What the dead don’t know
piles up like crusty sycamore leaves
falling from the enormous tree in the backyard,
nearly a century old now, just a sapling
when Aunt Estelle told the men from the city
to plant the youngster in the backyard—
she didn’t want a big tree in front.
And wouldn’t she be surprised to see
its grand form now, shading her house
and half the yard next door?
Or would she have had her husband George
dig the hole for the new tree back in the ’20s?
Would she have steadied its young trunk
as he shoveled dirt around it? Would they
have taken turns watering it, long before
sprinklers dotted the yard?
Estelle wasn’t my aunt, though she earned
the title by baking cookies for the next-door
neighbor girls, one of whom, now in her 60s,
still lives there. Years after Estelle died and
my husband and I moved in, the girls’ mother,
Becky, cautioned me to care for Estelle’s roses
along the back fence. When the old bushes
gave up the ghost several years later, I worried
about a disappointed Estelle glaring at me from,
I presumed, her heavenly perch. But Becky
assured me that rose bushes, too, have lifetimes,
and Estelle’s had had good long ones.
It helped, somehow.
Now and then I think about all that Estelle
and George have missed since they’ve been gone.
Becky and my husband, too.
On the last warm days of fall, I roll out my yoga mat
under the big sycamore, and, lying in corpse
pose, close my eyes, commune with the spirits.
Like a good reporter, I silently telegraph them
the latest news—as if they don’t know,
as if they’re not standing by, guardians hovering
in the branches, guiding those brittle leaves
to a soft lawn landing, keeping watch over us all
(In memory of George and Estelle Young, Becky and Bill Christophel, and Clifford Polland, once upon a time all of Santa Ynez Way, Sacramento)
(Thanks to the great New Yorker writer Roger Angell for the first seven words of this poem, which I borrowed with great respect, as an admirer of his incredible skill and that of his mother and stepfather, Katharine Sargeant Angell White and E.B. White. I am indebted to you all.)