THE WILLOW TREE OF LIFE
MANY memories of my childhood are entwined with the willow tree my dad planted in the back garden when I was a baby. The tree died off several years ago, but the stump is still there, covered in prolific clematis during the summer, and a bare but touching monument to my Dad in the winter.
My Mum still lives in the same house and, somewhere in a cupboard, in an old chocolate box, are lots of small frilly-edged photographs.
Me at about one year old, staggering as I push my pram, face creased up against the sun, the willow sapling slight and distant in the background.
Me sitting, dripping wet, in the army surplus dinghy which served as a paddling pool – with my brother and my sister, all in our baggy, saggy, soggy, boggy pants, the willow dangling its slim-leaved branches to the side.
Me playing with shop dummy packets of groceries and chocolate bars in our Dad-made shop, at about five years old – ribbon dangling in my hair, and the willow now old enough to weep gracefully behind me.
Me at about seven, in sweater and jeans, half-way up the tree,looking down from its branches. From up there I could spy on the people on the top decks of the red and white buses going into town, or coming back.
There are no photographs of bonfire nights – no flash camera for my Dad – but plenty of memories of an early tea, a quick flick of the teacloth and run of the carpet sweeper.Then warm coats, scarves, gloves and wellies, and out into the cold, dark night air. Whooping round the garden, climbing the tree using familiar footholds, hooting like owls until Dad came out with the tin of fireworks.Then we and Mum fell in line and followed orders to keep well back. Ooh! Roman candles, lovely! Spinning Catherine wheels, bangers under the dustbin lid and, best of all, jumping jacks snapping at our heels and making us shriek.Then we left the tree in peace and went in for supper.
There’s a straight-edged photograph of me at 12 with my sister, 15,both in the Grammar School for Girls uniform.
Horrid navy velour hats with red and blue bands and elastic round the chin, navy blazers and pleated skirts, white blouses, red and blue-striped ties and, worst of all, stockings! Uncomfortable, digging-in suspender belts.Behind us the willow, now taller than the house itself, weeping as usual.
Me at 14 in a short pop-art dress. Loads of black eye-liner and thick mascara, my hair straightened with curling tongs, leaning against the hefty trunk of the tree in a dollybird pose. Off to the dance hall on the pier, with its huge revolving sparkly balls and all those motown heartbusters!
Me at 17, with long, straightened dark hair (I still hadn’t given up with those curling tongs!) with the rest of my family. Mum, Dad, my brother, sister and Nan, who by then was about 80. All standing in front of the willow, by now a huge leafy dome.
Me at 21, with very short hair and lo oking very French after a year as an English assistant at a school in the East of France.With me are my sister and her little girl, a real cutie, elfin-faced, with big dark eyes and dark hair.The darling of the university we were both at by then, in Northern Ireland. Both of us were home for the holidays, smiling in front of the tree.
Me at 33, holding my first baby who, unbelievably, has very blond hair and blue eyes! AViking invader in our Celtic camp! His hand is grabbing at the dangling branches of the willow.
Me at 35, holding my second baby – chubby, hazeleyed and with salt-and-pepper hair, but still a lot like his older brother. At my parents’ house for the first time.
Me at 45, in front of what is now only a tree stump, smothered in clematis.With my Mum and Dad, ready to go to my auntie’s funeral.
Me only four months later, out in the garden with my brother, sister, Mum and other family members. In front of the rose-smothered willow stump, but this time without Dad.
Several weeks later, my Mum and my brother scattered his ashes around a beautiful silver birch in a special spot in the New Forest, not too far from home.We all knew it well, for we used to go there as a family for picnics and long walks across the open heath. It’s a wonderful place. My dad loved the forest, the trees. That’s why he gave us the willow.
Jennifer M. Wooltorton