A cottonwood led the way


A cottonwood stands at the end of the street up near the school yard. It’s a big tree, its upper boughs reaching, I would guess, sixty feet in the air. Boxwood and poison ivy hide the trunk, but they can’t conceal its size. This is one hefty tree.

cottonwoodThough it stands alone, it is not a lonely tree. Hundreds of people walk by it every week. The paved sidewalk that runs up underneath it used to go days without seeing one human foot. But as the neighborhood has changed in recent years, dog walkers, people out for a healthful stroll, and kids on bikes pass through the shade of the old cottonwood.

Back when my first book was published, someone made the comment that there were a lot of cottonwoods in it. Walking across the Great Plains, I couldn’t help but notice that the trees lining the rivers that snake through the prairies were cottonwoods. I came to love the tree. Nothing beats sitting under cottonwood, whose shade is so different from the shade of other trees.

You can hear the wind in almost any tree, but you can’t often hear a gentle breeze. That’s what makes the cottonwood special. The leaves have an oval petiole or stem—most trees have square or rectangular petioles. This and the length of the stem allow the leaf to turn easily in even the slightest puff. And they aren’t just flipping around in the wind. They are turning on themselves 180 degrees. That is, in a mild breeze the leaf can turn over on itself. Where once was the top of the leaf, now there is the bottom. And back and forth.

The leaves make noise in their motion, and they rattle and brush up against one another. Tonight, as I walked the dogs on our appointed route, I could hear the cottonwood a half a block away. The sound resembled that of a stream running over a pebbly, rocky bottom. A tree that can make a sound like water enchants me.

I have taken off my pack on a hot summer day underneath a copse of cottonwoods in the middle of Nebraska. The leaves twisting and turning one another move a lot of water through the tree. Where out in the grass, the temperature was over 100, underneath those trees, due to the shade and evaporating water, the temperature was fifteen or twenty degrees cooler.

There’s nothing that soothes a weary traveler than a break from the sun and heat. In Silver Lake, Kansas, where a farmhouse once stood, I stepped out of the sun into the shade of a number of cottonwoods. Once through the vines at the outer perimeter of the stand, I stood on bare or nearly bare ground. That’s another facet of the trees that amaze me. Their shade is so solid that little grows under them but mayapples and dogwoods.

All across the plains, I spent hours looking up at the leaves of cottonwoods, trying to divine the sky above. When underway to Montana, I stepped off the road into the bottoms of creeks and rivers to get a slice of that cool, dark shade, to hear the sound of the wind in all those leaves. You could almost say that I made it the 1,450 miles from Kansas City to Helena because of the cottonwood.

And they led me back to Kansas City. I don’t know that there’s an official tree of the Missouri River, but I know that there’s about 2,200 miles of cottonwood stands that run from Wolf Creek, Montana, to the Kaw’s mouth. Up to Montana and back, for five months, cottonwoods were a part of my life. They provided me shade during the day. Their sound alerted me to the oncoming weather. I lighted the night with their twigs and branches.

I’m almost certain that once, a cottonwood saved my life. In the desert outside of Cortez, Colorado, when my daughter and I spent the night at Hovenweep National Monument, we took refuge under a cottonwood. Granted, the western cottonwood is different than those that grow east of the continental divide. But they are close, close cousins and will interbreed with one another. We were lost in the sagebrush and the rocks. It didn’t matter much which kind of cottonwood was growing in the sand and rocks among the sagebrush. What mattered was that I was scared. Disoriented and without a compass, we had no idea which way to go. On top of that, we had emptied our water bottles on our long walk.

As we sat in the shade of that tree, I distracted myself. The wash where the cottonwood stood ran down between two gentle hills. I noticed that other cottonwoods followed the depression toward the ruin of an Anasazi house. A hot breeze swept down off the hill above, turning the cottonwoods into a symphony of sound. I thought of streams and rivers. I imagined rain running down the gutters of our house.

Sydney asked if we were lost. I told her, yes, for the moment. But let’s go look at this ruin and maybe we will find our way. We walked down the depression, the sighs and ripples in the leaves calming my worry. We would get out of this, I thought. It would just take time.

The ruin stood to one side of the wash under a clump of stubby cottonwoods. Below, evidence of a dam, a stair step in the sand and rocks showed me that for a thousand years, water ran through here in the rain. The cottonwoods gained purchase in those rains and sent their roots down who knows how many feet to the moist sand below our feet.

We knew we weren’t supposed to climb about on ruins in a national monument, but I told Syd that she could step inside and have a look. I had to distract her from what was becoming a dire situation. I was worried. What do you do stuck in the desert? Someone would find our car at the remote parking area sometime. A day? A week? How often did the rangers come around to check on these things?

I stepped inside the small square of rocks and mortar and tried to imagine for a minute the life of a family who lived before white Europeans, Spanish, most likely, ever saw this place. Back outside, I looked up into the cottonwood outside the door. Something caught my eye, a flash or reflection of the sun in the distance. My heart leaped. I knew the little beam of light reflected off the windshield of the car. I estimated we had about a mile to go. I sighted off the trunk of that cottonwood and we started that direction. I kept looking back at the string of cottonwoods to stay on track until we could see the car clearly.

As I opened the car door, I thanked that cottonwood. Had I not gained a fascination with the tree when I was walking across the plains and coming down the river, we might not have found our way back.

I think of those lonely copses of cottonwoods where old farmhouses stood when I walk under the grand tree up by the school yard. It reminds me of the flash of sunlight off the car window and the relief of being found. I am again the frightened father soothing his unknowing daughter, sheltering her from the danger facing us.

It’s just a simple cottonwood. I’m not sure many people notice it but for the branches that they have to duck under. I’m almost certain that most people don’t know it’s a particular kind of tree, only that it stands alone and casts a big shadow. But for me, it is a gateway to a million other cottonwoods and hundreds of stories that lay on me softly.

“Go to hell,” I said.


My cousin Erik moved to Tuebingen in Germany in 1994. He visits about once a year or so. We always have him stay over when he’s around. In fact, we prefer it. He’s great company. He and I can talk about the old country, as I still keep very close friends from my time in Germany thirty years ago. I have been back to see them many times. I have taken my family more than once. When we get a chance, we stop in to see Erik.

screaming-kidHe’s great, font of great stories from his life as a bartender in a little joint in the basement of a building off a busy Tuebingen street. He keeps close friends here, and we are lucky when they come to pick him up for a night out. All his friends are interesting, just like he is.

I can’t remember how old Erik is now. 45? 46? I’ll have to ask. For a long time, I perceived our relationship as one of an older brother to a younger one. But now that we are both over 40, he has become more of an old friend.

He’s a regular reader of this blog. He especially likes stories about my family and our shared history. Each story, I think, acquaints him with a new facet of things he never knew about our family. He likes to get my impressions growing up in such a chaotic household.

When he was young, very young, his mom, Aunt Patty, used to drop him off at our house. My mom, who had her hands full with housework and chasing around four kids, all of whom were under eleven or so. I don’t remember how often he came to our house, but it happened often enough that I remember several things about him from that time. A visit from Erik gave my mom a break. She didn’t have to entertain all those kids. With a new playmate, they would take care of themselves.

We were an unruly bunch away from the stern eye and arbitrary hand of my mother. We had fun with Erik. He was a cute kid. He had red hair like my brother and sister. We played all kinds of kid games with him. We always looked forward to him coming to our house.

Allegedly, my mom was supposed to “babysit” Erik. In reality, she let him loose with the rest of us, which wasn’t the best way to watch another person’s child. We were mean kids. I have a theory about power relations: Those who are abused and made to feel powerless turn to exert power on others who may be weaker. Poor Erik was the bottom of the heap. The rest of us four kids had enough of a time abusing each other. With him in the house, we had a new victim.

One time, Aunt Patty dropped Erik off at our house. As usual, my mother is not in the same memory with Erik. In fact, this particular time, she was out of the house, likely taking her time shopping and getting away from us. Erik must have been just four or five, which would have made me eleven or twelve.

We had a full day. We ran outside, played hide-and-seek, and climbed on the jungle gym. We somehow found ourselves in the living room of our ranch-style three-bedroom. After the play, we were all doing things on our own. There was nothing on television. I was bored and sitting on the hide-a-bed. Erik splayed out over the loud orange shag carpet. It had begun to rain.

Most of the time, I felt powerless in life. Life and work so frustrated my parents that they took out their issues on their kids. So, I was a mean bastard of an older brother to my siblings. I played relentless mischief on them. Jokes took on monumental proportions. I lured them to our scary downstairs and locked the door behind them, leaving them for hours in the dank, musty confines of that dark cellar. I made messes and convinced them that mom was going to come down on them with a belt if they didn’t clean them up. I terrorized them as they slept.

One time, when my brother and I were serving 6:30 morning mass, I woke him up (his bedtime was before mine) and told him it was time to get ready for church. Dutifully, he climbed sleepy-eyed down from the top bunk and started to put on his clothes. As he was pulling on his pants, I said goodnight and turned off the light.

I was sitting on the hide-a-bed and wondering what to do next when the bug bit me. I decided to teach Erik to cuss. “Erik,” I said. “Go to hell.” This was a pearl, I thought. It was the worst of what I knew at the time. The kid looked puzzled a minute and went back to playing with legos. “Erik, pay attention to me. Go to hell.”

I’ll never forget the helpless, questioning look on his face. Coming from parents who never beat their kids and who let kids be kids, he didn’t have any idea what was happening. “Go to hell, Erik, goddammit. Go to hell.” He rolled over on his side, legos in his hands. “What?” he said. “What do’ya want me to do?”

“Go to hell.”

I kept at him for a long time, my voice becoming angrier and louder. He laid there. He dropped the legos and sat up. He pulled at the shag. The more agitated he became the more innocent he looked. This energized me.

“Go to hell,” I said. “Go to hell.” I was having a grand time, laughing between shouting my new command to Erik. He started to cry, which meant I was getting somewhere. “Go to hell. Go to hell. Go to hell. Go . . . to . . . hell!”

My brother and sisters sat silent, not knowing what to do. I had control of the room.

Finally, Erik squeezed the tears from his eyes. He put his hands over his ears. We kept it up until he screamed as loud as he could, “You go to hell!”

I was surprised. I meant to teach him the phrase but regretted doing it as soon as my wiles worked. I made out that I was just kidding. He had closed his eyes. “No, Erik, it’s all right. Let’s forget it.”

“You go to hell,” he said weakly. I sat back down on the hide-a-bed. He lay back down on his stomach and buried his face in his arm. I felt like a heel.

I don’t remember the rest of the day, and I thought this matter was closed. I would never hear about it again.

Less than three days later, my mom called us all in the livingroom. Her face said we had really screwed up. The belt hung on the knob to the kitchen door. We didn’t know what we had done. We never did. And it didn’t matter what we had or had not done. This situation was running against us.

Aunt Patty came through the front door. I suddenly knew exactly what was happening. She stormed into the living room. “Dorothy,” she said, greeting my mom. “Now one of you tell me who taught Erik to say ‘go to hell.’”

“What?” my mother said. But I could see that she and Aunt Patty had already talked this out.

“Yeah, there I was in the grocery store,” Aunt Patty said. She had always been kind to me. Her anger made her seem strange, almost another person. The grimace on her face scared me. She looked directly at me. “Erik was restless and I told him to settle down . . . and then . . . and then, he says this vile trash. He had to get it from somewhere.”

My insides turned to ice. I knew I couldn’t rely on my brother and sisters to lie for me. That’s the problem with being at the head of the pack and a mean son of a bitch. No one was going to stand up for me.

I lied. I said I didn’t know what she was talking about.

“Erik told me you taught him how to say this,” Patty said, her finger pointed directly at my nose.

“I didn’t,” I said desperately, looking away. “I did not.”

Mom took me by the arm and grabbed the belt from the doorknob. “I’ll teach you to teach people to say such things.” The beating commenced. “An you lied about it,” she said between strokes. My brother and sisters sat on the couch. They looked concerned but relieved I was the one getting it. She flailed at me with abandon. When it finally ended, her face had grown red and she was out of breath. My ass and the back of my legs stung. I was crying.

Patty left. The room grew silent. I heard her car start out front. My mom raised her arm and pointed her finger. I went to my room. “Wait until your father hears about this,” my mom said. I knew I was in for more.

I didn’t stop being a bastard to my siblings. We had many more long years of abuse to live through, and as much as my parents gave it to me, I gave it back to my siblings. But I never, ever abused another kid.

When Erik comes to stay with us, that day enters my mind. Did I contribute to whatever difficulties he’s had in his life? I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it. When he gets home tomorrow from a visit to his friends in Lawrence, I will bring it up. It’s about time I apologized.

The things that Facebook drags up


This guy sends me a friend request on Facebook. Usually, I don’t make friends with just anyone. Most of my so-called Facebook “friends” are people I actually know and like. Those who are not friends, per se, are close acquaintances. I looked the dude over. He seemed vaguely familiar to me. I wanted to see what friends we shared. I suppose I wanted to see what crowd he hung around with.



I noticed that his friends, which weren’t many, included some guys I used to run with in high school. He was also friends with my brother. I think I remember this guy. I’ll call him Greg. Greg, as far as I know, was the first guy after high school to go to prison. His profile picture showed a little man with a flannel shirt posed against the big skies of Montana. He wore sunglasses and moustache. He had no teeth to hold up his smile.

In the background of the picture behind the little man looked to be a couple of singlewides. Beyond lay a horse pasture. In the far distance, mountains rose up from the plain.

So, yeah, I figured, this guy can be my friend. I don’t know him, which is fine since he doesn’t know me. The beautiful thing about Facebook is that I can “unfriend” anyone I want to at any time.

Over the next few days, Greg’s posts start showing up in my timeline, inspirational quotes, mostly. Like a lot of former Kansas Citians, he’s a freak about the hometown sports teams. When Greg posts something like “Gooooo Royals!!” I know there’s a baseball game on.

So, I don’t mind him. But he stays on my mind and makes me think. He’s comes out of a time of my life that I don’t remember well. It was just after high school and before I moved out of my parents’ house. I drank every day, much to the consternation of my parents. But they were drunk, too. As a matter of fact, one of the things I remember is that we used to all get together at my parents’ house and my parents drank with us. Other than that, I recall events, moments, scenes. None of it connects. I can follow one thread or another but can’t tie the two together.

I hung around with a clan of brothers and their friends—mostly because I didn’t have friends of my own. We spent a lot of time hanging around drinking, or drinking and driving. Since the brothers were close knit, we spent a lot of time at their cousins’ houses. I was sweet on one of the cousins, Brenda. But everyone, including the brothers had a thing for Brenda. There was another woman, a big girl who had kids. I kind of thought she was something, too. Of course, I was young and had no idea. I had never slept with a woman before.

The summer after high school I worked pumping gas 56 hours a week. It was good money for me. I was living at home. I came out of the summer a whole different person. Breathing gas fumes and working in the heat, I lost 60 pounds in three months.

I went off to college that fall. With the study of philosophy and literature, the world got bigger. Suddenly, the loose circle of friends I ran with grew distant. We kept up for the next year and a half. We worked in pizza and fast food restaurants. I pumped gas after school and on weekends. Nights and weekends, we drank, drove, and went to parties where we drank.

I don’t remember a lot of it, either because I was intoxicated or the rounds of late-night meets with heaps of fried food and pizza we all brought from our jobs resembled one another. One night stands out. I was on the patio behind the brothers’ childhood home. Words flew. Tempers were short. Some shoving and pushing started. I fell backwards and landed on a flower pot.

My friends argued over who was going to drive me to the hospital. Blood was everywhere. It drained down my back into my pants, making them soppy. Finally, someone fetched a bath towel. My best friend laughed all the way to the emergency room—between complaining about the blood on his car seat.

We were both really drunk and had a hell of a time convincing the nurses and security people that the gash in my back wasn’t the result of a stabbing. They actually had the cops on the phone. Someone said they believed us. The story was too fantastic. It had to be true. Twenty-three stitches later, we went back to the party. At some point, I blacked out. I came to the next morning at my parents’ house and had to call around to find out what happened to me, why I had a rather large bandage on my shoulder blade.

I began to make friends at school. I went to the campus bar on Fridays and drank. I often passed out in the back of the place, coming to later and taking up where I left off.

Somewhere in there, I quit the gas station job. Where we had a tight crew, the station manager was forced, over time, to hire just any I also worked at the guy who came along. We handled a lot of cash, and a couple of these guys found it in their best interests to share the losses at the end of the shift. If they filched $50, we had to split the loss two ways. They came out $25 ahead. I gave up five hours of an eight-hour shift. It just wasn’t paying anymore.

I took up at the school paper. The group of people there introduced me to a world much larger and more urbane than the one I experienced with the brothers and our mutual friends. Periods between our drinking bouts lengthened. I still drank as much as ever, but I was running with a different crowd. A woman did the favor of sleeping with me one night in the foyer of the college newspaper office.

I talked to a friend of mine about this time in my life, trying to divine why Greg bothers me and why I’ve thought of him three days running. In the end, he troubles me because I divorced them, all of them, the brothers, Brenda, Greg and his friends, just about everyone I knew at the time.

It happened when I moved out of my parents’ house. It was the start of a whole new life, independent of anything (except alcohol) that came before. I made up my mind that I wouldn’t talk to my family anymore. They, like the brothers, were holding me back. Their goals, their racism, and their conventional thinking just wouldn’t work for me anymore. I turned my back on them and didn’t look back.

Greg comes out of that past. I didn’t unfriend him. He’s a guy who lives a long way away. He posts kitschy spiritual sayings with airbrushed pictures of Indians in the background. I think he knows I’ve been sober for a long time. He sent me a short note telling me he’s been sober for eight years and that he’s writing a book about spirituality.

Good for him, I say.

The broken skull in the rain


“The way I remember it.” Memories change all the time. They are malleable. Our situations and moods shift. We grow. We know more as time moves forward and, at the same time, we stand in a constant state of forgetting. I can never be sure if what I remember in the moment actually happened or whether my memories are chimera masking as real.

swingThe way I remember it . . . We were in a motel. It was night. A man’s shadow passed the curtains as a car drove up to the sidewalk. My dad muttered something. Sounds coming in from the parking lot kept him awake.

The motel room was strange and wonderful. As far as I know, I had never been in a motel room before. My mom and dad were on the bed. I was on a roll-away bed. I looked up at the lights that brightened the curtains from time to time. When the lights passed, I experienced a silence I had never known.

I don’t know if it was the same trip, but I believe it was. I was laying across the front seat, my mother cradling my head. I felt hot and sleepy. The dashboard lights cast an eerie glow on the front seat. It was raining hard and the windshield wipers slapped back and forth furiously. My mom was crying. “My god,” she said, “his head is so swollen.” She was crying. My dad sat behind the wheel. I remember him turning left. We were on our way to the hospital.

The way my mom tells the story, we were in a motel room in Dayton, Ohio. My dad never liked motels. They cost too much. He would rather be camping. She had set me in the middle of the roll-away so that I wouldn’t slip off the side.

But I did and hit the floor with a heavy thump. She picked me up and brought me into the bed with her and dad. Soon, however, she felt that I was hot, as if I was running a fever. She found that my head had swollen. She panicked. My dad called to find the nearest hospital. It was raining, she said, and my dad couldn’t really see where he was going.

After driving around the strange town a while, they finally found the hospital. An x-ray revealed that I had cracked my skull on one side. There was nothing to do, the doctor told my parents. They should feed me aspirin for the swelling and keep an eye on me for various symptoms—lethargy, unresponsiveness, inability to move my hands or legs. I shouldn’t be allowed to sleep for a few hours.

I was only six months old.

Some people claim they remember being born. Most people lose the memories of their early childhoods. They don’t have any idea what happened to them before kindergarten. Memories before the age of five are specious, at best, and likely fabrications that stem from fantasy or trauma in later life.

Something about the memory of the motel room, the car, and the rain has a base in reality, but whose reality is in question. I can’t be sure that I remember my experience or constructed my memory from the story of the skull fracture my mom told. I know that I couldn’t have deciphered my mother saying anything. I had probably only said “mama” or “dada” and a few other rudimentary things by that age. Maybe I did hear what my mother said and put the meanings of the word together when I had language. Likely, I didn’t.

The memory is as real to me as the living room I sit in this moment. It’s not just snippets but two distinct and complete occurrences. I can’t be sure they are connected. But they seem to tell the story of a traumatic moment for me and my mother. How my father reacted to the situation I don’t know. He drove.

There are things my mother could not have told me. My dad was wearing a white t-shirt. I remember his elbows and blue jeans. She wouldn’t know my perception of the dashboard lights of the way I remember red and white streaks on the windshield from lights reflecting through the streams of rain. She can’t tell me about how I looked up at the rear view mirror and the ceiling above.

Another memory, again from before grade school. I was about three. My grandmother took my sister, brother, and me to Sunnyside park. It was a hot summer day and we were in the middle of the park. My grandmother must have told us it was time to go. I didn’t want to. I continued to lay in the grass, plucking individual leaves and making ants climb across them.

I found myself suddenly alone. I looked around and saw that they were far across the field, walking toward the cars parked along the street. They seemed a mile away. They were leaving me!

Panic shot through me like a lightning bolt. I started to run toward them, screaming and crying. I ran until my sides ached but I daren’t slow down for fear they would get in that car and drive away. I couldn’t catch my breath. My heart pounded. My legs ached.

I don’t remember anything after that. But it was like my grandmother to threaten us kids with abandonment if we didn’t act on her word and act quickly. Of course, my siblings don’t remember the incident. They were younger than me. But I’ll never forget the panic, the way my insides turned to ice when I realized they were leaving without me.

Did it happen? I think, probably something occurred. I have gone back to the park more than once to pinpoint where I was when they left me. The park seems much smaller. I stand in the middle of the field and see just how far the street was from where we were. What were we doing in the middle of the field? Were walking back toward the car from the playground at the far corner of the park? Why wouldn’t my grandmother drive down to the playground?

In the end, I can’t be sure any of this happened. Even as I write these memories now, I recall details that a child could not have perceived—what my mother said, knowing that the red and white light in the rain streaks were reflections of other car lights. The incidents bring into question just about every other memory I have.

There’s a framework there. Something happened, that’s sure. What happened, exactly or even peripherally, I can never know. The rain on the windshield, the ants crawling over the leaves of grass, the panic all seem real. Did I dream these things as convenient devices to explain other occurrences and coincidences in my life? To explain my behavior to me? To tell me who I am?