My Father's Tree

by Jeanne Howe

I’m thinking now about my father. Your father,
he called himself. Again I see him planting stunted sapling
oaks for someday shade. He stabbed them in
young among the rocks that scabbed our yard,
stomped them down, hog-tied them to serve
his intentions. Your father gave them their
, he hissed to my brothers and me, making
sure our mother heard as he pointed at the trees and
then at us to nail his lesson home. Now we’ll see
what they goddamn make of themselves

One by one those oaks and most of us have
dropped—Vietnam, the great snow of 1987,
twisting winds, sunless seasons, overdose
of self-reproach, hard ground, hard times.
As we fell my father disappeared us, cut
the trees to lengths for burning, piled
their reaching arms to fence things out, sawed
and harangued to satisfy his anger,
buried us, wrote us off, made us
nothing to him.

After decades insufficient for forgiveness,
I’ve come to let go my father’s holdings.
The old man’s lying deep among his roots
in the churchyard. His house, those it held,
his plantings, what we were and what we had, mostly
over now, splinters, caskets, rot, ashes, down to dirt.
The house has burned. My father’s trees, as they grew up,
broke apart and threw themselves down on what was his.
I wonder: Was it worth their sacrifice?

One last oak still stands, tangled, twisted.
Already in August its leaves are dry as
I. As I look up, a single hand-shaped
leaf steps away from its yesterdays, tumbles,
spins, drifts as if its fall will never end, palm up
in supplication, pointing this empty way and that.

Watching, at last I see: Now is my own
time for letting go.
All of this is history when I say so.

Jeanne Howe is a retired college professor, a registered nurse, and a several-times student in Great Smokies Writing Program courses. Her literary work has appeared in The Great Smokies Review, North Central Review, The Village Rambler, and Common Ground Review. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

About My Father's Tree—Sharing this poem has given me the surprising and provocative awareness that many people assume poems are autobiographical. Perhaps this assumption relates to a special intimacy inherent in poetry as compared to writing that announces itself to be fiction. This particular poem is fictional except the last stanza, which I aspire to apply in my own life.