The summer I was seventeen I worked on a Christmas tree farm. It was my job to shape the trees that, come December, would end up in people’s homes. “Just like an upside-down ice cream cone,” my boss told me. I used a machete or hand shears to trim the trees into a proper shape.
Like most seventeen-year-old boys, my concerns were self-centered. I thought about the girl I was dating or the one who’d broken my heart. I thought about my car, a 1973 Plymouth Duster, and the money it took to keep it running (hence, the job on the Christmas tree farm). I played in a slow-pitch softball league, spent my time listening to the music of Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Black Oak Arkansas, and a number of other artists popular at the time. I lay on my bed and used a pair of pliers to zip my jeans because they had to be as tight as possible. I wanted to look good. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to move through the world with a little flash and flare. I was the center of that world until something came along to remind me I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
One morning, I was sitting on our front porch, waiting for my ride to work. We lived at the end of a street in the itty-bitty town of Sumner, Illinois, population a little over one thousand. Catty-cornered across the street from us lived a man and his alcoholic wife. They were often the object of gossip and even ridicule. I’m ashamed to admit now that in my high school days, my friends and I used to sit on my porch, making fun of their antics and their displays of temper. Once, the wife chased the husband with a yard rake. Another time she ran down the sidewalk, naked, and the husband followed her, saying, “You don’t want to be out here like this.” Finally, he took the tires off her car, so she couldn’t drive to the liquor store while he was at work. She tried to drive that car on the rims, sparks flying down the street.
On this particular morning, the husband came out of his house and walked over to where I was sitting. It was early enough for the air to be cool, but I could tell it was going to be a hot day. The sun would burn the dew from the grass, and as it got higher in the sky the locusts would start to chirr and the grasshoppers would stick to my pants legs as I made my way through the dry grass of the fields.
I was often a shy boy. I particularly didn’t like it when adults tried to talk to me. I hadn’t yet mastered the art of conversing with them. I remember how this man put one foot up on a porch step and how he leaned toward me and how his voice shook when he finally spoke.
“My wife died last night,” he said, and suddenly my world of girls and cars and softball and music and tight jeans bumped up against the larger world, a world of loss and regret, and I didn’t know what to say.
I relied on the cliché from television shows and movies. “I’m sorry,” I said in a small voice.
The man was crying now, the sort of silent crying, tears running along his cheeks. He took a red bandana from the hip pocket of his overalls and blew his nose. He wadded it up and stuck it back in his pocket. Then he looked at me with narrowed eyes, his jaw set, and finally he said in a fierce voice, “I loved that woman.”
Now I think of the struggle it must have been for him to have maintained that love through the years of his wife’s drinking. Again, I had no idea how to respond because what did I know of love?
Just then, my ride pulled up, and I said, “I have to go to work.”
“Yes, yes,” the man said. “You go on.”
Which I did, but all through that day and on into the future, those few moments in the early morning stayed with me, and as I moved up and down the rows of Christmas trees, cutting away what didn’t belong, making everything neat and orderly, I couldn’t stop thinking of what it took to love someone even when you had sufficient reason not to, and what it meant to remember there were other people in the world, and sometimes they would come to me with their need and I would have to learn to show them compassion because the time would come when I’d need the same from them. We were all connected. That’s what I learned the morning my neighbor came to tell me, the only person he had to tell, ill-equipped as I was, that his wife was dead, a wife he had always loved.
I tell this story primarily for those of us who write memoir, but I imagine it might have lessons for the fiction writers and the poets as well. Sometimes we have to shake our characters out of their regular come-and-go, and one way to do that is to let someone else’s world rattle theirs. Maybe you recall a time, for instance, when the adult world intruded on your child’s world and showed you how much you still had to learn. Write that moment. Think about what it meant to the person you became. Let it change you.