Summer with Romans
creative nonfiction by Cathryn Hankla
These vines are thick as old black snakes and twice as tough around the trunk. Earlier in the week my cousin Barbara died in her early eighties, and no one really knows why she declined so rapidly. We hadn’t shared a phone call since the fall of 2020 during the thick of pandemic isolation and at that time all seemed copacetic. I keep a framed picture of the two of us with our hair sopping, drenched from a giant waterslide at Busch Gardens near her house in Williamsburg. Our smiles reveal a certain kinship and gameness, dimples on both sides of our mouths, twenty years apart. Relocated back to Virginia and recently widowed, she surprised us by popping up to eulogize my father at his funeral, speaking of my parents’ marriage as a great love story. And it was, but of a complicated sort. Perhaps there is no other sort of love story.
Every damn year I’m out there in the backyard skating over green husks of nuts, trying not to fall. The walnut has no ivy winding it but carries a bad reputation for poisoning other plants. So far, the plantain lilies are doing okay, wild violets multiply, and I have to hack back the lamb’s ears every spring, but forget tulips, they won’t grow here in the walnut’s shade.
Reading our revised city plan I learned that the city’s tree canopy has diminished in the past twenty years. This will become more of a problem for us with escalating temperatures due to climate change. On walks, I start to notice when property owners choose to remove a tree instead of trim it or leave it be; they must not be aware of the cooling canopy that extends beyond their property and connects with others, of the part we play beyond our fences. Experts tell me this tree should go, is probably already hollow and thus could fall on my house or the neighbor’s car in stiff wind; it’s allelopathic like the walnut to boot, poisoning plants in proximity, and the leaves can cause rashes; generally, it’s stinking up the place and specifically sending suckers everywhere that I have to yank by the roots. Suckers spring up in flowerbeds, around the foundation, among tomatoes, behind heat pumps, stealthily hidden in lavender and Russian sage. I wish I weren’t such a tree hugger; it’s not like it’s the family tree. And somewhere in there I think about my father and his sister, Helen (Barbara’s mother), and his brother, all dying within one calendar year. Like Barbara, Helen didn’t make it far into her eighties; my uncle not mid-seventies; my father—a veteran of WWII—a few months after turning eighty. My grandparents lived longer lives than their children.
I peel back a section of vines like I’m opening a giant can of worms with my bare hands. The amount of the trunk I’m able to free today is no more than ten inches square. This morning I found some of Mother’s sparsely penciled lines hugging the end of Romans chapter eight with rare emphasis, my reward for slogging in hot weather, no Italian ice in sight: For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (RSV). Freed from the vines covering it, the rough fissures of the trunk become visible, a middle to light shade of grey described as resembling cantaloupe skin (Hassani). I can see a ghost pattern where gripping tendrils that fed the gnarled thatch were embedded.
Joni sits in the middle of the stage, sage and shining, supported by younger voices. At first, she might appear torpid mouthing her own tired lyrics, but soon she lets go of the cane and shimmies in her chair. She’s the same person who sang about how we put trees in a tree museum and charge people to see them. She sings baritone at age seventy-eight a song she sang soprano at twenty. I am mesmerized by her phrasing, cored by her resolve in the mystery of both sides, balancing losses and gains I find it hard to wrap my mind around, my arms around these years that river toward great falls. So often I’ve grasped only to find nothing. Arms hugged to my own chest, I know, save for these chains, that I really don’t know, I really don’t know life at all. Joni ends the song laughing lightly as tears stream down around her.
Cathryn Hankla grew up in far southwest Virginia; she has written about and from Appalachia for decades in several genres, including the novel, A Blue Moon in Poorwater; the memoir, Lost Places: On losing and finding Home; and various poetry collections, among them the new release, Immortal Stuff: Prose Poems; and recent titles: Not Xanadu, Galaxies, and Great Bear. “Summer with Romans” is an excerpt from a memoir in progress focused on rereading the Bible from feminist and LGBTQI perspectives amid ideological extremes, plague years, grief, and climate change. Professor Emerita from Hollins University, Hankla paints and writes in Roanoke, Virginia.