When my sister Kathy and I were young girls growing up in Idaho and Washington, we lived in houses surrounded by trees. We got to know many trees because we were always moving, first because our parents divorced, and then because our stepfather could not make the house payments. Each house was a little smaller, a little colder and darker. But the trees were always grand, as if our stepfather’s situation could not touch them. The fourth house was even on a street named for trees—Elm Street.
All that changed the spring I turned seven, and Kathy eight. My stepfather couldn’t make the rent on the Elm Street house. We moved for the fifth time—in the middle of the night—piling our five dogs and our belongings in the back of his round-top pick-up truck—to a little town called Asotin, in a trailer park. There, the trees seemed to agree that our family truly was destitute. The trailer park was set into the side of a barren hillside rising up from the river canyon. There nothing but scrub grew— sagebrush, small prickly pear cactus, yellow star thistle, cheat grass. Farther up, there was pine, and down below, by the creek bottom, there were willows and cottonwoods. But where we were, there was nothing to obstruct our view. We could look across the Snake River and see Idaho, where our real Dad lived with his new wife Rita, and that gave us a thrill, almost like going home.
Even though we no longer enjoyed the shade of leafy trees, trees still offered us a indirect sort of protection, in the form of the lumber mill in Lewiston, where Neal sometimes got work. When he did, he drove back down the river road wedged between the Snake and a cliff of rock. There was a sign on the road, bluntly saying “Falling Rock.” Kathy and I wished for a boulder to flatten Neal’s truck, the way a thumb casually wipes away a gnat. It would have been a simple solution to his unwanted attention to my sister, his nightly visits to our room, where he pulled her from the top bunk. It would have been put an end to the beatings he dealt out when he didn’t like my behavior, like when I drew pictures of Barbie and Ken with red loops between their legs. If Kathy told Mom, he would do it to me, he said to her. If I drew that again, I’d be beaten buckle-end of the belt.
We wished for boulders, but he came home unscathed, smelling of oil and cigarettes, lining his work boots at the door and picking up his guitar, motioning for Kathy to come stand beside him.
While he was gone, Kathy and I and our two younger stepbrothers—as well as our five dogs—spent most of our summer days on that desert-like hillside. Inside Mom smoked cigarettes and entertained our stepfather’s brother Uncle Pat, a Vietnam Vet newly released from prison. Our stepfather didn’t seem to notice how close Mom and Pat were becoming nor the gentle swell of her stomach.
In that sparsely treed landscape, we played among the tumbleweed, shielding our eyes from gusts of dirt blowing up suddenly. Out there, I burned, my redhead’s fair skin first peeling off in giant sheets, then freckling. My sister’s blonde hair whitened and her skin turned the color of honey drizzled on wheat bread. The sun beat on our heads and made us thirsty. But we knew better than to interrupt Mom and Uncle Pat inside the trailer. Instead we fastened our lips to the nozzle of the hose and we sucked down water until it felt as if we were drowning. We stole canned fruit from the neighbor’s shed and ate the peaches and cherries in the grass, taking turns drinking the liquid. We wiped our sticky fingers on the tall grass, and Kathy tossed the empty Mason Jars far down the hill.
But Neal couldn’t be away forever. Eventually Neal discovered what Mom and his brother were doing. He came home one night, banging open the screen door screaming. Grabbing Mom by the hoop earrings, he yanked them out. The blood was on her, on me, as I held onto her legs. Kathy pulled me away, forced me out the fire escape door. We leapt into the darkness and tumbled down the hill, collecting cheat grass in our polyester princess nightgowns. We watched Neal leave. He didn’t come home.
A few days later, Neal got his revenge. He goaded the trailer court manager into calling the police about our dogs that roamed the trailer court. They came and arrested Mom, right in front of us. Neal, who had been hiding behind a neighbor’s tool shed, came out. After the police took Mom, he put his sons, our stepbrothers, in his pick-up and he left. I do not know who called him, but our real Dad came to get us.
Dad’s wife Rita, whom he had married just a few months before, scooped us up at the door, one in each arm. She bathed us and put us in clean clothes. She fed us quantities of food she placed on a Lazy Susan, so that we could spin it and take another apple muffin, another slice of cake. In those first few days, we could not stop eating. We ate things we had never before tasted, like oranges and lettuce. We brushed our teeth. At night Rita tucked us in, and, when Kathy screamed us awake, she brought us into her bed. There, she soothed us with stories about her childhood in Boston, about how she loved strawberries so much that for one year, she only ate strawberries. She spoke with a Boston accent that was wonderful to us, as if we had traveled to a foreign country and could magically speak the language. Galls, put on your shots, we’re going to the library. Several months later, at a time when mothers were almost always granted custody, Idaho Family Court said we could live with Dad and Rita forever. We never had to go back to Mom. We were safe.
Rita convinced Dad to hang a tire swing on a giant branch of the weeping willow in our new backyard on Warner Avenue. Underneath the tree, Rita gave us ideas for pageants. We were Egyptians once, with black lines extending from the corners of our eyes. She gave us pita sandwiches filled with cottage cheese and slices of peach, from another tree she had planted in the yard. I drew a picture of Rita and me, holding hands under a full green tree full of circular red apples, even though we didn’t have an apple tree. I suppose it was my way of telling her I loved her because I knew how much she loved the yard and her trees. When Rita died of a heart condition the summer I turned seventeen, it made sense to have her memorial service in the backyard, a place that she loved so much, underneath the weeping willow, beside the peach tree.
Now, I am far from the trees of my girlhood. The scrubby pines of my years with Mom, their branches sometimes exposed on the desolate hillside. I think now that Kathy and I were like those trees. We were tough, and we could survive lack of nurturing and a bleak climate. But we weren’t thriving; we weren’t trees for bearing fruit.
It took Rita for that. It was Rita who showed us how a peach tree could give up its fruit, and it was Rita who showed us that we, too, had special talents, gifts that we could offer the world. She tended to us, keeping harm away, and hunger and thirst. Rita was with us just long enough to root us firmly and give us a direction to grow.
Here in Westport, it’s time to plant a tree for her. A fruit tree, I think, is what she would have liked.
Christine Pakkala grew up in Idaho. She met her husband, the writer Cameron Stracher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and after graduation, he convinced her to give New York City a try. After eight wonderful years, they moved to Westport, Connecticut, where they raise tomatoes, basil and cucumbers in the summer and two kids, Simon and Lulu, year round. Christine is currently at work on a memoir, Stepmother Country.