The Mother Tree

by Terese Pampellonne

When I opened the door, Jolie was standing there with a bouquet of flowers in her hands.  She immediately opened her arms to hug me.

“Hiiiii,” she said, her drawn out “I” both a greeting and condolence. 

“Flowers?  I can’t believe you brought me flowers,”  I said, feeling my throat narrow.  We hugged, until I began to feel embarrassed and stepped back to let her in.   Once inside, she ripped the paper wrapping off the bouquet and began to arrange the four pink and white lilies, the sprays of baby’s breathe, in a large empty urn I kept on an end table.

“They’re beautiful Jo,” I said, as I watched my slender friend rummage through my kitchen drawer for a pair of scissors.  She had dressed up for the occasion.  A black, swingy nylon skirt and black camisole top.  I had on my overall shorts and Big Boy T-shirt.

“And you look great.”

She waved the compliment away with her hand.  “How are you feeling,” she asked as she snipped a stem. 

“Okay, I’m . . .” My face froze. She dropped the scissors and lily and came over, put her arms around me.

“I know, I know,” she soothed.  “That’s why we’re doing this today.  This is going to help.  It’s a big deal Sylvia, it really is.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said, and then excused myself to go to the bathroom.

After I splashed some cold water on my face, I leaned over the basin to look closely in the mirror. My husband, Frank, is always telling me to hurry up and age.  He claims he loves crows feet on a woman.  He thinks they make her sexy and, he’ll remind me, it won’t make him look like such a dirty old man.  There’s a fourteen-year age difference between us.  When I first told him I was pregnant, the main reason he gave for not wanting it was that he’d already brought up two children.  “I’m too old to be a father again,” he said.   On hearing his reaction, it felt like something inside me had curled up and died, even though when I’d first found out I collapsed onto our bathroom floor, littered with the opened cartons of home-pregnancy tests, and pounded my stomach with my fists.  But Frank was Catholic.  When I told him I’d have an abortion, I was only seven weeks at the most, he said no.  “I couldn’t live myself.  We’ll do what we have to do.” 

I ran my hands down my face.  At least my skin will clear up now, I thought.  And my stomach is already starting to go down.

“Are you feeling better,” Jolie asked as I came back into the livingroom. 

“I’m fine.”

“I meant  . . .”

“Oh.  That.”  I sat in my rocker and looked at her simple yet beautiful arrangement.  “It was hideous.”

“I can’t imagine.”  

She sat across from me on the ottoman, leaning forward, hands clasped together. I sighed, not wanting to go into it again.  After it was confirmed there was no heartbeat, I immediately made an appointment at one of those women’s health centers you see advertised on the subway.  My doctor said if I waited a few days, she’d do the procedure up at the hospital, but I couldn’t stand the idea of walking around with a dead baby in me.  When I told the girl, a young Latino, I was there for a D&C, she handed me a form.  I read it then slid the paper back over the desk. 

“I’m not here for an abortion,” I said.  “I’m here for a D&C.  I’ve had a miscarriage.”  The girl was busy filling out another form and glanced up at me. 

“It’s the same thing,” she said, and pushed another piece of paper toward me.  I pushed it back.

“Not to me it’s not.”

I got up from my chair.  “I found a great picture Jo.  Wait till you see.”  I went over to our armoire.  It’s a huge, hulking thing.  We got it to hide our computer, but the trade off was that it took up half our wall space.  When Frank and I bought this place, we’d moved from such a small apartment we overcompensated by buying big furniture.  However, once we got the furniture into the new apartment, we realized it wasn’t that big after all, and were back to feeling cramped again.             

I pulled down a picture of my mother I’d tacked up on the armoire’s bulletin board inside, and brought it over to Jolie.  In it, my mother is glaring at the camera; her mouth is bunched up into a mean little knot.  It was unfair to use this picture, because she had been trying to be funny.

“I thought it was perfect.  It looks like she’s in the middle of giving a hex.”

Jolie studied the picture, and then shook her head in appreciation.  “It is perfect.  Anyone who digs this up will be cursed.”

She reached into her bag.  “I found one too, only I’ll have to cut my sister out.” 

She handed me an aged snapshot of her sister, a huskier version of Jolie, standing in between her parents, who were stodgy, morose-looking people; nothing at all like the actor who played them in the movie.  Jolie had written a screenplay about her parents’s abuse of her and her sister.  It won honorable mention at Sundance and her parents were now suing.  I handed it back so she could cut her sister out.  

“You really think this is going to do any good?” 

Her bright blue eyes flashed up at me.  “Of course.  It’s important for you to say goodbye.  It’s part of the mourning process.”

I looked out my window.  It was a perfect summer day; not too hot, bright sun.  A strong breeze was blowing through my window.

“I haven’t been in Central Park for a while.  It’s too depressing, seeing the dead grass, the leaves already brown . . .”

“I know.  Bad drought we’ve been having.”  She held the picture up, which now had a hole where her sister had been.  “I had to cut off my dad’s arm.”

Hazel, my tan mutt, moaned.  I’d shut her behind the French door that leads to our hallway because she likes to greet people by tackling them.  Frank called her Hazard.

“Let her out Sylvia.”

“You sure?  I know she kind of makes you nervous.”

“No!  Let her out.  I want to get a dog myself.  Maybe.”

I got up and opened the door.  Hazel bolted out, all wagging tail and wet happy eyes.  If Jo hadn’t been sitting down she would have been knocked over.

“Hazel!  Enough!”  I grabbed her by the collar and pulled her away from Jo, who was steeling herself against Hazel’s slurping tongue and battering tail.   I made her sit, but she was still struggling to get to Jolie. 

“Oh let her, Sylvia.  Even my boyfriend isn’t this happy to see me.”

I let go and Hazel pinned Jolie to her chair.  I watched as Jolie scratched her stomach and nuzzled Hazel’s face. I used to sit at dog runs and watch the owners play with their dogs.  Frank said I’d better adopt a pup before I got arrested for being a dog pedophile. I wanted one, but was afraid of the responsibility.  The night before we were supposed to go check out a litter of pups in Brooklyn, I woke up, panicked, and shook Frank awake. 

“What if I can’t handle it, Frank.  What if all I like is just the idea of a dog?”

After checking the time, he flopped back down onto the bed.  I’d been worrying him about this for days.  “A dog’s not like a kid, Syl,” he’d said.  “You can always give it away.”

Hazel plopped a dirty, slobber-soaked squeaky toy onto Jolie’s nice skirt.  Jolie looked up at me and sighed, “I want a dog,” in the same way when I told her I was pregnant, except then she’d said, ‘I want a baby.’

I got up.  “Come on.  Back you go.  You’d think a two-hundred-thousand dollar dog would be trained better.” 

I was referring to the main reason Frank and I decided to buy an apartment.  Two months after we brought Hazel home, the building we rented from decided no more dogs, but by then we decided nothing could make us give away Hazel.  I led her back behind the French door and shut it.  She looked up at me with a ‘what’d I do’ expression.

“So what did you get,” Jolie asked.

“Bubbles.  I thought blowing bubbles would be nice.  And glitter.  We can pour that into the water.”

Jolie nodded.  “That’s a good idea.  That’s a really good idea.”

“And we’d better take something to dig with.”  I headed into the kitchen.  “I’ll bring a soup spoon.”

“I didn’t even think of that.  We have to find the perfect place.”

“I know this area that has waterfalls,” I said as I dug through my utensil drawer.  “I think it’s up around 100th.  It’s really beautiful.  Peaceful.”  I pulled out a large, partially rusted soup spoon.

Jo peeked her head into the kitchen.  “But not for our parents,” she said.

“No, not for our parents.”  I stuck the spoon in the bag that held the bubbles and glitter.  “We’ll have to search for that.”


Outside, the sun felt like an overhead lamp.  I could feel the radiation, but I had slicked on sunscreen and worn the wide brimmed visor that I couldn’t go anywhere without during the summer months.  Jo and I entered the park at 93rd and Central Park West.  Nannies were pushing strollers, children were playing in a playground that looked like a mini fort.  Suddenly I felt very stupid.  This whole idea was  Jo’s.  She believed in this New Age stuff.  Once she had a spiritualist come to her apartment to have her parents exorcized from it.  When she had mentioned that we should do some type of ritual, to give me closure, I’d rolled my eyes. 

“It’s not that big of a deal,’ I said.  “I’m already over it.”

“But it is a big deal, Sylvia,” Jo said, her voice straining with earnestness.  “It’s huge.   And I think it’s important you acknowledge that.”

I realized she was only trying to help.  “So what exactly are we going to do,” I asked.

“We just maybe say a prayer, some affirmations.  Thank the baby for teaching you so much.  Whatever else, Sylvia, you learned a lot about yourself.”

I wasn’t convinced.  But when she suggested I bury my mother, symbolically, I began to warm up to the idea.

“Let’s head over this way.”  She was pointing to the left, toward the tennis courts.  “We’ll do our parents first, to exorcize their evil energy.”

We walked down the blacktop path, crossed a bit of road.  Some people were lazing about on  the patch of grass where Frank took Hazel to fetch ball on the weekends: Two old men cooked to brown gristle; a woman whose bikini’d behind had the texture and color of rising dough.  I could never imagine laying out in the park,  I’d be too afraid I’d be attacked.  To the left of us were the courts, and the gentle thwack of balls being volleyed back and forth punctured the drowsy summer soundtrack, that melding of buzzing insects, chirping birds and tree leaves rubbing against each other in a soft wind.   It’s like background music in a movie – you don’t notice it unless you really listen.

“There’s a lot of people around,” I said, half-embarrassed already.  “We’re not going to chant or dance around a tree, are we?”

“We’ll know what to do when we get there,” Jolie said.  “Don’t worry,  Central Park is a big place.  There can’t be people everywhere.”

Eventually, we found a tree.  Jolie spotted it.  It was a stark contrast to its leafy neighbors. Most of its limbs were bare except for a few brown, dried up leaves, and its trunk had a hole in it that looked like a mouth gasping its last breath.  It was the perfect tree to bury our parents under, she said. We didn’t want them poisoning a healthy one.

“Now what,” I asked, feeling like I was part of a play I hadn’t rehearsed for.

“Now . . . we dig.” She held out her hand for the spoon.

“No, that’s okay.  I’ll dig.  My arms are bigger and you’re dressed too nice.”

I kneeled down and dug in between two thick roots.  I hadn’t counted on the ground being so hard.  “Here goes a good spoon,” I said as I grasped the handle with a two-fisted grip and started to chip away.  Jolie found a piece of glass and joined in.  Finally the hole was deep enough.  A man in gray shorts and a Mets T-shirt looked at us curiously as he walked by.

“How much you want to bet someone’s going to dig this up, thinking we’re burying treasure?”

“Well, let them,” Jolie said, sitting in the dirt, legs splayed.  “Look what they’ll get for their efforts.  Besides, it’s the act of doing that matters.” 

She took out the picture of her mother and father then looked up at me.  “You should go first.”

I thrust my hands in my pockets, sorry I’d agreed to this.

“Just say what you feel, Sylvia.”

I looked up at the dying leaves above, then down into the empty hole.  What did I feel?  I took the card out of my pocket my mother had sent me when she’d found out I was pregnant. On the front was a white puppy with blue flowers in its mouth, under which she’d inked in the words, “How Sad.”  I remember how my palms were sweating as I opened it, even though I’d prepared myself for what was inside.  My brother had broke the news to her, and when I asked him what her reaction had been, he’d said, “Not good.”  So when I opened it, I wasn’t surprised to find one of her lists.  My mother was a great list-maker.  When she had to have surgery for her gall stones, she’d attached a To-Do note onto my pillow, listing the clothes she wanted to be laid out in and how she wanted her funeral to be conducted, and sure enough, when I opened the card I found two columns, one labeled REASONS TO, the other REASONS TO NOT

The reasons to not have a baby column was very long, listing everything from 24-hour babysitting and possible retardation (due to my advanced age), to giving up of ones’ life and washing diapers.  (I assumed that when I was a baby, Pampers weren’t around).  But the pro-baby column only had two items: Pass on genes and Someone to bury you.

Her timing had been particularly bad.  At first when I’d told friends I was pregnant, I delivered the news as if I were telling them I had a terminal illness.   But after the third or fourth, ‘You’re going to be a great mom!’ was expressed to me with such sincere enthusiasm, I began to wonder if they were seeing something in me that I didn’t, or couldn’t, see.  Their optimism began to rub off on me, and I’d just begun to feel like perhaps I could do this.  Perhaps I might even like doing this.  But then I got the card, and a week later I had the miscarriage.

I placed the card into the hole, and then the picture of my mother.  She was glaring up at me, so I turned her over, face down. 

“Aren’t you going to say something,” Jolie asked.

“Didn’t you say it was the act of doing,” I answered.

I crossed my arms and stared down into the hole.  I was feeling uncomfortable, self conscious.  She leaned in, trying to catch my eye but I looked away.

“Do you at least feel anything different?”

I shrugged, shook my head.  “Not really.”

“Give it time.  This is only the first step.  It’s a process.”

I stepped back from the hole.  “Your turn.”

Jolie took a deep breath and held the picture of her parents out in front of her. Her eyes and mouth grew small, as if they were connected to her insides by a drawstring pulled tight.

“Just because you say it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it didn’t,” she said shredding her parents into confetti and sprinkling them into the hole.  She sat in silence.  I was surprised there wasn’t more.  When it came to the subject of her parents, Jolie could be inexhaustible.  I felt I should say something.

“Today Sundance, tomorrow the Oscars.”

Jolie looked up at me.  “Damn straight,” she said in a raspy voice.  “Let’s bury’em.”  Then she began to push dirt over the tattered remains of her parents, my mother.  I began to tamp down the dirt, stomped it once, firmly.  Jolie followed suit but she almost re-dug the hole.  It was as if she were trying to stomp them down to hell.

“Okay okay okay,” I said, taking her arm.  “It’s over right?  It’s over?”

She looked at me, and from the feverish heat still in her eyes, I wondered if this ritual hadn’t done more harm then good.  Jolie leaned back against the tree.

“You need a ritual flushing out every once in awhile,” she said gazing up at the barren branches with one hand over her stomach.  I looked down at the covered hole and tapped it with the toe of my sandal.

“I don’t think you can ever really get it all out.”

She watched as I smoothed the dirt out.  “No, you’re probably right.”  She pushed away from the tree.  “But what the hell.  Let’s dance around the tree anyway.”

She grabbed my hand. 

“I thought we weren’t going to do anything like this,” I groaned as she led me around the tree.  But by the second time around, I was laughing with her and had my arms raised above my head and was chanting ‘We are motherless’ right along with her until our foolishness overcame us and we stopped.

“And fatherless,” Jo said, panting.  A moment passed before she swung open her arms and wrapped them around me.  “I don’t know about you, but I feel free!” 

I hugged her back for a long time.  Even though I didn’t believe her, I wanted her to be.  Finally, I pulled away and said, “Let’s go find the creek I was talking about.”

It took us an hour to find the spot I was looking for.  It’s an area of the park you don’t want to go into alone.  The thick foliage along the path that runs through it almost makes it soundproof.  No one would hear you if you cried for help.  But we kept our ears trained on the sound of running water.  The first small waterfall we came to was taken.  Two teenagers were sharing lunch on an abutment of rocks overhanging the cascading creek.

“Come on,” I said.  “That’s not the only one.”  The next one we came to wasn’t as secluded, but this part of our ritual wasn’t going to be as boisterous, I was sure.  Shame had a way of making you quiet.  Jolie and I found a place on a rock and sat for a few moments, listening to the water run. 

“It’s so peaceful,” I murmured. 

“Ummm.”  She had been resting back on the heels of her hands, feet dangling over the water, but now leaned forward.  “I think we should say some affirmations, then maybe a prayer.  What do you think?”

“I guess that would be good.”  For some reason I was nervous.  Not self-conscious or silly like at the mother tree.  This was different.  Jolie was Catholic, and had some experience confessing out loud.  She could see I was having trouble.

“How about I start, because I loved this baby too.”  I nodded yes, relieved.  She sat up and took a moment to compose her thoughts.

“I want to thank you, baby, for spending the time you did.  I would have liked you to stay, because I think my friend Sylvia would have made a great mom.”

At ‘great mom’ I looked away in the direction of the mother tree.  Jolie had always believed that, even after I told her I was sure I could only raise a psychologically deranged child.  And what if I did something worse, like hold a pillow over its face?  But she wasn’t fazed by any of my fears.  She was sure I was just scared, and told me that just because my mother hated being a mother didn’t mean I would.        

Jolie smiled at me in encouragement.  I took a deep breath and focused on the waterfall, the tiny silver fish glimmering like flashes of sunlight.

“I’m sorry I wanted you dead.”

Jolie hesitated before she put her arm around me.  “You know that’s not true Sylvia.”

I shrank from her touch, because I no longer knew what the truth was.  The first time I went for the sonogram, I hoped it would just be an empty sack.  Women my age often have them, a type of wish-fulfillment, a therapist had told me.  But then on the sono-screen, I saw its heart beating as fast as the wings on a fly.  It was such a contrast to my second sonogram, when a tiny corpse no bigger than my thumb was turned away, its back to us as if sleeping. The doctor kept moving the probe around, as if that could nudge it awake, but its fly speck heart remained still while I silently prayed wake up, wake up.  Please wake up.

I shifted uncomfortably.  “I’m going to just say something to myself, okay?”

She nodded slightly.  “Okay.”

I turned my attention back to the running water underneath our feet and closed my eyes, and pretended to be meditating, but my mind remained blank.  After a moment, I opened them.  Jolie’s eyes were closed so I looked around, and thought about how all these trees will lose their leaves and they’ll seem dead for a time, but next summer they will come alive again.  The fish will spawn, the plants will send their seeds on the wind.  Life goes on.  Frank said we could try again, that it would be different with a planned pregnancy, but I didn’t think so.

“Okay,” I said.  “Let’s just throw the glitter and go home.”

She’d opened her eyes and was looking at me with concern.   “How do you feel?”

I forced a smile.  “I feel great.”

She touched my hand. “Great.” 

We ended the ritual by throwing glitter into the water; it made the stream sparkle in the mid-afternoon sun.  Then we blew bubbles up into the sky.  We watched the iridescent spheres float out on the calm breeze.  Some of them burst immediately, but others went with the flow for a time.  One drifted down to the stream and rested on top of the water, but still it didn’t burst.  As the current carried it along out to the small waterfall, I felt myself hoping that somehow, it would survive the fall.


Terese Pampellonne’s short fiction has been published in Ascent, Flying Horse, New Works Review, Colorado Review, Pedestal Magazine, Thema, Wired Art, and the upcoming issue of Overtime.  In 2005, Kensington Books published her novel, The Unwelcome Child.


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