The Things I Used To Long For

The Things I Used To Long For

Alice Walker’s essay and poem, “The Place Where I Was Born,” reminds me of all the things I longed for as a child. Walker writes about a tree that was her childhood friend—a tree that gave her a sense of companionship that she lacked from her family. She remembers grieving at its passing when the tree was struck by lightning and cut down for firewood when she was still a child. When i was a child I wanted a tree to be close to. Actually I wanted a best friend, but I was unpopular because of my shy nature, and I figured a tree would do just fine. But the tree in our back yard was short and stocky, without room for a child to burrow within the walls of its branches, let alone room for the treehouse I’d always wanted. And besides, it already belonged to Samantha, Jason, and Ophelia; it wouldn’t be fair of me to take it from them.

Jason and Ophelia were Doberman Pinschers—Jason was the protective-of-females male, and Ophelia was the protective-of-males female. I don’t remember much more about either of those two, but I do remember Samantha. She was a sweetheart of a German Shepherd, with ears dipped in chocolate, a beige-and-black salt-and-peppered body, and a bright pink tongue that sought you out whether you’d been gone five minutes or five days. When Samantha died of old age, my mom was heartbroken. Samantha had been her companion for thirteen years. I was left longing—longing for a dog that could be heartbroken over after a thirteen-year companionship. “O landscape of my birth / because you were so good to me as I grew / I could not bear to lose you.” Again, I am reminded of things I wanted but never had.

Where is my tree?

***

Giovannisa De Luca was transferred to Stagg Street Elementary in the middle of third grade, the same cold November day that I was. As it turned out, she was popular, so when she had a birthday party, all the kids went. I was not popular—but if only I could have a birthday party, everyone would come and I would be popular, too. But when my birthday party came, only the school nobody showed up. Not even my stepfather, whom I had referred to as “Daddy” until after the divorce, came in person. “Sometimes you would send me a birthday card / With a five dollar bill / I never understood you then / And I guess I never will.” I only got the one birthday card from him, with the one five dollar bill. I guess it was enough for him. Again, I am reminded of things I wanted but never had.

Where is my tree?

***

When I was in the fourth grade I remember wanting braces. What was her name? Elizabeth Something. Elizabeth had braces put on, and she was popular (I’m not sure now, which came first). If only I had braces, I would be popular, too. But my teeth were straight, no matter how much I pleaded otherwise. Looking back, I suppose I never really wanted the braces, just the conversation. “But O, landscape of my birth / now I can confess how I have lied.”

Where is my tree?

***

I’m unsure of whether it’s ironic or just sad that once I’d grown close to my mom she was brutally taken from me by forces I could not help, nor ever understand. I lost her just when I was getting a firm grip on what our relationship was really about: she was my mother and I was her daughter. One moment I was figuring out how to show my mom how much I loved her and then she was gone. “Love me now while I am living, / Do not wait until I”m gone / And then chisel it in marble, / Sweet words on ice-cold stone.” My mother’s death shaped me in so many ways, modding me into the person I am today. To be fair, her life shaped me just as much, although her death much more. It forced me to look at her life and make realizations about the kind of person she wanted to be, versus the kind of person she saw herself as—which all affected the kind of person I was becoming. “Now I can confess the sorrow / of my heart / as the tears flow / and I see again with memory’s bright eye.

***

How do I feel about the mother I lost?

It is indescribable, this pain.

How do I feel about the mother I lost?

How could she abandon me?

How do I feel about the mother I lost?

My family wouldn’t believe the things I told them he did.

How do I feel about the mother I lost?

I felt betrayed.

How do I feel about the mother I lost?

They believe now, but at what cost?

But how do I feel about the mother I lost?

Angry. Sad. Cheated and wronged.

I miss part of me.

***

Now that my mother is gone, I am left here to fend for myself with only thoughts of what she might say if she were still here. “Little girl you’ve got to forget the past … Does she hear my voice in the night when I call?” While sometimes I still long for that tree, I no longer wish for tree houses or braces, nor parties or popularity. And while I seem to be content with being myself these days, I still long for the companionship I missed out on when I was a child; I still long for childhood. I’m now twenty-seven years old and live two miles from my childhood house—and just like I have changed, nineteen years have changed the house, too.

The wall of stone that protected the back yard is gone, as is my mom. The empty dirt lot on the other side of the alley has been replaced by a three-story apartment building full of life, while my friendless school days have been replaced by meaningful relationships built on strong foundations. There are no dogs playing in the yard of that house, but now there are cats sleeping in my own dresser drawers. As I slowly drove past that house last week, I looked for the tree in the back yard. I couldn’t see if it was still there or not, and my mind drifted to the braided ficus tree outside my apartment door. I may not be able to relive my childhood, but I finally have my tree.

And my life, too.

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