Wild city // Old trees

I’ve been thinking about how sweet and difficult it is to be old. In January my husband and I went to California to visit our 91-year-old aunt and to honor the memory of my father-in-law, who lived to be 90. We flew to San Francisco and, first thing, we took a walk along the bay.

The beach there is a doggy paradise. They prance, dash around, sniff each other, and chase balls in the surf right next to the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. They are the happiest, healthiest canines imaginable. We saw one that had only three legs, and he had no trouble at all keeping up with the rest of them.

The next day we took a walk in Muir Woods, just to the north. My husband loves this place. He grew up an only child. His parents struggled with their partnership. His father moved to San Francisco alone after he retired and got a divorce. My husband would fly out for visits, and he and his father would drive up and walk in Muir Woods.

Our time in this cool, moist, lush, shady forest made us both feel cleansed and heartened. My husband kept exclaiming about those amazing trees. We saw and heard winter wrens, and admired the little pinkish flower of the redwood sorrel. I felt honored to again be walking next to my husband in the place his father had walked. And given my husband’s affection for the trees, I told him I think they are his brothers.

It would be the hardened heart that didn’t experience awe there. The mature trees range from 500 to over 1,000 years old. The tallest tree rises 252 feet, and the widest is 14 feet across. Years ago, as we were walking out of this woods, a prosperous looking man with a woman on each arm was walking in. He tipped his head back, and we overheard him say, “These are some really huge trees, I can tell you that.” We loved this urge to state the obvious, and have repeated his statement to each other many times.

Rather than going for depth, redwood trees have shallow roots so they can absorb fog-drip as well as rain. Their interlocking roots, and the way the trees shelter each other from the wind, give them stability.

My father-in-law moved to Minneapolis to be near us for the last months of his life. Close to the end he gave up reading, which surprised us, as he had been a college English professor and books were one of his great loves. Then he gave up listening to classical music. I remember one day when he stood with me, just the two of us alone, as I set the table for a holiday meal. He said, “I feel like a ghost.”

Our elderly aunt, Betty, lives in a senior townhouse. We hadn’t visited her in years. Using her walker, she greeted us at the door, invited us in, pointed to the urn holding her husband’s ashes on the mantle and said, “Say hi to Bill.” We said, “Hi, Bill.” She had a dozen long-stemmed red roses in a vase next to the urn. I asked if she always had flowers there. She said no, only on special occasions. I asked her what the occasion was. “Your visit!” she said.

We settled on to the sofa, and she told us the story of meeting Bill and marrying him a week later, a story we’d never heard before in detail. Bill had courted her by playing bridge with her and her friends and by taking her out to lunch. At one of their lunches he leaned over the table, took her hand in his and said, “Betty, I am smitten with you.”

Her eyes twinkled as she told this story, nearly 60 years after the fact. Then she got serious. The rough part, she said, was when Bill’s ex-wife wouldn’t allow his daughter to visit him any more. It isn’t clear to me if it had been the hasty marriage or just the presence of another woman that had been the problem. Bill didn’t fight this, and he lost contact with his young daughter, his only child, for good.

Later in our visit, while we were admiring the pictures of her wedding, Betty said about her long marriage, “Of course there were difficult years.”

“How did you handle those?” I asked.

“Oh, different ways,” she said. “Mostly we ignored one another.”

It seemed she could tell us these stories now that Bill was dead. And nearing the end of her life, it seemed she wanted us to know some important truths about the two of them so we would carry them forward.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.