We buried Dad in St. Joe’s cemetery, a geranium-potted cemetery dotted with gospel-true evergreens and grown-up white pines a century old. Mom was pleased that their plot had one of the old pines for shade. Years ago, when they picked that plot, Dad had kidded her, said, “Yeah, we’re really gonna enjoy that shade when we’re dead, aren’t we?” Being heaven bent, she was not amused. Still, when my sisters and I visited his grave, I was glad to lean against that tree’s trunk. We drank beer in its shade, prayed a little, and stared hard at his stone, wondering why he’d had to leave us to watch over Mom, we who are just no good at it.
Oceana County is both forest and farm. Orchard country. Peaches, mostly harvested by now; apples, not yet full on. August heat for two weeks straight, humid and oddly still, punctuated by fierce but short-lived rains. Thunderstorms already sent so much pesticide run-off and overflow sewage into the local bays that the e coli percentages skyrocketed to Mars. We know because the water fowl die off; we’ve stopped going to the nude beaches after work.
In the hiatus, we drink beer in the evenings. It’s Tuesday night at the tavern with my hubby, Dave. Radar on the tavern’s big screen puffs up a band of sprawling red-orange balloons let loose across these northern counties, tugging hard and fast under determined-to-be-destructive winds, dead on us. Just at dark, they build, slam, keening into our local township. Gale escalates to straightline while we sit. The bartender hollers over the scream, “Doncha worry. Nothing to do with climate change.”
He’s being sarcastic. I think. Even as our fingers spiral around the moist rings of Two-Hearted ale condensed on the bar, we hear the irrevocable truth as a made-for-TV drama with the picture off. First the orchards, those weak-kneed, genetically-modified creatures. We know already: that apple crop’s done before the wind even tops out. With them, borer-killed ash—no vital root system to hold them in. As they drop, they tear up the saplings. Then old poplar and middle-grade oaks just blow over. Finally, big branches yanked off full-grown maples like arms from dolls. And all that before the final indignity, gusts to breaking point. No other crack’s that sharp, that shattered. The tallest go first: white pine, midway up, just where they can’t bend anymore, they just shear off—that’s the term, sheared, like sheep but it’s not wool we’re talking. Some tops drop right down, some tumble and roll caught in straightline, some fly like witch brooms, tangling with electric lines or torn-loose fences. Some pierce like spears through roofs. Like I said, ruin. Like these times since Dad died, everything messed up. Mom. Us. Even weather, I guess.
Weather’s a god in orchard country. Do gods mess up?
Power goes out. We drink the last of our now-warm beer in candlelight but it is not romantic, listening as storm runs down like a dead engine, offering up a knowledge we hold even before we’ve seen.
Next day, it’s as bad as we figured. Worse. Maybe it’s not the right image, but what remains reminds me of those hunters a hundred years ago who killed buffalo just for sport and left carcasses to rot. Except this was a waste-filled wind doing the deeds, so who do you blame?
Now, downed woods, wind-felled apples, blocked highways, and wrenched roofs.
Nobody’s hurt, and that’s good, but with the clean-up, it’s two days before I get to visit St. Joe’s cemetery. After dodging debris for miles, I pull up, pick my way through remains. Tree service guys are already working, but they’ve started at the south end, near the church. I know approximately where our family’s plots are, but how to look in this field of newly dead? Trundling over broken boughs and branches, some already piled for burning or chipping, I navigate to the giant trunks that marked Dad’s row, to the row that charmed my mother, all sheared clean off twenty to thirty feet up, the breaks like fanged teeth biting the sky. Workers have already started harvesting boughs from the trunks so what’s left are knobby obelisks, pointing straight up, accusing the light. Or giving the finger to a weather god we may have created, a last P.O.’d gesture before they too go down for lumber.
So I find the plot as much by loss as landmarks, then yank broken branches off the gravestone. The stone’s Ok. The Jesus statue my sister stood next to the stone, the one she brought here when we closed Mom’s house and moved her to the facility, has lost its head. The sun shines on the broken body, makes it glow, but the head’s a grey-cracked egg. I look around, wonder if Mom will still want to be buried here now the plot’s in full sun. Dad’s mockery returns, turned on its head. We’re really gonna enjoy that sun when we’re dead, aren’t we? Not a standing tree in sight. In the distance, the chipper’s whine exhales the sharp scent of dying pine. Pining. What will we lean on when we come out here to drink that heartless Two-Hearted ale? Because it was not his stone so much as that tree that meant rest.
What do we do now these trees are all gone? Which god to turn to?
Some oaks and maples were not sheared. Instead, they had stood so long, were so elder, that their roots twisted into the bases of the oldest gravestones. When that wind howled and hauled, those trees toppled whole, upending root masses, pulling up stones into light like gnarled hands holding biblical tablets. Now a half dozen marble markers hang in eerie suspension, tangled in the root web, names and dates trembling in the fibrous nets, sand drying and sifting off like the spray in the lower half of an hour glass.
Anne-Marie Oomen is author of Lake Michigan Mermaid with Linda Nemec Foster (Michigan Notable Book for 2019), Love, Sex and 4-H (Next Generation Indie Award for Memoir), Pulling Down the Barn (Michigan Notable Book); and Uncoded Woman (poetry), among others. She edited ELEMENTAL: A Collection of Michigan Nonfiction. She teaches at Solstice MFA at Pine Manor College (MA), Interlochen’s College of Creative Arts (MI), and at conferences throughout the country. She lives near Traverse City, Michigan, where she and her husband have built their own home.