The Big Tree
Beneath its voluminous boughs, the Big Tree offered the possibility of a safe and hidden harbor ...
Ardelle, summer 1950
I remember the day my father took that picture in the summer of 1950. I was only two and a half years old, but my recall is vivid.
Summers in the Bronx were blistering hot. Pelham Bay Park was the closest place to cool off, not even the movie theaters were air cooled yet. My face sweaty, my arms bare, I didn’t want to pee in the grass. I knew it was wrong.
But I couldn’t wait another second or I would wet my pants, ashamed and embarrassed about the prospect of all. My mother confidently took my hand and assured me it would be all right. We tried to find someplace safe where I would be hidden, sheltered and protected. I found a big tree.
I was wearing my favorite sandals, straps crisscrossed with bright colors like those in the box of Crayola crayons next to my coloring book in the car. My toes leaned out towards the grass, weeping with warm dew and not yet drenched.
Squatting in the grass near the large tree, I tried really hard not to pee on my floral sundress. My legs felt hot and wet and so did my cheeks. But I peed on my sandals, the ones I always wore. The ones I loved.
My mother stood guard nearby as my dad quickly went to the car to retrieve the Kodak Brownie camera with the pop up viewfinder, complicit and lying in wait on the bench seat of the nearby two-tone Oldsmobile sedan.
She stood next to the big tree as I watched in horror while my father edged around from behind the tree and snapped that picture of me when privacy, not publicity, was preferred.
What haunted me for years was not only that my father took that picture, especially after I had pleaded with him not to, but also the deception and duplicity that followed. I did not want anyone to see that picture. And I told him so. He promised me no one ever would. Ever.
But he lied to me. He showed it to Uncle Al after they had too much to drink and not enough to talk about. He showed it to the guys who brought him home work too early every other Thursday after they placed him in a chair and arranged his legs underneath him, his head seeking the imaginary softness and comfort of our hard kitchen table, one hand still waving in the air, adding one more detail to a funny story he had already told a dozen times.
Years later, he would palm it in his hand and show it to his friends on poker nights as they leaned on a cigarette burned, wobbly card table with velvet corners while thick, stale smoke wafted towards the ceiling and concealed their cards: two pair, a full house, a royal flush. Jokers wild.
Worn jackets with missing buttons, dented money clips awaiting replenishment, and an almost empty bottle of Seagram’s 7 littered our living room. Huge, heavy, clear glass ashtrays were mounded with smoldering remnants of cigarette butts with still-damp mouthpieces, broken away from mouths filled with disordered stories and discarded dreams.
Pennies, poker chips, and pools of warm ashes silently collected around the legs of all. Smoldering Camels and bits of Ritz crackers, laced with cheese spread dotted with red pimentos from Spanish olives, leaked from their lips. I was seven.
My mother was wearing a freshly ironed pretty white apron with scalloped edges and pink roses embroidered on the pockets. A former model, she had spent more time arranging her wavy curls drenched with dollops of Pomatex than preparing appetizers for the Thursday evening poker party. She wanted them to have a good time so my father would be happy. She smiled, but did not seem happy.
Everyone loved my father. He looked like Errol Flynn with less hair and could embellish any story and make it funnier. He always wanted his poker buddies to drink a little more, bet a little higher, laugh a little louder, and lose a little more money. Our house was so small that I could see them all from my bedroom.
That night, they laughed too loud, drank too much, and used words that sounded unfamiliar and scary. Everyone laughed when they saw that photo. Their glasses slid down their noses as they looked up at me. My face felt hot. I wanted them all to go home.
Years and years later, when I could correctly spell and pronounce all of the words that denoted how I felt that day, oddly I, too, passed that picture around to my friends, then framed it, and displayed it in my home.
The expression on the young child’s face is unreadable: a fusion of shame, bewilderment, and betrayal, pureed with a haunting plea, resignation and resilience: residual, pervasive themes that form psychological perimeters still.
Ambivalence ambulates easily now as distress and delight meander arm in arm through memory after memory, like this one, shrouded in gaping neurological crevices.
I have never forgotten nor forgiven that transgression nor the many others that followed.
The tree offered no protection at all.