Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Under My Father’s Tree

BY STEPHANIE L. LIBERATORE

From where I’m standing, I can see my father’s mulberry tree. It’s just a few yards away, on the other side of the thin marsh that runs along the driveway. But I’m not sure how to get to it anymore. The plywood board that once crossed the marsh is gone now, and I know I’ll sink into the muck if I try to cross without it. The reeds have grown high beside the driveway, too, and there’s no clear pathway through them. They scratch against one another in the breeze coming in off the Chesapeake.

I’m at the bend in the half-mile driveway that leads to our summer home in Crisfield, Maryland, a tiny town on the state’s Eastern Shore. From here, I can see the white house with the blue roof, where my family is gathered for Easter. I can see the defunct turtle pens on either side of the driveway. The Chesapeake Bay just beyond them. The house once belonged to Albert T. LaVallette, who raised turtles and launched the terrapin soup industry here in the 1880s. But now the place is just a run-down old farmhouse my family has owned for the last 12 years.

From this point in the driveway, I can also see the sagging power lines above my father’s tree. There are four black marks on the gray lines above it, and I wonder if they are from the surge that killed my father here in 2005. The power in those lines arced toward his metal clippers as he trimmed the tree’s branches, killing him instantly. I was 21.

With my wool blanket and laptop in hand, I step into the marsh, determined to be with my father’s tree today. To sit under it, to touch it. This isn’t my first time at the tree, but it’s been a few years. As I wade through the murky water, small pieces of black wash over my feet. The reeds scratch my face. I stumble up a little hill on the other side of the marsh to get to the tree and grab hold of its trunk—three thin stalks that twist to form its base—but there’s nowhere to sit. New green reeds have grown up in the dirt all around it.

I throw my blanket down and the reeds bend under its weight.

Like most mulberry trees, my father’s is not very tall. Its branches extend no more than 15 feet from the ground. The tree is short and thin, but full of small green buds. Looking up, I notice what appear to be little pricklers, which I take to be thorns, little pieces meant to inflict pain, to punish those who get too close.

I reach for a prickler and find that really it’s only a mulberry—a tight cluster of small green balls with little white hairs sprouting from each piece. They are fruit. Unripe and harmless. Signs of growth.

 

My father’s tree here in Crisfield is not the first he’d ever trimmed. In 1972, when he graduated from St. John’s College High School, a Catholic all-boys school in Washington, D.C., he wanted to get as far away from home as possible, and settled on Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas. He was the oldest of six boys in a very Catholic family, and put himself through school there working odd jobs—as a bartender, a gas station attendant, a dishwasher, and a liquor store cashier. While tending bar one day, he met a man named Charlie, who owned the Wildcat Tree Service in Manhattan. Charlie, who is 76 now, lifts a kettle bell every day, and still climbs trees, liked my father so much he offered him another job with his tree-trimming company in the summers. My father loved the work. Loved being outside, doing something physical. In Kansas, he liked being a macho guy who was Italian and from the big city but could still chop wood. And after he graduated, moved back to D.C., and became a financial advisor, a husband, and a father of three, he still ran every day and enjoyed the outdoors. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would go hiking or rock climbing, but he loved cutting the grass and doing yard work, the way suburban men do.

The metal trimmer he used on the mulberry tree that day in 2005 was the same one he used at the Wildcat Tree Service. Power lines in Kansas though, or at least where he was working, are often underground. The ones in Crisfield are above ground and saggy. They carry city power over a mile to our distant summer home, so their voltage is extremely high. My father didn’t know then that the power in those lines could arc. That you didn’t have to touch them to be electrocuted. You just had to get close enough for the metal to react. His trimmer didn’t have a rubber tip at the end to ground the electricity, either—you just didn’t need that in Kansas. Though he’d regularly used the clippers at our home in Silver Spring, Maryland, too, there were no sagging power lines there to challenge this notion.

Charlie, his boss at Wildcat, was angry when he heard the news about my father. Charlie said he should have known better. He couldn’t believe he died doing something so careless. Something he’d done a hundred times before.

He couldn’t believe that my father was gone. Just like that.

 

Looking up into the branches of the mulberry tree, I think about how beautiful the view from here is and how maybe it wasn’t such a bad last sight for my father to see. The sky is clear blue, no clouds, and the green buds sway in the breeze. I hold on to the thin trunk of the mulberry, wanting to feel it in my hands. I slide myself down onto my wool blanket, finally sitting now. The green reeds at my side are as tall as I am sitting down, and the brown reeds just beyond them shoot above me, swallowing me here in this little patch of moss next to my father’s tree. You cannot see me from the driveway in Crisfield unless you know where to look. The sun beats down on my face through a tangle of mulberry branches overhead, and I realize that this might be the exact spot my father was in when they found him here in 2005.

That day, he’d been at the house to get it ready for the new summer season, to prepare it for me and my friends and my new boyfriend, Aaron. We were home from college for the summer and planning to spend a long weekend at the house. My father had been there alone, venting the dryer and mowing the grass and cleaning the cobwebs and mice droppings that had accumulated from the house being closed for winter. My mother, sister, brother, and I, at home in Silver Spring, didn’t hear from him for a day or two, but that wasn’t unusual; there are no phone lines or TV or internet at the house in Crisfield and he loved the quiet. But after two days, we called our neighbor, Buddy, who lives next to the wire gate you have to unlock to get to our half-mile driveway. Buddy called back an hour later to tell us that, while his  car, his keys, and even his cell phone were at the house, my father was nowhere to be found.

So we called the police. The police, the fire department, Buddy, and some of our other neighbors went down to the house, looked under it, checked in all of its rooms, and combed the surrounding beaches and wetlands. But no one could find him.

On their way out, however, one of the neighbors, Mary Joy, saw a hand in the grass by the bend in the driveway, right where the house finally comes into view. She couldn’t bear to check for herself—she and her husband John had just had dinner with my father at their home a few nights before—and waved the firemen over. They crossed the marsh and found him there, under the mulberry tree. The power had entered through his hands and thrown him from the tree, but his metal clippers were still stuck up in its branches. His body was slumped in an upright position against the base of the tree. Like he’d just sat down and fallen asleep.

 

Sitting here now, I try not to think too much about the way my father died. But I have to admit that I somehow feel closer to him just by being here. This is not something I feel often. In the years since, and particularly the first few after he died, I didn’t think about my father unless I was forced to. I kept myself busy, working, writing, socializing. I kept moving forward.

The last time I tried to put myself in a place where I felt close to him was more than six years ago. I was at his gravesite in Aspen Hill, Maryland, at the Gate of Heaven Catholic cemetery where he’s buried. It was his birthday. April 20th. He would have been 53. I sat down on the cold muddy ground that day and tried to talk to him. This is also something I don’t normally do. When he died, people told me that he was always looking down on me, that he was with me, could hear me, that all I needed to do was talk to him—and I knew that as a Catholic, he’d want me to believe that, too. We went to church together every Sunday as a family, even the years I was in college and home visiting. But after he died, I just felt like he was gone. That he couldn’t hear or see or worry about me anymore. And I know that probably would have disappointed him.

But that day in the cemetery, on his birthday, I brought him his favorite Hostess dessert, an apple pie in green and white parchment paper, and sat down on his grave. I talked to him in my head as I unwrapped the pie. I don’t remember what I said. Something about missing him. About what I was doing at work. About Aaron. This was two years after my father died, and I was 23, just out of college and living at home with my mom and 13 year-old brother. I’d been to his gravesite only once or twice before, not counting his burial. I started crying. Not loudly. I didn’t want to be crying. I hate displays like this. But in the cemetery, on his birthday, alone with his grave for the first time in a long time, I couldn’t help myself.

My father is buried in a largely Asian section of Gate of Heaven—he and my grandfather are surrounded by Lees and Wongs and Kims. If you bend down to look at my father and grandfather’s flat, bronze headstones, the two Italians, Stephen and Salvatore, stand out in stark relief. My father’s reads “Stephen A. Liberatore, loving husband and father, 1954–2005.” In life, he had olive skin, thick eyebrows, and black hair that grew white at the temples.

As I sat there with his grave that day, I noticed an older couple at an upright headstone a few rows in front of me. They were placing irises at a stone with the name “Lee” chiseled in shadowy black. I tried not to pay attention, to keep quiet, keep talking to my father inside my head. But a few minutes later, I felt the woman beside me, her arm sliding around my shoulders, hugging me close. She asked me whose grave I was visiting.

“My father’s,” I said, wiping my eyes as discreetly as I could.

“How did he die?” she asked. I didn’t want to answer her question, to go into the story I hate to tell with someone I’d never met.

“He had an accident,” I said, vaguely, hoping that would be enough.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “How old was he?”

“51,” I answered.

“So was my son,” she said, as she looked down at the muddy ground.

“And how did he die?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.

“He had a heart attack.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

And then we just sat there. This woman I’d never met holding me while I tried to talk to my father for the first time in two years.

I have not been back to the cemetery since.

 

So here I am at his tree in Crisfield, trying to commune with him again in some way. It’s Easter Sunday, two weeks to his 58th birthday. The reeds keep scratching against one another in the wind. They sound like a swarm of insects trying to push through. I look around. Make sure there’s nothing lurking in the reeds. They sway around me, above me, and the sun beats down on my face. I am here, and I feel peaceful, and somewhat better for having come. Though I’m still not sure I’ve got what I came for.

This is when I notice that his tree is full of green leaves and little green mulberries, but the tree next to it, just 20 yards away, is completely bare—a tan skeleton against the blue sky. I wonder if this is some kind of sign. If this is some kind of life from death thing. If his body being here for three days before they found him somehow affected the soil. If it’s produced some kind of life force in this one patch of ground, where normally it would be brown and bare just like the other mulberry tree a few yards away.

 

I want to believe this is possible, since other trees have survived worse. In 1945, for example, the atom bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima killed 130,000 people and leveled buildings and everything else in its path. Dr. Harold Jacobsen, a scientist that worked on “Little Boy,” told the Washington Post that the city would be “barren of life and nothing [would] grow for 75 years.”

But he was wrong. Two months after the bomb was dropped, hibaku trees were blooming. New buds blossomed from stumps that were burned and scarred and without branches. The Chinese parasols and ginkgos and camphors and oleanders’ root structures remained intact, even though many of their trunks and branches were decimated. Some trees regenerated rapidly, others withered. But the trees with their stump flowers were signs of life and hope in a time of unparalleled darkness and despair.

I’m not sure I can explain how these trees survived, but what I do know is that trees’ “rootedness”—their inability to move away when faced with predators, lack of water, or injury—has made them highly adaptable. Researcher Daniel Chamovitz believes that trees and other plants can even see, smell, and “feel.” That they can “communicate” and “remember.”

In an interview about his book, What a Plant Knows, he explains that plants communicate through signals passed between their root systems. Through pheromones and other chemical signals that are released and shared. He gives the example of a plant stressed by drought that “told” its neighbor to prepare for a lack of water, and both survived.

He also claims that plants remember, in that they encode, store, and retrieve information. Plants that are stressed, for example, often produce offspring that are more resistant to the stressor—through what’s known as “transgenerational memory.”

Even though we can’t see it happening, he says, there’s a rich and dynamic world going on inside of them.

 

I wonder what my father’s mulberry tree communicated to its neighbor just a few yards away. Whether it felt and remembers the megavolt shock that killed him. Or whether it communicated anything at all. The electricity didn’t strike my father’s tree directly that day, but I have to imagine it experienced something, given the amount of electricity that came down. Trees react to injury, whatever the form, in various ways. But like people and animals, their responses are often geared toward enhancing their survival.

Perhaps my father’s tree responded with an increase in growth hormone—which might explain its flowering abundance against its neighbors’. Perhaps it’s simply the nature of the mulberry tree, which thrives even in the poorest and driest of soils. Or perhaps his tree felt that something significant had transpired there—and wanted to act accordingly.

 

I am hot and uncomfortable on my wool blanket now, and I feel itchy and dirty sitting on the ground among the reeds. I’ve been here for an hour or two now, and it’s time to go, to help my mom and sister get Easter dinner ready.

As I pull myself up from my blanket, I notice a rusted nail holding a small piece of white ceramic glass against the tree’s trunk. It’s part of a Celtic cross a neighbor gave us that we hung here not long after my father died. It fell off the tree a few years ago, but landed safely on the moss below and, somehow, the part that fell remained intact—leaving this small, brittle piece still stuck to the tree trunk. The intact part of the cross now lies in a drawer in my mother’s house somewhere, but that broken piece still hangs on the tree. A rusty fragment of what was once there.

 

I have been to my father’s mulberry tree a few times before. I’ve prayed at it once, talked to it once or twice. But I’ve never sat under it, even though I come to our house in Crisfield many times each summer. When my father died, he had just retired early from his investment firm and was planning to start something new. Maybe go into real estate development, or take some classes with me at Penn State. I was a junior in college there, looking forward to the summer and to introducing my new boyfriend Aaron to my family for the first time. And I realize how much has changed since then. After I graduated, I got my first job as a grant writer at a nonprofit run by conservatives, which, as a Republican, my father would have loved, but, as a Democrat, I hated. I got another job as an assistant editor and then managing editor of a journal for high school science teachers. I started my own health column. Got into a graduate creative writing program. Moved out on my own. Moved in with Aaron. And married him. (My father was very traditional, and would not have loved the order of those last two.) So much has changed since he’s been gone. And it’s hard to believe that his tree is still blooming—flourishing even—in spite of it all.

 

My feet are covered in muck as I trudge back out to the driveway. I am tired and sunburned and want only to get away from this tree, from all its memory and response and roots, from what it reminds me that I no longer have. I tuck my laptop and my blanket under my arm and get ready to join my family back at the white and blue house to help prepare for Easter dinner. For another holiday without him.