There are no records, no proof but to me the winter of 38 was the coldest winter ever. The wind blew constantly and the snow fell in droves from the sky, covering the ground in a blanket of white. To say it was cold is like saying the ocean is wet, totally insignificant to describe how frigid it really was. I remember the chill cutting me like a knife, slicing away at me like razor blades through meat. I stayed inside mostly, a terrible ordeal for a six year old boy who wanted more than anything to run outside and frolic in the snow. But Mom knew best and she kept me inside, which while not warm, was significantly balmier than the ice box outside.
The snow may have fell outdoors but the stormed raged inside as my parents went at each other daily, tearing and clawing at each other, each one trying desperately to cowl the other, failing and in doing so becoming that much more irate. They said terrible things and their eyes were wide with rage and I remember hearing this and seeing this and feeling fear inside. It wasnt fear that they would hurt meI knew they wouldntbut fear that they would leave me. I was six and I needed my mom and dad.
The depression raged across the country, destroying homes and families in a wave of annihilation that spared only a few. My family was not left untouched by this scourge for my father had lost his job months ago and with no one hiring, the money was quickly running out.
This was the crux of their fights. They were scared. I know that now but of course a boy of six cannot understand such things. They were scared the landlord would throw them out, scared the food would run out, scared the uncaring would turn the electricity off. Fear consumed them, grasping their hearts in a vice grip of misery, squeezing out the love they once had for each other, a love that had once dwelled in all corners of their souls. Sometimes anger is better than tears.
We lived in the great city of Chicago, a cauldron of people thrown together in a hodgepodge of neighborhoods that stretched across the city, each with its own personality and character. We were German, Kiezel was our name, and we merged with others until we became an indistinguishable mass of faces, all distraught, all looking for hope, some hope, any hope. The eyes I saw were bleak, dark orbs that searched for light but could only find darkness, a never ending darkness that seeped into all corners of life. Our bellies ached, our hearts cried but more than this, our souls were broken, broken by the cruelest of things, despair.
My parents fought because my mother wanted to leave her place of despair. She wanted to go back to her fathers home, a farm far from the city, a place where she could start over. My father was a proud man and he couldnt stand the thought of surrendering his pride, of admitting that he wasnt able to take care of us. So they fought for my father wanted to stay and maintain his manhood while my mother wanted to return to the land of her youth, a place of joyful memories.
It came to a head one day when my mother showed my father a notice. It was an eviction notice and now they both knew we had to leave. The look on my fathers face left an indelible impression on me. Our eyes met, locked and in his eyes I saw complete defeat. The light was gone and now only darkness looked back at me. My father had been consumed.
We left that day. What little money we had bought us a train ticket, a one way ticket to a place I had never been. I sat on my mothers lap staring at the scenery as it flew by. The buildings were replaced by trees, then fields of green spanned the horizon, seemingly stretching to infinity. The air felt different, purer, cleaner, and the sun felt radiant and warm on my skin. We headed onward, my fathers eyes downcast, my mother face exuberant, full of hope. I felt a sense of excitement as if I was embarking on some great adventure and I stared out of my tiny window wondering what marvels awaited me.
The train stopped and my mother took my hand and led me off it to a new place of light and shadow. My father seemed to melt into the surroundings as if the world itself had swallowed him and I didnt notice if he was there or not. My grandfather stood on the platform, staring at us with weather worn skin and perpetually squinted eyes. His hands were gnarled and when he took my hand, I was amazed at the strength in them. He seemed more mountain than man.
His house was glorious. White with a porch that stretched the entire length. There were black shutters on inviting windows and an old swing sat unused in the yard, staring at me, waiting for me to jump on it. The rest of the yard was simply amazing, so big so full of promise and I imagined all the wonderful adventures I would have when the snow finally melted away and the grass returned.
My excitement threatened to overwhelm me and my mother sensed this and gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze, reminding me to mind my manners. My grandfather was old fashion and it would not do to anger our benefactor. I nodded for I was still far too young to disobey my mother and followed my grandfather into his house.
I had a room a real room. There were four walls, a bed and wash basin and all of it was mine. I didnt know what to say. In my brief life I had never seen such grandness and I honestly pinched myself wondering if this was all but a dream. I fell into my bed and for the first time in my life I felt as if I were home.
Winter finally did lose its grip and spring announced itself with mother of all thunderstorms. The wind wailed like tortured banshees and lightning lit up the sky in hues of blue and red. Thunder roared like angry gods and a cacophony of noise ripped through night, tearing through my heart, filling it with fear.
An old elm stood directly in front of my window. It was withered, black with age and before now, I had not paid it much attention. But now with the lightning flashing and the wind howling, it took on a new form. Now it was a monstrosity, a demon with long talons and gaping maw. Now its blackened bark was course flesh stained with the blood of countless victims. In my minds eye, it reached for me, trying to grab me in its cold, wooden embrace, trying vehemently to pull me into its gaping maw.
I hid my face under the blankets, wishing the storm would blow over, praying that the rising sun would greet me with its warm kiss. Seemingly for hours, the storm raged and the monster in the guise of a tree taunted me, daring me to show my face. I had no courage and I hid, finding safety in the confines of cotton.
Morning did come and the sun did touch my skin with its warm embrace. I woke stiff and sore silently praying that storm had blown the tree down. No luck. Its gnarled visage greeted me and I moaned in agony knowing that another night would come, allowing the tree to terrorize me once again.
I avoided it. Never once did I cross paths with the monster, always staying in the front of the house far from its clutches. I hid from it in the night and avoided it during the day but fate weaves our course and one day while fighting a dragon, I found myself standing directly in front of the monster. I didnt breath, my heart didnt beat as I stared into its knotted hide. The wind picked up whistling through its leaves, a melodious hymn sung in a soft, gentle voice. I stood quiet, the world no longer binding me and then I heard it. A voice, old and withered but kind in a way, spoke to me.
Play with me, it said. Play with me. Electricity filled the air and my open eyes saw for the first time. It was not a monster at all. A door opened and I strode through, my eyes agape, my heart filled with wonder.
I touched the wood and visions of soaring castles and massive ships adrift on a rolling sea raced through my mind. I saw myself climbing ramparts, of scaling the highest mast in search of land, of firing cannons into hordes of demons. A new world opened before me, a world of endless wonders, a world I could make in my own image.
I climbed the tree. The wood melted away and I touched stone. A princess shouted down at me, imploring I come rescue her from the dragon who held her fast. I shouted back, avowing that I would save her come what may and I did. I saved her and slew the dragon. I vanquished the pirate armadas, sending their heathen souls to the bottom of the sea. I flew on the backs of eagles to cliffs that overlooked a glorious city, a city filled with magicians who weaved spells in the air with waves of their hands. Always I was the hero, the savior and champion of my own worlds.
What a wondrous adventures I had and each night I would lie in my bed, staring out at the tree, wondering what new quests awaited me. The possibilities were endless and I could not imagine ever growing tired of my world maker.
Time marched on, uncaring of mortals worries or cares. My father, a broken man, did not recover and one day he simply left. I never saw him again and even though it has almost been eighty years, I wonder about him. I wonder if ever missed me, if he ever wondered what kind of man I had become. I wondered if he ever loved me. My mother never remarried for she only had enough love for one person and that person was me.
I grew and as the years went by, I played less and less on the old tree. I remember one day when the urge hit me and I climbed the limbs again laughing as I ascended a dark tower fearless of any peril. I looked down and I saw my grandfather staring at me with a small smile on his face. He didnt speak to me. He turned and walked away and I sensed both joy and sorrow coming from him as if he mourned the passing of his time while relishing in the joy of mine.
Eventually, I stopped playing altogether. I was almost a man and cars and girls were much more important than some old tree. I did all the stupid things of youth, causing my fair share of trouble, experiencing all of the joys and heartbreaks of life. I loved and hated and cared and loathed and all of this in the subtext of such brevity, the flicker of an eye.
As with all children, I moved away, leaving my mother standing on the porch staring at me with tears rolling down her face. I went out into the world to make my mark. A war raged in a faraway country, a war caused by men who didnt know the value of blood. I learned the cost of hatred that men of valor had to defeat the minions of evil wherever they reared their vile heads. My dragons and demons became real, my fantasies reality. I no longer had to look for evil to vanquish; it was right in front of me.
As it always does, life turns back on itself and years later I found myself standing in front of the old tree, staring once again into its gnarled hide. I was twenty-four and had survived a world war and the death of my wife and child and now I was preparing to bury my mother. My grandfather had died only a year before and it seemed almost insanely cruel of fate to take them both so close together.
I stood in front of the old tree listening to the wind blow when I heard a voice whisper in my ear. I miss you. I closed my eyes trying in vain to keep the tears from filling them. So many years so many memories. I miss you too.