It sure sounded like a tornado from her description of it. "The whole sky turned orange," she said. "And the noise! You couldn't even hear the branches breaking off the trees, the wind was so loud."
"Why didn't you get in the cellar?" I asked.
"I was trying to close the kitchen window," she said. "The wind was blowing the plates onto the floor, and they were breaking."
Nowhere in any survival guide does it say that the best place to be during a tornado is by an open window near breaking china, but fortunately, both she and the house were spared any damage. Her car was in the shop for three weeks because a good-sized branch fell on it. If you were in her neighborhood, and noticed an eighty-five year old woman ensconced incongruously in a rented Mini Cooper, that is why. All the other damage was limited to trees on her acre-and-a-half property. Most lost several big branches, and some were blown clean in two.
"We planted those trees," she said sadly. "I planted those trees," I corrected her.
I remember the tree-planting process well. The yard lacked trees when I was a boy of eleven or so, and my mother was determined to correct this landscaping flaw. She and my father would have me push a wheelbarrow into the woods behind the house, which time and rising real estate values eventually turned into a subdevelopment, accompanying me for supervision purposes. In their simple pioneer way, they just selected the tree they wanted to swipe and had me dig it up. My father would drink beer and tell me that everything I was doing was wrong, and my mother would do the actual correcting, adjusting the size of the root ball (too big, in my youthful opinion) and the depth of the hole which had to be dug to accommodate it (likewise, too deep).
I would be set to work. The soil in that area is dense with shovel-turning stones. There are more rocks in a square foot of that ground than in the box of them that Ariana Grande is dumber than, but after a half-hour or so of sweaty labor I was usually able to extract the chosen tree and its accompanying dirt ball and the load of Cenozoic-looking insects crawling ookily around in it from the earth, put it in the wheelbarrow and trundle it out of the woods, where it sat until I could excavate another space among the rocks to plunk it into.
I must have planted a dozen of them, all silver maples, at a heavy cost in perspiration and resentment. All of them had gotten fifty or sixty feet tall, and too big to get your arms around if you were inclined to hug them, when they met their fate. I took pictures of the arboreal wreckage and showed them to my brother when we visited him.
"I remember planting those trees," he said.
"No you don't," I replied bitterly. Now that he is a middle aged, rather slow guy, maybe he doesn't think I remember his work habits when he was a lad, but I do. The guy had a natural gift for getting stung by bees. He used it to get out of any exterior chore. Whenever we were set an outdoor job by my parents, whether it was planting a tree or mulching the garden or filling a seemingly bottomless bucket with wild blackberries, he would manage to be stung and get himself excused from it. While I struggled in the thorns and the humidity of the East Coast summer doing his work and mine, he would get a baking-soda poultice for his wound and spend the rest of the day quietly watching whatever he wanted on TV, or, even worse, messing up my bags of toy plastic soldiers or airplanes. Bees were his friends.
He was disabled a few years ago in a work accident, which was, surprisingly, completely unrelated to bee attack, and now doesn't have much of anything to do. He could plant a few trees if he wanted to, but I'm not holding my breath.
The family chainsaw was in the tool shed, which was also covered by fallen branches, and I was forbidden to rent one. There were far too many downed trees for me to make much of an impact on them in a week anyway. Mom had to hire someone to chop them up and remove them.
So mostly I just contemplated their remains. Made me feel like that line in the John Denver song.
Younger than the mountains. Older than the trees.