THE CHERRY TREE
By John Thomas Tuft
It stood as a sentinel at the far end of the large garden. It was planted by Susie and Jimmy when they first bought the lot. The day their Sears & Roebuck house kit was delivered, a pile of lumber, nails, hopes and dreams, sliding off the truck right next to the hole dug out for the foundation, the young couple walked back to where Jimmy would plant his big garden. Next to that spot, together they planted a cherry tree. Eventually, they planted a few more, both sour red and sweet dark cherries. But it was the first one that always watched over everything. Watched over the land. Watched over the garden each year, from spring planting to fall harvest and all points in between. Watched over Susie and Jimmy as they weathered storms and gathered the fruit of their hardworking lives. Watched over them through lean times, fights and failures, yet always found a way to show forth blossoms come each new spring.
When the house was ready for them to move into, Jimmy took some extra lumber and built a most comfortable love-bench underneath that very tree. Here was home.
Jimmy worked in the blast furnaces of the mills down along the Youghiogheny River near McKeesport, then later to the Clairton works along the Monongahela. Their home just across the line from the small borough of East McKeesport into North Versailles Township was his refuge from his shifts in the bowels of hell. One year during the annual shut down of the furnace to reline it with treated brick, he built a garage between the house and garden for all his tools and much beloved two-toned Studebaker Commander Starlight coupe. The Sears & Roebuck house was sturdy and comfortable, but he liked to tinker at making it better for his Susie. Come spring, though, there was only one place to find him. Out in the garden using the manpower of his own arms and legs to push the hand plow to turn the dirt. Then he would get his buddy Fred to truck in a load of fresh from the farm manure. The whole neighborhood knew when Jimmie was preparing his garden each year by that fragrance drifting on the wind.
Susie pitched in, working harder than most men, digging the dirt, hoeing around the plants, bringing homemade lemonade out from her kitchen to sit with Jimmy on the cherry tree loveseat and enjoy their life together. And when their daughter, Grace, was born Susie brought her out in the sunshine to sit on the bench while they did the work of encouraging the earth to yield its bounty. As the corn, squash, cukes, beans, carrots and all, came in, Susie busied herself canning the vegetables and placing the jars in the fruit cellar they’d dug with the foundation. When the cherry trees matured and bore their fruit, Susie picked, pitted and canned what didn’t make it into pies and cobblers right off. Grace grew up and brought her beau to sit on the bench beneath the cherry tree to help him understand where she came from. Also, every Wednesday evening, Jimmy drove Susie down into East McKeesport, to the Presbyterian Church on Broadway for choir practice. One does not go through such a rich life without a nod to the divine aspects of community and fellowship.
When the new minister moved in across the back street with his seven scruffy kids, Susie brought them homemade vegetable soup and cherry crumble as a welcome. When the cherries ripened each spring, she would invite the three youngest, dressed in their ‘3 for $1 pack’ of white tee shirts from the sparkling new Kmart store out the highway, to come help with the picking. Ladders were climbed, pails were filled and iced tea drunk on the special bench beneath the sentinel tree. Their white tees became permanently stained by the raucous pitting sessions around the old kitchen table. To them, Susie seemed ancient. And perhaps she was. Ancient enough to have endured seeing Grace married, then widowed by a terrible accident that left her struggling to get around on two canes. Ancient enough to see Jimmy retire, still driving that old Studebaker, slowly become hobbled by arthritis, and watching his garden grow smaller and smaller with each new aching joint. Ancient enough to wear her beautiful long hair, now gray, in a long braid wrapped around her head like a well-deserved crown.
Now Susie and Jimmy sat on the love-bench, marking the time and its passing by noting the branches over their heads becoming more gnarled and weatherworn each spring as it yet blossomed. The day came when Susie called the minster to tell him that Jimmy was in an ambulance, could he come pray with her. Time can be soothing yet unyielding. It was Jimmy’s time to go. Susie needed a ride now to choir practice each week. The house began to feel empty even in its aching familiarity. Trips outside to sit on the loveseat became more halting even as they became more valuable. The tree seemed to bow before her, offering what it could. Time kept passing without thought to the future.
One last time, Susie came to sit beneath the cherry tree. She had not gotten this far in life by being afraid of decisions. The Sears & Roebuck house was too much for her. Her own health was in doubt. Grace might need special care. She ran her fingers over the old bench, imagining sitting here with Jimmy, the garden in full throated growth. A petal from a cherry blossom floats down to kiss her cheek. This is the last time. The back of the lot with the garden is sold to a developer for townhomes. It’s hard for her to imagine. What will become of the bench? The cherry tree? The old woman fretting about them both? Susie sighs. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Nothing stops them. But for now. For now…
Words are magic and writers are wizards.