I was enjoying a coffee in a restaurant in Carrick-on-Shannon last week when two women sat down beside me. One was young and pregnant, clearly exhausted by the endless traipsing around shops to find things for Christmas. The elder was her mammy.
“Do you mind,” the elder said “if we sit here? We just need to take the weight off our feet for a minute.”
The young woman was devouring a big sponge bun full of cream which she had purchased at the till, while the older woman inquired if I knew where Woodie’s was.
“It’s beside Tesco,” I said, but she looked blank, and the younger one was too engaged with the cream bun to be bothered.
“You can’t miss it,” I said, “if you go out the Dublin road.”
“We’re from up near Corlough,” the mammy explained, implying that she didn’t venture often into places as sophisticated as Carrick-on-Shannon, with all its coloured lights.
For all I knew the young woman may have held a PhD in nuclear physics from the University of Limerick, but when an elder mammy brings her daughter shopping it’s really the daughter who is bringing the mammy shopping. So she must allow the matriarch to call the shots whatever way she wants.
Every summer the willow I planted 10 years ago stretches its branches towards the sun, and I can mark how much happier I become as the years pass
The putative nuclear physicist might well have known where every Woodie’s in Ireland was, but she had more preoccupying issues at that moment. After devouring all traces of cream and crumb on her plate, she left us to find a bathroom.
“We’re going to plant a little oak tree for the child,” the elder mammy whispered confidentially. I confessed that I loved trees and agreed that it was a huge wisdom to mark important occasions by planting one.
Ten years ago this November I planted a willow. I was struggling with depression, and I went at the ground with a spade all afternoon, until the slender sapling was firmly established. Although as the light faded I could barely find the trowel in the darkness.
I wiped tears from my eyes even though I didn’t know I was crying. I cried as people do when they are engulfed by depression. Crying in such moments is a release of tension. And the tears were a kind of balm to me; a reassurance that beneath my frozen anxieties there was a sap of tenderness. A joy hidden beneath the sorrow.
The moment remains forever present in the trees that grow around me now.
Every summer the willow stretches its branches towards the sun, and I can mark how much happier I become as the years pass. Although I never forget the thin ice that lies beneath my feet and the fathomless anxieties lurking below the ice. The willow tree holds the moment.
Trees hold all my memories, and they gather around me in old age like friends assuring me that the universe is beautiful. They keep me close in the remembrance of things, and they sustain in me gratitude for things present
Trees hold other moments too. Times when friends arrived with potted plants at birthday parties, or when a child rejoiced in some little academic victory in primary school. And I cherish the beech trees that arrived in plastic bags through the post many years ago from a friend who has long since passed away.
Trees hold all my memories, and they gather around me in old age like friends assuring me that the universe is beautiful; they keep me close in the remembrance of things, and they sustain in me gratitude for things present.
Maybe that’s why I suspect I will never leave the hills above Lough Allen. Because I could never uproot the trees, or live without them. Like my good or bad deeds they have consequences, and they unfold as they must.
Of course I didn’t share any of this with the two women who were shopping for Christmas on the bright streets of Carrick-on-Shannon. But I hope that the years reaching ahead of them are full of love and sponge cake and unruly trees.
“I can’t get enough of those sponges,” the young woman said smiling as she tapped her stomach. “The baby must have a sweet tooth.”
“And I hope you find a tree,” I said as we parted.
Later I too went off to Woodie’s to find LED lights for our Christmas tree. Although our tree lives in the garden near the window so we can look out at it every year and remember other Christmas Eves. And I find it comforting to imagine a mother in some far-distant future, looking out on a tree growing in the hills above Corlough and saying to someone she loves, “Did I ever tell you about the day we planted it, me and your granny?”