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Ma Cook's Willow

October 11, 2018

The sticky summers of my 1950’s youth seemed more extreme than those of today. Back then we didn’t have air-conditioning in homes, cars, or even most businesses. Lazy ceiling fans circulated stagnant waves of heat throughout the corner drug store, the butcher shop downtown, and the five and dime, causing men to roll up their sweat-soaked shirt sleeves and ladies to mop their red faces with daintily embroidered handkerchiefs as they brushed back stray strands of limp, damp hair.   

I accepted the heat as something that was inevitable, therefore, to be ignored if at all possible. In my eight-year-old mind, the advantages to summer far outweighed the disadvantages.

I would languish for hours out of the heat of the afternoon sun, under the swaying leaves of the maple tree in our front yard. Whenever Mom sent me outside to play, more than likely you could find me leaning against the maple’s trunk, reading the latest Nancy Drew mystery.

At least once during the hottest part of the summer, we would make our annual trek to visit my great-grandmother and my favorite tree. The ritual always started the same.

During dinner, which always included beef or pork as chicken was saved for Sundays, potatoes, two kinds of vegetables - one always some kind of beans - and thick slices of bread slathered with butter, my dad would turn to mom and tell her he had talked to Grandma on the black telephone that hung on the dining room wall.

My dad didn’t talk on the phone much in those days. Grandpa and Grandma lived a mile or so away, and we saw them every Sunday afternoon after that fried chicken dinner without fail. So, for dad to talk to his mother on the phone during the week in the summer could only mean one thing; we were going to Ma Cook’s house in Southern Illinois.

Mom and dad discussed our travel plans at the dinner table while sipping sweet tea. Not the bitter tea from up north where we lived an hour outside of Chicago, but the tea of my father’s youth a few hours down south. Often scornfully compared to Kool-Aid by our northern neighbors, sweet tea was a mainstay of our hot summer nights. I was even allowed to drink one small glass, poured from the nubby, milk-white pitcher that sat in the middle of our dinner table.

The warm tea flowed over the ice in my blue metal cup, popping the cubes with the sound of splintering glass. I gulped down the summer sweetness. The tea, still warm from the afternoon sun, mixed with the wintry cold slivers of ice and danced down my parched throat until the last bits of ice clinked into my small white teeth only to be sucked inside them and noisily crunched with delight.

I sat at the yellow and white-flecked metal table, swinging sandaled feet that didn’t come near the floor yet, peeling my sweaty legs off of the plastic seat of my chair. The excitement of my upcoming trip threatening to bubble out of my very pores as the plans my parents made swirled through the air. Great Grandma Cook – Ma Cook to everyone that knew her – was the sweetest grown-up I knew. And in the baked dirt of her tiny front yard grew the biggest willow tree I had ever seen. It was like a huge umbrella, sheltering me from sultry southern summer sun and soaking surprise showers. I loved that tree almost as much as I loved Ma Cook.

The willow must have already been there when the dinky little home grew from the dusty earth to house my Grandma’s family. It was a shotgun house built in early 1900. The name, like the residents of the small town, told volumes with few words. A man could shoot a shotgun in the front window and the silver streak would zip right through the house to the back door without hitting anything, as each room sat in an arrow straight line with the next. That house never grew, never even had indoor plumbing. But my willow never stopped trying to reach the sky with its branches.

I sat in the shade of the much smaller maple tree in our front yard as Mom ironed and folded my shorts and sleeveless shirts on the appointed traveling day. Nestling each of them into her cornflower blue suitcase, they kept company with her skirts and blouses and dad’s starched shirts. I had already packed a sack from the grocery store that read “Piggly Wiggly” on the sides with my favorite books; a new box of Crayolas and a stack of the scrap paper dad brought me home from the mill where he worked.

The anticipation of the trip vibrated in the humid air until I could hardly stand still with the hum of excitement surrounding me. My job was to watch for Grandpa’s shiny black Ford to roll down the street. About six that evening, I was rewarded with the sight of the car crawling around the corner like a giant beetle, crunching to a stop in front of our house. I jumped up and down in anticipation of seeing how much my tree had grown since last year and wrapping my arms around Ma Cook once again.

Dad rode in front with Grandpa. I was sandwiched between Grandma and Mom, trying not to fidget as I stared at the back of my Grandpa’s spiky red flattop. Dad half turned, talking to his father as we traveled the night roads south. Someplace between the gas station where we stopped to fill up with ethyl, and the rest area we stopped at to stretch our legs as Mom called it – even though we really stopped to relieve ourselves – I lost the fight to keep my eyes open.

As the car slowly crunched over the gravel ruts that sufficed for the road to Ma Cook’s, I awoke with a start. Subconsciously, I recognized the sound of coming home. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I crawled onto Grandma’s lap to see my tree. Grabbing the top of the window, I pressed my nose to the glass. There, shimmering in the full moon, she waited for me.

As tall as any building I’d ever seen, she seemed to bow and dance in the breeze that blew silver green tendrils of branches gently back and forth in the night air. While the grownups tended to the bags and suitcases, I ran underneath the flickering emerald sea of leaves to hug the gnarled trunk.

As I laid my flushed cheek against the cool deep ruts of bark, Ma Cook popped through the leaves to welcome me. I turned from the rough tree to bury my head in her soft cotton dress as she drew me close to her.

“Child, you have grown as much as my tree since I saw you last summer!” she exclaimed.

I grinned as she held me at arm’s length to check out every inch of me from my corn silk ponytail held together to my bare feet with the rosy pink nail polish I had insisted on wearing for the trip. She pulled me in for another hug, and I inhaled the sweet smell of the south. Sugary talcum powder and cinnamon seemed to puff up from the folds of the flowered dress. The gentle fabric held the scent of the summer sun that had dried the colors to soft pastels. A deeper breath brought smells of the dusty, baked earth, the blood red roses growing by the sloping front porch and the hint of coal dust that clung in the air like a sad reminder of the only way to make a living in the impoverished town.

Ma Cook clasped my hand and led me across the rocky, moonlit yard into the welcoming light of the house. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and neighbors had gathered in that teeny living room to greet us northerners. Among exclamations of how much I’d grown, how thin my mom looked – would she like a piece of homemade peach pie? – and how my dad looked just like his uncle Lyman as a boy, we were enveloped in the warm arms of extended family. Once again my eyes grew heavy as the clink of coffee cups and the soft laughter of my relatives lulled me to sleep.

The hot rays of sun teased my eyes open through the sparkling windowpanes of Ma Cook’s living room. I had been covered with a soft cotton quilt that had bits and pieces of Ma and Pa Cook deftly sewn in intricate patterns by Ma Cook’s steady hand. Kicking her handy work into a little ball at my feet, I ran to the door to see my tree in the light.

If she was awesome in the moonlight, daytime showed her true majesty. Cricking my neck, I shielded my eyes from the blinding morning light to see the top of her branches. Ma Cook came up quietly behind me.

“Good morning, Sugar.” She smoothed my tangled hair with a wrinkled, loving hand. “Come on into the kitchen and get yourself a corn muffin before you go runnin’ out to that tree of yours.”

My bare feet slapped hardwood floors worn smooth with age. Hand braided rugs, made of the fabrics too dark for quilts curled like snails in the center of each room. Entering the happy yellow kitchen, I greeted Grandma and Mom, attempted to grab a muffin and escape in one swift movement. Mom was faster, snatching my hand as I reached for the golden stack of muffins that sat in the middle of Ma Cook’s table.

“Your pink shorts and matching shirt are on the bed in the front bedroom. Bring me the hairbrush and rubber band so we can do your hair, and brush your teeth at the kitchen sink. I pumped you a basin of water”

I rushed from the miniature kitchen to do what had to be done to get outside to my tree. Tossing on shorts and shirt, I grabbed the brown handled hairbrush from Mom’s suitcase. Pausing just a minute to grab the sack I had packed before leaving home, I raced to the kitchen out of breath thrusting the brush and band at Mom.

Teeth and hair both brushed and inspected, I was finally free to go outdoors. The steamy southern air smacked me in the face as soon as I opened the door. Lugging my sack and Ma Cook’s quilt, I parted the strands of leaves that hung from long whips and stepped inside the coolness the tree created. The long, lithe branches hung away from the tree a good three feet, creating a circular cool playroom just for me.

I smoothed the quilt and leaned back against the trunk that had grown so big my grandfather’s arms couldn’t even reach around it. Pulling treasures from my sack one after another, I arranged them around me. With a satisfied sigh, I gazed at the semicircle of happiness surrounding me. The new box of crayons sat to my right. Next to the rainbow of thirty-two bright colors with never used pointed tops, a snow white fan of papers awaited the masterpieces that were sure to be created over the next few days. Next came my lovingly worn copies of the adventures of Nancy Drew and her friends Bess and George. Lastly, my stuffed monkey Jocko lolled on his back gazing up through the leaves of the willow staring at the waves of heat radiating above the tree in the July heat. His brown fur rubbed smooth from hugs and tears, he grinned back at me with his wide monkey mouth, seemingly as happy as I was to have the day before us to spend as we wished.

The minutes beneath my willow stretched into lazy hours that melted into days. The warm blend of dappled sunlight under the sheltering willow baked my fair skin to a golden brown in the week we stayed at Ma Cook’s. Interspersed with my serene tree hours were rowdy family picnics with cousins I played and fought with every summer and comfortable family dinners on Ma Cook’s front porch.

On the last morning of our visit, I sat at Ma Cook’s feet in the cool shade of the willow, shelling green peas. “Did you have a good time, Sugar?” her reedy voice asked.

“Yes ma’am. But I wish I could take my tree home with me. It gets hot at home too, and our maple isn’t near big enough to keep me cool,” I whined.

“Little one, this tree couldn’t grow if you tried to uproot it now. Just like your old Ma Cook. All of my kids, your Grandma included, want me to leave this house that I have lived in for forty years. Pa Cook and I raised all seven of our kids here, did you know that?” she smiled down at me brushing a wispy white hair back into its little bun. “I am like that old willow. My roots are wide and deep, and even though there isn’t much here in this little town, it’s enough for me. Just like this old cracked yard is enough for our willow.”

With a gentle smile, she picked up her apron in one hand, protecting the newly shucked peas and reached for me with the other outstretched palm. I held her tight as we ducked under the willow’s waterfall of fluttering silver backed leaves that we both loved so much. Kicking up little puffs of dust with our feet, we headed to the tiny house brimming with memories of summers gone by and anticipation of those yet to be. I glanced back at the willow that bowed and waved to me in the warm summer breeze, and understood.

We have moved many times but stayed in the area. I can still visit the Maple tree in Aurora that I loved as a child, and I still hold a place in my heart for Ma Cook’s willow.

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