Thursday, September 20, 2012

Under the chestnut tree

On perfect fall days in southwest Alabama, just the feeling of warm sun on my back can resurrect long-dormant memories of my childhood. Bright blue skies and spiny green chestnuts just beginning to dive for fertile ground below take me to one afternoon when I learned about how prickly and precious life can be.

My mother was easily excited by the regular events of the fall when her white cotton work shirt of summer could finally be retired for the duration of gentler temperatures. She and her Aunt Verlie, who was close in age and heart to my mother and all of us, would come by often in those days to visit. We would work in the garden, walk in the woods picking flowers or even make a pilgrimage to the Wiregrass to buy laying hens. It was a common part of life to share work and fellowship.

This particular day was different from those others. We packed up a blanket and my younger sister and headed down the dirt road a short distance to the Long Place. Now, by this time, about 1970 or so, the abandoned Long Plantation house had already been torn down for its lumber, but a large chestnut tree remained at the edge of the yard. My parents owned the land adjacent, and my mother had spied the tree and its bounty of spiny produce from our hay field and made plans for a visit.

She brought a large basket, a quilt, water, some buckets and two pairs of mismatched Mule brand work gloves, and we boarded our trusty pickup truck and soon arrived at the tree. Aunt Verlie and my mother donned the gloves and began picking up the nuts. These were unlike anything I had ever seen, looking more like "porcupine seeds" than anything edible. I reached for one and soon let it go and straightaway stepped on another with my bare feet, learning my first lesson about this nut with a natural defense mechanism. Pecans were much more loving, I decided, and certainly less work.

My mother explained that the tree was a treasure, as was its fruit. Once plentiful, most of the country's chestnut trees died in the early part of the 1900s due to a blight. Only a few in remote places survived. And the fruit of the nut was delightful, she explained. So I sat on the quilt lamenting my bare feet as I watched them work. I marveled at the smooth, beautifully colored nuts revealed when a few of the husks were removed, not unlike the prickly exterior of some people I knew. Things are often different on the inside if you are willing to work to see it.

They were able to gather a considerable haul that day and divided their bounty later as they often did in all things from troubles to potted plants and fruit trees.

In the years that followed the nut gathering, the ancient tree did succumb. Decades later, my Aunt Verlie passed from this life, and my mother followed her and my Granny to the great reunion in the hereafter. Today, I looked up and saw a chestnut tree looking tired like the hundreds of nuts on its branches had exhausted the leaves already beginning to brown and shed anticipating the coming change in seasons.

I had to touch one nut I found lying underneath the tree and I was immediately back on that quilt many years back. I hope God has chestnut trees in heaven.

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