When I was compiling Memory Cards, one chapter was pulled for revision and somehow never made it back into the final draft. I’m posting it here for my readers for a short time, as I do plan to use it in a future book project. A form of this chapter was published in The Magnolia Review. I hope you enjoy it.
I studied the musky, fresh soil I’d turned out of the hole. I’d dug deep enough with the shovel, pulled out the roots of the previous failed effort, and paused to think. The sun was setting low over the high fields and the pond across the road, the end of another long hot day, the air filled with mosquitos. It would be dark soon, but I was determined to get this weeping willow sapling off to a good start. It didn’t look like much, but over the course of my lifetime, during which I planned not to stray far from the old family farm, I knew one day it would be spectacular. Three times as tall as me, the green, stringy branches would arch over and bend, perhaps around the time I might do the same.
We’d mark time and memories together, although I knew even as I carefully removed the nursery pot from the fragile roots, placed the tree into the hole and slowly broke up clods of coffee colored loam, it would outlast me.
I must have looked puzzled with my task. In this particular spot of the yard, not long removed from a rotation of tobacco, corn, soybeans and cotton, I’d had trouble getting anything to grow. Just 10 feet away, blueberries and peaches flourished, as did a flowering cherry tree. But this spot was different. Hurricane Fran took out a promising red delicious apple tree, Hurricane Floyd swept away a honey sweet pear. The last occupant of the space had been a flowering shrub with red and white flowers, one given to us by my parents in sympathy. I don’t recall its name.
My wife Kristi and I had talked about planting a weeping willow for years, and now I’d finally gotten around to it, an attempt to grant a wish just after we’d had another slip away. We’d suffered our second miscarriage just a few days after we’d seen the heartbeat on a black and white screen in the doctor’s office. The hurt still burned inside like that late spring sun. I finished the job, put the shovel away, and went inside, satisfied with my memorial.
- • •
- • •
It took nearly three and a half years to finally close the studio, and then only because we found someone who wanted to rent our 101-year-old building smack-dab in the center of the county seat.
I sold some of my equipment to other photographers, things like backgrounds and studio lights and props. Some things I could not part with, particularly the things that had become part of me and things I knew would never have the priority to be replaced, things I’d carried that I’d regret letting go the minute they walked out the door tucked under someone else’s arm. There was my Canon 5D camera, a relic by digital standards, but still clicking along and a host of lenses, free of dings or scratches. These tools were the best, well-made and cared for as any craftsman or artist protects the instruments that allow him to tell the story only he can tell. My tools went home with me.
Unfortunately, many other items did too, including unsold frames, albums, and nearly two decades worth of customer files. These files were filled with negatives from the first eight years and DVDs from the last nine years.
After all these boxes and awkward sized items took over our home, I started grabbing one box a week with the intention of methodically finding a place for everything.
I always said that people think when they see baby smiles they are looking at mouths and teeth, but really they are looking at eyes. Eyes are always true to the heart, and that goes not just for little ones but adults. Body language is a close second.
- • •
Rubbing against this impact was the change going on with me, and the constant, nagging feeling of I just don’t want to deal with this anymore. I had become cynical and unsatisfied, questioned my purpose, even the value of what I was doing. Art on demand was what people wanted, not something beautifully crafted and designed to last. I was tired of crawling around on the floor, chasing babies, stopping time for one moment, the one that should be enlarged to a 24×30 and placed on the gallery wall of a McMansion, only to see the parent balk when it was time to place the order.
I probably gave a dozen answers about why I closed the shop, and all of them were true, even though none of them were true. That’s because my reasons changed. I changed. The photography, from both an artistic and business perspective, didn’t grow with me.
Some people spend lifetimes in newspapers, public relations or running their own business. Most self-employed people don’t voluntarily shut themselves down to go try something new, jump into the unknown clutching a family a five.
But then again, I’d never really done anything anyone expected me to. I was bored and underpaid, and I figured I could change at least one of those.
- • •
The weeping willow did not make it. I watered it each day, but slowly the green turned to brown, the soft, pliable branches into brittle brown sticks that resembled the fingers of a rudimentary Halloween witch. Grass mostly filled the area in, and soon there was no evidence the ground had been encroached on. I vowed to give up.
But I didn’t. When our sons, who came along two and four years later, got old enough to ramble around the yard, they wanted to take pine saplings they’d gotten from the Smokey the Bear booth at the State Fair and plant them somewhere special. That seemed like a good idea, since pines in our area will grow in anything, whether it be a hole in a brick, rich loam or red-orange clay. The pines failed, too.
A friend and client gave me one of the cypress trees he had been transplanting and having success with in the county, a variety he had brought back from around the Pamlico Sound, where he owns a vacation home. He was very specific on the location, the soil type, how much sunlight and how much shade was needed. It was as if this tree was made to go in my yard, it was a place the tree could be good and different.
I once again armed myself with the shovel and a small trowel, and even brought along a measuring tape to get the depth and width just right. I used the large pot as a guide, remixed the soil in the bottom of the hole to make sure the roots could spread out. I watered meticulously and it seemed at last there might be something going on, the best fit I’d been able to find. Then one day, while I was gone, the fellow who used to cut our grass wasn’t watching where he was going and loped the tree down about an inch from the ground. It couldn’t recover.
Nothing would grow in this space, nothing was quite the right fit, no matter what we tried. That bit of ground looks and seems very much like all that is around it, but it still waits to receive what is just right, what will live and grow.