Every year for Halloween, Dad dressed up the dead tree in our front yard.
The tree was dead when Mom and Dad bought the house in the ‘60s, had been for decades it seemed. The house behind it had been torn down, rebuilt, and torn down again several times before we even got there. But the dead tree remained.
The dead tree had a storied past, according to our neighbors. It held an air raid siren once. Then, a collection of decorative flags. For one family, it was one side of a clothesline. For another, it was a base for a series of tiny, artistic lights. It was the cornerstone of a makeshift, front yard greenhouse for a few years and, finally it became the base for a dilapidated basketball hoop.
This is how it was for my parents when they bought the place. Dad planned to teach all of us what he referred to as his “Naismith secrets.” He dreamed of watching us play in high school, maybe college on scholarship. But no one in our family had made it above five feet seven inches in all our long history. Those dreams never had room to grow.
It stayed a basketball hoop until the tornadoes of 1978 took the backboard. Rust took the hoop a year later. But the dead tree remained.
Dad found a particular glee in dressing it up every year. Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. For a while, it seemed like his 1950s childhood nightmares would forever crawl out of his mind and onto that tree.
One year, he dressed it up as Walter Mondale. Mom didn’t like that much. We didn’t know why.
As we grew, Dad started dressing it up for other holidays and special events. A turkey at Thanksgiving. Santa Claus at Christmas. He affixed a crossbeam to it at Easter, wrapped it in patriotic bunting for the Fourth of July, and affixed a large picture of Uncle Sam to it on Labor day.
“Get a job, hippies,” said Uncle Sam to whoever passed. Mom didn’t say anything.
We tried helping. We begged to help. But dad would never let us. I tried nailing boards to it to start a tree house. Dad took them down and gave me stern looks. Daniel carved his name into it and Dad made him scratch his full Christian name into his left palm with a needle as punishment. When little Sally drew a picture of her cat and glued it to the tree, Dad tore her picture to shreds and told her if she did it again, he’d take her cat. Dad described in full, graphic detail what would happen to the cat. Sally went to her room in tears. Dad went around the house, grumbling and turning off lights, then went outside to re-decorate the tree.
Arbor Day this time. The holiest of holidays.
From then on, Dad took a particular interest in us. If we poured a glass of milk, he’d say “That’s enough. That’s enough. You have enough.” We could color pictures, but we could only use the cheap crayons and, even then, only two colors at a time. Bed time was at 8, no exceptions. Birthdays included a cake with no ice cream. Candy was straight out.
Dad frowned. Mom looked out the window for long stretches. Dad finished each day, planning his next project with the dead tree.
When friends came over, they’d say, “What’s up with your dad and that tree?”
“I don’t know,” I’d say, and they’d laugh. I didn’t laugh. In case he heard.
I went to college. Met a girl. We got married, moved into a house of our own, and had kids. We began to feel the first stirrings of parental frustration. I switched off many lights and debated the volume of milk. I grew worried. But my kids had candy. My kids stayed up late on occasion. And also: no dead tree.
When we were all gone, he took to creating weekly, artistic flights of fancy with his tree. He dressed it in old winter coats and snow boots during a severe cold snap in the winter, covered it in thousands of poppies for Armistice Day, and built the world’s largest pair of sunglasses – which he hung from the branches no less than fifteen feet from the ground – in the summer, accompanied by Beach Boys albums played on a continuous loop at a volume so loud he must have broken several local noise ordinances.
Mom died from Cancer, leaving Dad by himself to make sure all the lights were turned off. The dead tree remained. He dressed it like the grim reaper each day for six months. After that, he covered it in handwritten love poems he’d never gotten around to sending her.
We would come to visit and find artifacts of our youth affixed to the trunk and branches at odd angles. My baseball card collection. Sally’s Barbie dolls. Daniel’s high school letter jacket. Mom’s makeup kit.
When the quarantines started, he increased his output. He covered it in cotton balls so we could have Christmas in July. He painted the entire tree blue once, but it was water color so the rain washed it away a few days later. He etched text from the unsolvable Sanborn Kryptos cipher into the trunk, then drew a door around it in Sharpie with a sign that said, “The answer lies within.”
Each day was a new masterpiece. Each day the tragedy deepened.
We’d stop to check on him to find he had drawn pictures of us as kids and left them out there next to letters apologizing for past mistakes, parental errors both real and imagined. He surrounded the tree in hardened peanut butter sandwiches, then added a picture of himself looking down.
One evening, as the quarantines had lifted, just as things were starting to open again, he posted a large sign that read “I can’t.” Then, he went into the house, sat on his favorite old couch, and died just as Wheel of Fortune came on.
We sold the house to a family with three kids. They cut the dead tree out of the ground. City services came to haul it away.
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Thanks for visiting us! For even more exciting stories, please check out (and perhaps slide us some dollars at ) the sites of each of our somewhat-quarantined-and-still-slowly-going-more-insane-than-they-already-were authors: Joseph Courtemanche, Jamie Greening, Kathy Kexel, Derek Elkins, Rob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett . Turn that frown upside down!