When our daughter Natalie was ten, she asked me whether I thought trees had souls. I’d never even considered it. “What do you think?” I asked her. She was adamant. “God wouldn’t make any living things without souls. There would be no point in that. Without souls, you can’t get to heaven,” she said with the conviction of youth. She wanted trees in her heaven—one especially— the Dyerville Giant, her daddy’s tree.
We were standing in a redwood grove in Humboldt County, California, beneath that very behemoth, when she said it. We made a pilgrimage there every year, in November. It was the tall- est tree in all the forest. In fact, some said it was the tallest in the entire world. It was a very old tree. Not the oldest living thing in the world, mind you, but when you get to be sixteen hundred years old, who’s counting?
“What about your actual daddy?” I asked her.
“I’m not sure there’s any difference when it comes to souls,” she said.
My jaw dropped. She’s only ten! Where did she come up with that? Up to that point I’ d raised her Catholic, with a smattering of Jewish thrown in, but then it struck me. He’d believed he was one with that tree too. Was he speaking to me through her? Somehow, without her ever actually knowing Nate, she’d inherited a big piece of him. Had she become a little shaman? As I brooded on the possibilities, I couldn’t but reject every one except that it was Nate who was responsible for that pronouncement. I don’t know how he did it but I’m sure that he’d somehow transcended his death.
I’d never mentioned that to her. But from that moment on, I waited for the day she’d take my hand and drag me along life’s path, just as Nate had done. And then, when she was twelve, she did just that and led me away from the tree.
Before I met Nate, I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what I could do. What I had was fear, a nagging expectation that my life would pass in failure and anonymity. I feared that I’d travel through this world alone and that if I had children my legacy would be that same bundle of fears. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to make my children’s lives any better than my own and that their world would be circumscribed by that place in the Atlantic Ocean where the sun came up, and the low rolling hills of Middlesex County in the west, where it went down. But my life changed for- ever one night, during an improbable dinner at an expensive restaurant—an eating place that I’d only seen by looking in through its glowing windows. I felt like Cinderella dining there.
Nate, for all his faults, and he sure had plenty of them, gave me the whole world as a gift. He pushed me to get the education that had been just a dream before. He encouraged me to assert my- self, to confront danger and to overcome my fears. I don’t believe he was ever really conscious of what he gave me. He was just Nate. When she was old enough, I took Natalie on long trips so she could meet all of her uncles and aunts. I took her to Portugal, to its islands in the Atlantic, to Tangiers and even to Israel. I wanted her to discover her full heritage and when I did, I learned more about myself. If it weren’t for her, our Natalie, I’d be...bereft.
You’ll have to forgive me. There was a time when I had a way with words. The right ones just fell out of the sky . You might say the words I needed always rained on me. I opened my mouth. They dropped onto my tongue as I spoke. What I said made sense. People always complemented me on how...eloquent—yes, that’s the word they used—I could be.
That’s no longer the case. It all changed when I got hurt. The words stopped raining on me. Now I have to hunt for them. Some- times it takes me a while to find the one I want. Sometimes I can’t find it no matter what. I take so long now, I’m not influential any- more. People wonder about me.
The accident—I prefer to call it that now—didn’t help my looks either. Thank God I had enough money to fix up my face. I don’t think it looks bad at all. I’d ask me out. But I’d also say “No” because I don’t want to get into a relationship. I’ve said “No” plenty of times. Even so, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to look terrific. I want to be asked and I want to say “No.” It gives me a perverse pleasure. I realize that makes me sound like I’m a nut case, but I know what I’m doing. I’m too hard to live with now. I have these mood swings where I have to grit my teeth and tell my- self “Control, Christina, goddamn it, control, control.” Sometimes I can. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes my language gets foul. And I can be fierce too. It wouldn’t matter how good I could make my- self look. I’d scare the pants off any sensible suitor and frankly I wouldn’t want the ones who’d have me in spite of my baggage.
No. I had one great love in my life. I’ll be forever grateful for having Nate. And I have a souvenir of that love in Natalie. Every day, even at her worst, she’s a blessing. So I say the same prayers, the Catholic ones and the Jewish ones, whenever I see Nate in her eyes or in her petulant expressions or when she says those things that have me convinced she learned them from him.