Mr. Davis’s Oak Tree

About the power of imagination when it has taken hold…

(No picture of Mr. Davis’s oak tree — you’ll have to imagine it also…)

This story is about neighbors, memories, and the power of imagination when it has taken hold.

Mr. Davis was a neighbor who lived around the corner from us when we lived on Glaizewood Avenue. He was a widower, in his early 80s or so, a charming gentleman who was not above a little occasional flirting with my much-younger wife.  He got a free pass on that partly because he was clearly harmless and also because he clearly missed his wife so.  We suspected he was lonely and maybe a bit bored, so we were rather more neighborly with him than we might have been otherwise. Martha took the lead on this, of course; between her abundant gregariousness and her experience growing up on Beechwood Avenue where most of the neighbors had known each other for many decades, this came naturally to her (much more so than it did or does to me).  So we’d had plenty of chats with Mr. Davis in the yard and went over to his house a time or two. One time we even accompanied him to some event at a local VFW or someplace like that. I don’t remember what the event was — maybe a spaghetti dinner? or why we went — but apparently he had invited Martha and she’d agreed, and we had a perfectly fine time.

Of course, we also suspected he was bored and lonely because he was a bit of a busybody at times.  As was my usual oblivious custom, I tended to tune this out for the most part, except when it came to landscaping and lawn care. Mr. Davis was a stickler for both; he spent a lot of time in his yard, mowing and weeding and the other usual stuff. His back yard was farther up a hill at a higher elevation than ours, and our back yard was buttressed by a stone wall which was technically his property.  This wall was naturally a magnet for English ivy, and at least once Mr. Davis came down to talk with us about the importance of regular maintenance to uproot the ivy so that it wouldn’t damage and eventually bring down his wall.  I’m pretty sure he came down and did the work himself sometimes if we were not being diligent enough for his standards.  Martha and I, both working and almost always on the go, were similarly not quite so conscientious about keeping up with our lawn. One day, we came home to find out that our lawn had been cut for us. After the initial surprise and puzzlement, we figured out what had happened, but we never mentioned it to him, and neither did he.

Maybe it’s partly because I associate Mr. Davis so much with his back yard, but when I think of him, the first thing I usually think about is something I never saw and never will see. One time he told us a story about an oak tree that used to be in his back yard. I don’t remember any of the particulars about his story or about the tree itself. What I do remember is how he transported himself back in time as he told the story: he was clearly seeing his past, his life, as embodied in his memories of the tree as he reminisced about it. And after a while I was seeing the oak tree too, to the point where that is the only thing I remembered about the story. Occasionally after he told the story, I would look out the kitchen window or from our side deck out onto Mr. Davis’s back yard and imagine that tree, which soon became more real to me than the story itself.  Eventually, Mr. Davis’s oak tree became a symbol for me of how things we imagine can become real to us, even if they are long gone or if we never even experienced them as a physical reality.  I’ve found myself wondering how much that oak tree helped keep Mr. Davis going, how the power of imagination and memory extended his life in the face of loss.

Mr. Davis has been gone for some time now too, but I did see him one more time after we’d moved.  Many years later and some time after Martha had died, I was out on a bicycle ride by myself and in the general neighborhood. I decided I could handle a trip down that particular memory lane, so I rode by the old house. It had changed a lot in the intervening years — new landscaping, paint job and a new walkway, and more changes were going on: some new roofing and maybe another cosmetic change or two. I watched for a short while; then as I was turning to go, I saw a familiar-looking car parked on the street at the corner. In the car was Mr. Davis doing what struck me as a very Mr. Davis-like thing: he had driven his car a grand total of maybe 200 feet from his driveway so that he had a better view of the construction and could watch from the comfort of his car. He had the car parked on the other side of the street, facing the wrong way (it wasn’t possible or safe to park on the closer side), and he was sitting on the passenger’s side so that he could get the best view of the construction in process.

Strangely, I am unable to remember for sure what happened next. I don’t know whether I went over to say hello, or whether I avoided doing so because I didn’t want to tell him the painful news about Martha’s tragic death.  It’s funny what we remember and don’t remember sometimes.  For example, sometimes I think I remember having seen Mr. Davis park his car there before, while we lived there even, as a way of getting out of his house to entertain himself by watching what was going on in the neighborhood.  Which if true, would be a bit creepy in a way, because our house would be the main attraction in his line of sight. So maybe that memory is not so clear and even a total fiction. But I do remember that oak tree — a different kind of fiction which has clearly taken hold in my imagination…

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