Of Dad and the dead tree

In this week's Poet's Notebook, a fond Father's Day remembrance.

click to enlarge Of Dad and the dead tree
Jeanne Meinke

Last spring you said

it’s an ancient mariner

this white ash poised

like a spar among

the flat-footed maples 

bare arms upborne

diver in perfect form...

Jeanne and I were lucky with our parents, and on their special days our memories of them return in force. “The Dead Tree” — the poem quoted from today — was written in Windham, New York, a ski town in the Catskills, where my father, Harry Meinke, had visited us a few times in the mid-1980s. He lived in New Jersey, and we in Florida, but Jeanne and I often stayed in a friend’s ski lodge for the summer. My dad and stepmother liked the quiet town that Windham was after ski season, particularly a German restaurant with a large sign proclaiming WILKOM (“Pennsylvania Dutch,” he said. “Not real German. But not bad for a landlocked town”). Although my dad wasn’t a sailor, he loved the water and was an avid fisherman, and I often thought of him in boating terms: His happiest moments were spent during vacations in Harvey Cedars, on Long Beach Island, involving lots of deep-sea fishing with friends, and occasionally us. Gemütlichkeit — natural friendliness — was one of my dad’s strong suits.

The lodge was halfway up Windham Mountain, crowded by trees on a steep slant below us, so that from our living room window we were looking through the tops of several trees. One of them, a white ash, was dead or dying, but it was our favorite because we could see the summer-green ski slopes through its bare branches. And the dying tree was still full of life: Squirrels played in front of our faces, monarch butterflies bounced by, and just above us two wrens had made a nest in a woodpecker’s hole and were raising their family — four kids, just like ours. In fact, when the wrens’ children grew up and flew away (much too soon) we were desolate, and I quickly brought out the gin.

We told my dad that we were afraid the caretakers might cut down the tree, and he pointed out that ash trees can make great spars for sailing boats. “They’re tough and lightweight,” he said, “so don’t let them cut it down for firewood.” 

It was clear on his last visit that he wasn’t doing well. Dad, in his illness and old age — he died a few years later — was never anything but stoically cheerful as he weakened. The tree’s dramatic silhouette of uplifted leafless branches seemed to mirror this spirit, as did the white ash’s steady presence among the smaller pines, maples and birches growing and blowing around it. Soon after he and our stepmother Betty left, I sat down by the window and began to write “The Dead Tree.”

Like most poems, “The Dead Tree” isn’t factually true. Dad never compared the ash tree to an “ancient mariner” though his language brought it to my mind; I doubt he’d ever read Coleridge’s poem. He liked poems like “Casey at the Bat” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (so do I), and was suspicious of writing that was less direct. Emily Dickinson’s advice to “Tell all the truth / but tell it slant” seemed silly to him — what are we, detectives? Who has the time? — but he seemed happy to hear that my books and Jeanne’s drawings were finding people interested in them. And he never argued that his ideas on art and poetry were right. Wilkom. Come on in.

    After “The Dead Tree” was published I sent the poem to him, but he never said anything about it. If he was able to read it, I imagine he smiled, shaking his head. And once more, on this Father’s day, we clink our martinis to my dad and smile back at him.

...A wren’s nest  a squirrel’s

shortcut  brief rest

in a monarch’s long trek:

this ash is more

than timber—and you

father  anchor

and keel  sing

in the rigging

as the ship sails on

—Both quotes from “The Dead Tree,” in Liquid Paper: New & Selected Poems by Peter Meinke (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991) 


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