Rooms Beyond the Walls

| By Carol Diamond |

There were rooms beyond the outside walls of the house, places that were sanctuaries for us in joy or sorrow when we were young, for we were children blessed with parents who allowed us outdoors whenever we wanted to go.

Dad catching Buster

One summer I discovered the elm tree in the backyard. It proved climbable! I felt no pull to go to the top, for the lowest branches were high enough off the ground to feel like another world. For me that summer, it became the world’s most glorious reading room. The thick limbs cradled me in their strength. They stretched out before me, beckoning like a comfortable couch. Here I felt so well supported and safe that I could lose my physical self to go into yet another room – the room in the book I was reading. In the cooling shade of my private leaf-walled library, the sunlight that made its way through to my page charmed me with occasional distractions of light and leaf dance, and gave my eyes a rest from reading.

Dad always said he bought the place because of the trees. There were houses much bigger on our road, but Dad told us, “Our yard is big and has the most trees.” He said the word “trees” with sincere warmth and respect. Only in the last few years have I come to realize just how deeply my more and more passionate interest in trees is a gift from my father. It feels like something Dad and I can share, a way that I can express love now that I couldn’t before. For ten years he lived in a nursing home, debilitated from years of drinking. I worried that he would die before I could forgive him. He did. I didn’t understand then, and for a long time after, that alcoholism is a disease, not a character fault.

I visited him infrequently, and toward the end for short stays only. Once my sister and I drove all the way back from northern Ohio to North Carolina in angry silence. We had argued because I had not wanted to stay more than 20 minutes with Dad on our last visit of the trip.

I would try to think of the good things about him. I knew he loved us. When we were children he took time to lie down with us on the front lawn, looking at the clouds or the stars. One night, he said that people who didn’t believe in the possibility of other life out there among all those stars were like people in the time of Columbus not believing in other continents. Dad opened up the world and even the universe for us. He liked to ask us riddles, encouraging us to think of all possibilities. He recited poetry, and he loved to tell us stories.

His love of literature manifested also in his participation in theater. He acted in college and later in Community Theater until the demanding travel schedule of his sales job precluded it. When he was home Dad loved to see his three children active and played outside games with us often. Every winter he accompanied us to our favorite place, “The Gully,” a nearby, steep and thickly wooded, twisting, mile-long ravine where children built forts, looked under rocks for crayfish, and swung on a big grapevine. It felt special to have Dad along. We always went to ‘Picnic Rock.’ (Don’t children, and the rest of us for that matter, love to name special places in nature?)

This big, flat rock stood in the creek. Dad asked us to gather sticks and showed us how to find dry tinder in nooks protected from the snow under the overhanging creek bank. He brushed the snow off the rock and made a cookout of scrambled eggs and toast. Dad was a physical education major, so he also taught us to play football and baseball, to try our best, but to use good sportsmanship.

Though he never mentioned it, I’m convinced that Dad encouraged us to climb the big white pine tree in our backyard. The tree stood next to a darkly painted tool shed. One summer day he gave each of the three of us a piece of chalk with our own color and asked us to “Jump as high as you can to mark the wall.” He made it fun and we could see our progress rise. I think our father made the propinquity of the shed and the big pine serendipitous for us.

Soon my brother became the first to leap and grab the tree’s lowest branch, then climb up the sticky ‘rungs’ of the branch ladder made of ‘spokes’ that encircled the trunk and marked each year’s growth for the tree. I spent happy hours in the slender top of that tree, swaying in the wind and feeling it brush my skin, watching birds, ‘spying’ on neighbors, and listening to far off sounds barely heard below, such as the melodious bells from the church a mile distant in the valley, and the drums and brass instruments of the high school band’s lively halftime show. Time spent alone in the treetop could feel soothing, and peaceful too. Sometimes the pine provided solace when Dad’s drinking threatened to spill out in anger.

In winter I often remember the story from his boyhood – about those mornings when he found that the strong winds had blown the night’s powdery snow from the smooth, frozen pond. He would go to the river then, following it on skates into the forest. He could ice skate for miles on the river and its tributary streams through the winter woods.

I’ve read that trees are important along polluted creeks and rivers. Their roots take up the poison and their leaves expire clean water. I believe in the possibility that the trees are healing my bitterness. I didn’t go to Dad’s funeral. I took the bereavement time from work, but stayed home from Ohio too. I felt guilty and confused. The women I worked with in the library donated a book about the outdoors to our collection, in memory of my father.

I’ve stayed here in the South, and found much to love. But I still want to ice skate through the forest like my father did. In the Deep North of so long ago, did the boy feel benedictions given by the branches overhanging the river? Did the wind sail with him, whispering peace into his ears? Does he hear me blessing him, this boy after my own heart?

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker