By Tom Poland
She planted the oak some sixty-eight years ago. Miss Emily was around twenty-six then. The years passed, the tree grew, and today it’s a setting Normal Rockwell would have appreciated. A classic Southern scene, it possesses the requisite charms. A quaint barn sits at the edge of woods. Oak limbs shade a wooden picnic table. A rocker faces a swing hanging from the oak. Somewhere in the oak’s massive limbs I suspect resurrection ferns grow. A fence partitions the pasture from the yard, and cast iron plants prosper next to the fence. And there’s that stretch of pasture, still green despite February’s cold touch.
When I look at this setting, “pastoral” comes to mind. Synonyms for pastoral include rural, rustic, sylvan, and a word few utter these days, “Arcadian,” a literary way of saying “idealized country dweller.” And indeed a country dweller does live near this fine oak, Miss Emily.
I know some nice gatherings have taken place beneath this oak. Some great conversations too. It’s inviting, one of those places people gravitate to. I see what appear to be Meadowcraft rockers and an old chair. Winter cold has the chairs and swing empty, but come a summer afternoon six people could gather here with glasses of tea, and even more people if the picnic table comes into play. Or just one person could sit beneath this oak and swing and think. That’s what I’d do. Swing and think.
An interesting history accompanies this peaceful setting. Miss Emily created what would become a fine Southern scene when she brought an oak seedling up from Charleston all those years ago. In talking with her, I surmised the young oak was maybe knee high when she planted it. From little acorns grow mighty oaks goes the saying. Here we see literal proof that mighty things do indeed grow from little acorns.
But, what else grew from this acorn that fell from a tree long ago down Charleston way? A place where Miss Emily’s family gathers. In a day when few people sit on a front porch anymore, Miss Emily’s tree provides a gathering place. I find that not only Southern but also comforting. Her family refers to the oak as the “Retirement Center,” and why not. “Let’s retire to the swing and chat for a while.”
Miss Emily and I might have never met had it not been for coincidences and good fortune. We’ve long known of one another’s family because we’re from the same small town in Georgia. But many years had to pass before my words brought us together. She had been reading my weekly columns and a magazine feature or two. Our friendship began with a phone call and later a visit.
On a cool and windy Saturday in February I parked near her Retirement Center, that is that fine oak. Miss Emily invited friends, family, and a retired high school English teacher to share lunch with her. The teacher had taught Pat Conroy down in Beaufort.
“How was Pat as a student?”
He gave me a knowing look. “Pat read paperbacks in class.” I got the message.
All of us talked for hours and enjoyed more than a few good laughs. We talked books, writers, back roads, history, and some true characters of the Southland. What Dad used to enunciate as “care-actors.”
No, we weren’t sitting beneath Miss Emily’s tree. The February day had a bite in the air, and a nice long chat inside seemed wise, but sure as the sun rises I see a summer day coming when that swing will be swinging and we’ll be talking and a laughing and sipping tea. We’ll do so beneath an oak spirited away from the Holy City by a Georgia girl who’d end up in Georgialina, same as me. Miss Emily and I are Georgialinians, and we both love trees, especially stately oaks.
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