Sunday mornings, Mom attends mass at St. Ambrose Church while Dad takes me to High Park where I play in the garden of God’s splendour. The crisp air is salty with a cooling breeze from the lake. The earth beneath our feet emanates summer’s stored heat. I feed the geese and mallards at Grenadier Pond mouldy Italian bread, line up for my turn on the slide, and swing high to fly away like a sparrow – aiming for the moon that one time it hung in the fading turquoise sky of September, the pale lunar landscape illuminated by tepid sunlight. Six-year-old me asks: Shouldn’t the man in the moon be sleeping during the day? Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Who is my Guardian Angel? Anxiety blossoms like a dandelion seed head scattered by a puff with my father’s echo answers, “Don’t know, don’t know.” He distracts me by saying, “Weeping willows can only grow near water.” I imagine their tears falling into rivers and carried out to sea – the crying timber washed Atlantic Ocean smooth. The wind whispers hello by rustling honey locust leaves, yells goodbye by whipping the deciduous ones barren, each blast prepares Toronto for winter. A White Birch on the edge of a neighbour’s lawn stuns with beauty. I stare at the bark for hours. Collect peelings that my mother throws out. She has frequent temper tantrums and threatens me. My dad plants a hazelnut seedling in the backyard. After George Washington (also six) cut down the cherry tree, he admitted what he’d done. No one could call the founding father a liar, liar, pants on fire.
I have become a cautionary tale: the sole offspring – a divorced, childless daughter – of an only son. This branch of the family tree and our surname dies with me. According to Pope Benedict Arnold, imminent patron saint of Abandoners, the Cross is the true tree of life. In the ancestral village my parents are from, elders say a man’s untied shoelaces indicate a priest will visit his wife. Southern mystery. Molisan malarkey. Logic disappears white-rabbit magician-maneuver style in the old part of the world: poof. My mother’s paranoid schizophrenia is discussed as demonic possession. My depression is viewed as a character flaw. Superstition overrides reason. Still, I believe in amulets. I wear an acorn necklace as a talisman instead of the traditional golden crucifix. No wonder life hasn’t worked out, or so the rumour mill grinds – my misplaced faith. At thirty, I had questions that could not be answered: How many generations of madness on the maternal side? What potential exists for my descendants to inherit insanity? Where did the violence originate? Ruminate. The classic nature versus nurture debate: which came first, the crazy or the ego? To guard against the wrath of aggressive forbearers, to end the cycle of brutality, to deny the spread of hostile DNA – three reasons no husband made an honest woman out of me.
Years ago, my co-worker Mike, looking for a sugar substitute, marvelled at the suggestion of maple syrup – called it tree-blood and I laughed. I was slowly shaking off low spirits, ditching a fog of despair, sidestepping the long shadow cast by genetic gloom while divorcing for a second time. My father disagrees with me about my perceived odd duck status. He repeats the Parable of the Lost Sheep adding that is not my identity in his clan: I am no wandering lamb. A recovering Catholic maybe. A quasi-Buddhist certainly. There is a tree on the path behind my aunt’s house in Mississauga that doesn’t belong there. A relative smuggled the rooty twig back from Italy and planted the sprout in foreign soil. Now the behemoth lumbers over the thicket but no one knows its breed. I consider the circumstances (alone, unknown, far from home) harsh. Fruit of the oak, the acorn, often drops in autumn. Oaks produce over two thousand acorns a year. A modest number (one in ten thousand) will develop into trees. Seventy-eight varieties of wild oaks currently make the endangered species list. Habitat destruction, overexploitation, diseases and alien invasion – the essence of their annihilation is similar to the causes of human extinction. I worry the cruel strain may yet be borne through cousins. Before I left home, my mother hacked the hazelnut tree in half. She turned the stump into a display stand for her potted African violets. She had a talent for mixing insult with injury. In the land of immigrant opportunity, this stolen territory and genocidal place where we escaped poverty, living with her fury (a rage of unknown inception), exhausted my belief in possibilities. Growth spurt: I mourn the mother I never had and the one I will never be. The past carries the thorns of trauma. The future contains the undiscovered country. I prune her from my existence. Bury memories and plant new ones. Remember blood may be thicker than water, but only water can quench a thirst.
“Tree of Life” was the winner of the 12th Accenti Writing Contest and recipient of the $1000 Grand Prize. Click here for more details.
Eufemia Fantetti holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love, was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award and winner of the Bressani Prize. My Father, Fortune-tellers & Me: A Memoir is forthcoming from Mother Tongue Publishing. She teaches at Humber College.