rarely talk about the past, this neighbor and I, although we talk all the time.

Some of you have similar experiences. Many of you, I suspect, can’t imagine this sort of immobility, stuck by circumstance (and choice) in the same place for three decades.

Six presidents have served over that time. Nations have fallen and risen, wars have been fought, lives lost.

My wife and I went to see “Big” at Alderwood Mall that summer we moved in, a hit movie at the time. Tom Hanks is still around, as is the mall (but not that theater), and the grocery store around the corner, remodeled a dozen times but still standing.

As is the tree in my backyard. I don’t know anything about trees, but it seems fine. A 5-inch cutting in 1989 produces a large shadow in 2018, and I stand under it sometimes, raking or weeding. I’m still cautious with my back, and I know these days that bending down creates a debt my knees will have to pay, so I move accordingly.

I’m 60 now, not 30, which is what time will do to you.

It will take me, eventually, and certainly this house, and probably the tree, although I’m awfully glad it’s there. It reminds me that I am, too, having lived half of my life in the same place, which has to be pretty much anyone’s definition of home, and should be.

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