Susan April sent us a new essay about a time when she was growing up in Lowell in the Highlands neighborhood. I don’t want to give away the turn in the narrative, so I’ll leave it here. Susan is a past contributor to this publication. Her work has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies around the country. A scientist working in the environmental field, Susan lives in Maryland, where she writes poems, stories, and essays, and makes “visual poems” with photographs. We look forward to publishing more of her work.
by Susan April
One weekend every October, Dad would pile the family into the station wagon and take one of his “long short cuts” to New Hampshire to see the leaves turn. I didn’t understand that meant leaves changing colors. I thought they’d literally pirouette on their stems, like the ballerina in my jewelry box. Never happened.
When I got the concept of fall foliage, I was sad. Because leaves changed from green to another color meant they were going to die. Except, it didn’t happen to all trees. Some tall and straight ones would keep their green color, even after the snow came. Dad informed us these were called Evergreens. But mom laughed and said, Voyons, Charlie, don’t be so high-mighty. They’re Christmas trees.
I didn’t know the names of trees. Not until my sister and I went on our own fall foliage adventure. Denise was four years older—technically, three years and eight months. Our expedition happened in October 1965. It was close to Halloween, but not exactly. Perhaps, the weekend before. Denise was working on a Cadette Girl Scout merit badge, patch number 9-444, Plant Kingdom, Trees. I was nine, almost ten, and in fifth grade. She was thirteen, turning fourteen the end of March, a freshman in high school.
For the merit badge, she’d have to go out and collect leaves, seeds, acorns, pine cones, etc. and carry them home in something—a paper bag would do nicely—then press the specimens between sheets of wax paper, using a hot iron. I didn’t one hundred percent understand this process: can you iron a pine cone? The activity also involved carrying a notepad, a pencil, and The Golden Guide to Trees. Denise fanned its pages in my direction. I saw tree pictures fly by and along the trailing edge of the last page, two paper rulers.
Hey, can I see that?
Those rulers in there.
Never mind about that. Do you want to help?
I considered the alternative: I could stay behind in the fenced yard with my brothers, who seemed to live in a tree house which they called a fort. It was stocked with rocks, plums, smashed bits of brick and, most importantly, Dixie cups filled with sand that they lifted from the sandbox after the neighbor cats would—you know—use it as a sandbox. But it wasn’t the sand they pitched at my head. It was the things in the sand.
Or I could walk with my sister whom, let’s be frank, I wished I could be not more like but exactly like, with her curly blonde hair, nonstop girlfriends and boyfriends, that forest green Cadette skirt and matching shoulder sash and its tale of merit badges, silver and gold stars, felt troop numbers, and oval cloisonne pin that spelled the Girl Scout Council name out in letters so small I couldn’t read them, but knew it meant she belonged.
I accepted the job. The gate clanged when I closed it, and my brothers peeked out of their fort. Perhaps, I stuck out my tongue.
Where are we going?
What will we do?
Can I carry your book?
How about that tree?
What’s wrong with this one?
I prattled and pointed to the trees that lined our Osgood Street sidewalk. Denise didn’t answer; she only walked faster. In my memory, she wore her Cadette skirt, starched white blouse with the three-quarter sleeves, patent leather shoes with medium heels, and that merit badge sash. As this was late October, in Massachusetts, my memory must be wrong, but it’s a good wrong, so I keep it.
Where are we going?
How far is it?
You’ll find out when we get there.
Can we walk slower?
What’s this street?
What’s that school?
Hey, isn’t that Dad’s old—
Tyler Park, Lowell, Mass.
We waved to the firemen sitting in their tilted back chairs. The firehouse doors were wide open and the hoses had been laid out to dry.
You’re Charlie’s kids, aren’t you? they called, as we approached.
Denise smiled. Nodded. We walked even faster.
I thought: This isn’t much fun. I had imagined we’d walk around the block, poke from yard to yard, ask our neighbors, Mind if we take a few leaves? They’d bring out trays of cookies and apple cider. With Denise in her scouting uniform and me with a pencil behind my ear, a cub reporter, it’d be like trick-or-treating.
But we didn’t go around the block. Wherever we were heading, it was far and I lost the breath for questions.
After many right and left turns, down streets I didn’t know the names of, I noticed the houses got larger and fancier. They sat on big lots and had wide, wraparound porches and castle-like turrets. Their lawns smelled clean. Pianos played inside. I’m not sure if I heard music, but pretty sure I saw pianos in the parlors behind lace curtains. Dogs sat on the porches and did not bark or jump three steps off in one leap and charge, teeth bared, towards us on the sidewalk. Instead, they yawned. I’d never seen such a place.
I didn’t notice we’d arrived. I’d been running my hand along a tickly hedge of leaves and squishy red berries. When I looked up, I saw my sister standing with hands on hips. Well then, she said. She wasn’t talking to me. She wasn’t even facing me. She was facing a broad lawn with park benches and trees. So many trees. Tyler Park.
“We have purchased and set out at Tyler Park six Bass trees or American Linden (Tilia Americana) and a corner bed of Spirea and Hydrangea, along with a Barberry hedge at the upper end.”
— City Documents of the City of Lowell, Massachusetts, for the year 1913-14, Park Commissioner’s Report.
Designed by Charles Eliot, and constructed by the firm of Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot, Tyler Park at 2.74 acres is the smallest park ever built by Frederick Law Olmsted’s famous landscaping firm. Before the 1880’s, this area was part of Chelmsford and consisted of farms and open fields. In 1884, it was annexed to the City of Lowell and within ten years, the streetcar line was laid up Westford Street. Fashionable, suburban homes in the Queen Anne Style and a few in Richardsonian Shingle Style were built to accommodate Lowell’s growing middle class. Around 1893, Mrs. Samuel Tyler sold a large pasture to William Bent, attorney, for the purpose of a residential neighborhood called Tyler Park Lands Subdivision. Mrs. Tyler and daughter donated 2.74 acres at the heart of it for a public park.
Thank-you, Mrs. Tyler.
At age nine-almost-ten, I knew none of this. Here’s what I did know—or discovered—that afternoon with my sister:
Catalpa leaves look like elephant ears.
Shade can be everywhere even with many leaves gone.
Hawthorns are small trees with thorns.
My sister does not hold my hand.
There may have been birds, but I couldn’t see them.
The granite boulder was a friend.
My sister trusted me to hold The Golden Guide.
The winged things that fall from maple trees are called samara.
My sister is like the granite boulder, but she moves.
The bark of the Juniper is scratchy.
If I pick up too many acorns and put them in the paper bag and jiggle it, my sister will say stop that!
The bubbler was dry.
Someone, somewhere, was burning leaves.
If there were birds, they remained hidden.
Leaves when they rub together sound like applause.
I tasted salt and I didn’t know why.
There’s a tree called Sweet Gum and its seed pods are a big ouch.
I shouldn’t ask can we come back here again too many times.
The bubbler at the other end of the park was also dry.
I can decide to taste leaves, but I won’t like it.
The walking paths led to more walking paths like the game Chutes and Ladders.
When resting on the granite boulder, a thought crossed my mind that no one mowed the park lawn, but at midnight goats and small ponies came off the porches and fed themselves.
Samara of maple tastes not one bit like maple.
Samara of maple is fun to wear on the bridge of your nose.
In time, we returned home. I don’t remember the route. Seemed shorter going than coming. Denise, at some point, pressed her leaves without me. She wrote, on three-by-five cards, little notes that went with her waxed paper displays. Text taken from the Golden Guide. This is American Basswood, or Linden, a handsome shade tree. She pulled it all together in a scrapbook with a soft red cover. If leather could be velvet, that cover was velvet. She may or may not have gotten her patch. I’m not sure. Something else happened.
A few weeks after our adventure, the Great Northeast Blackout happened and it lasted thirteen hours. But that wasn’t the something.
During the Blackout, Denise sat at the kitchen table with a kerosene lamp doing her Latin homework. I sat across from her and watched. My brothers, I don’t remember where they were or what they were doing. Her hair, which in damp weather got frizzy, was frizzy and weirdly lit. She might have said, Stop staring at me, but I didn’t hear her.
What I did hear, three days after that—I’m guessing the number of days; I have no true accounting, only that what happened happened after the Blackout and before Christmas—was our parents speaking in French. Whenever there were secrets, they spoke French.
It happened like this: a photo was placed on the table. Mom and Dad stood back, examining it from different angles. It was from our summer camping trip in the White Mountains. The campground was Gitche Gumee. The photo was taken in front of the campground sign. In the photo, Denise stood to the left of the sign, I was on the right, Chuck and Joe with their Daisy air rifles, crouched in between. Good old Gitche Gumee. The four us, smiling, hamming it up. Only there was something wrong with the picture, a problem with Denise. One shoulder stood higher than the other. Much higher. My shoulders were even.
Then, Denise and I were told to stand back to back. It was weird. Mom was smoking a cigarette and her ash fell on the kitchen floor. Dad circled around and around with a yardstick, measuring and comparing us. Then I was told to step back. The rest was all about Denise. Her back. The lump on her shoulder. They spoke more French, then left the room and all was as quiet as the night was dark during the Blackout. I don’t remember if anyone cried. All I know is that I wanted to hug Denise’s Latin book. Not hug Denise. Her Latin book.
I’ve felt bad about that all of my life.
Before Christmas, Denise went to the Boston Children’s Hospital to get put in a whole body cast. I never saw her like that, not even in pictures. It was a long drive from Lowell to Boston and kids couldn’t go visit—that’s what our parents said. Puzzling to me why children couldn’t go to a children’s hospital. The theme of my tenth year was me being puzzled. I simply couldn’t understand a thing. When our parents came back from their hospital visits in Boston, they spoke Latin. I guessed Denise was teaching them that language. My brothers spoke a kind of pig Latin, but I just called them silly.
When Denise comes home, you’ll have to move.
My parents told me this and I thought they meant I’d have to leave the house. Stop being their child. I had done something wrong. They wanted me to have been the one in the Gitchee Gummee photo with the lump on her shoulder and not Denise. I cursed my even shoulders. Sometimes, I’d take Denise’s soft leather scrapbook of leaves and go cry.
What my parents meant, which I later discovered, was that I’d have to move out of the bedroom Denise and I shared. She needed a special bed. A room to her own. I don’t know what month it was, perhaps June, when the bedroom set got delivered. It had a full size mattress and boxspring, headboard, tall bureau, mirror and dresser. It was pecan. It was beautiful. It belonged in one of those friendly-dog, piano-parlor houses near Tyler Park. Our twin beds got removed. There wasn’t an extra room in the house for them, or for me—well, there was but it was haunted. That’s another story.
I slept in my brothers’ room for a time. That was hell. Then I wandered around a bit. There was a narrow, unheated, closet-like room next to what used to be Susan and Denise’s bedroom, but would be only hers when she came home from the hospital, that I moved into to try out for awhile. It didn’t have a door, so Dad tacked up a sheet. The headlights of cars driving at night down Osgood bounced off that white sheet and made it spookier than even the haunted room. I gave that room a fail. Not sure where I ended up.
When Denise came home, she wore something called a Milwaukee brace. I was more frightened of it than the sheet. Ten was turning out to be one awful year. But it was more awful for Denise. Only I didn’t see it that way.
I wasn’t perfect.
I should have been better.
She also got a record player to listen to records in her room.
I asked Mom if she could ask Denise if I could have her bike since I didn’t see her using it anytime soon.
I won’t tell you how she responded.
I should talk about the scrapbook which I kind of loved to death. The wax paper unwaxed itself and things began to fall out. I didn’t know how to fix it. The Catalpa was what I was most upset about. I loved those elephant ears. My sister’s perfect penmanship index card read: Catalpa is a handsome tree. The wood is coarse but durable. It has heart-shaped leaves and bean-like seed pods.
But the heart was brown and in pieces; the long, once-straight, seed pod was curled up and had poked a gash in the paper. I tried to Scotch tape repair it. Didn’t work. The Catalpa was a wreck. I was a wreck.
I stole my sister’s bike.
The Tyler Park central fountain—a concrete monstrosity with water shooting out of a carp’s mouth—was dismantled in 1906 for the creation of a rockery. Olmsted had always envisioned a rockery for the park, but he died, and Eliott designed a fountain instead. When Eliott died, John-Charles Olmsted resurrected his father’s idea and installed a rockery. Olmsted Senior’s most famous rockery was built in North Easton Center, Massachusetts. Called The Rockery, it stands today on its granite outcropping and rises organically into the landscape with long arms of English Ivy and other plantings surmounting. It survives, but apparently requires a lot of maintenance. Because rocks fall down.
The granite boulder at Tyler Park is all that remains of the Tyler Park rockery. The single rock is about ten feet long and four feet wide. It has a hollowed out scoop in the middle shaped like a hammock. Two smaller rocks on one side of the boulder make a natural stairway. Everyone who rides past the boulder on a blue Columbia, fixed-gear bike with metal wire basket and blue, yellow, and white plastic streamers streaming out of the handlebar grips has to stop, lean their bike down, and climb up on the bed-boulder to rest.
It’s home. A place all your own from which you can watch trees leaf out and measure the cloud-piercing height of spruces, or daydream that the spruces are rocket ships and you are sitting in a catcher’s mitt. It’s where you belong.
Denise showed me Tyler Park. Her bike brought me home. Denise’s arc of life no longer seemed to have a place for me. I had to find my own.
I stole The Golden Book as well. Wasn’t it a perfect day to lay on a boulder and read? To learn that “seeing” means knowing when to look, where to look, how to look, and what to see? That trees belong to the same plant family as many herbs, flowers, and shrubs. That the palm and lily families include over a dozen unusual trees. That over eight hundred species of native and naturalized trees grow wild in the United States, including broadleafs and conifers. That roots anchor trees to the soil. That within each seed are the tiny beginnings of a tree. That trees do not grow in an entirely haphazard fashion. That trees are with us all year long.
I didn’t keep the bike forever.
In summer, the bubblers ran.
In summer, there were sugar ants.
Elephant ears taste better as a pastry.
Crows cawed, even if I couldn’t yet hear them.
Denise had her own life and I loved her.
A box of Pine Brothers Glycerine Cough Drops will keep you from starving.
Samara of maple can taste like maple sometimes.
Sassafras leaves are a mitten.
Certain trees have crooked trunks, but it’s not their fault.
Some prefer sun, some prefer shade.
I turned eleven.