The Language of Ghosts (for Vera)

Контент 18+ I read an essay years and years ago in a Norton Anthology which I no longer know how to put my fingers on (recalling neither author nor title), but it made a strong impression on me then, and I thought of it again this morning as I was walking in the woods with Casper and Poppendoshka.

It was the account of a man, at the time grown older, who remembered planting a tree with his father near where they lived, and his father telling him that many years later the tree whose seed they were nurturing now would still be there, but great and strong, and he could come and see it. Clearly, this act of creation was meant to represent a bond between father and son, and the unspoken message was that perhaps one day the son would stand alone in front of that great tree. He could then remember.
And so the essay begins with the narrator (the son now grown to adulthood) deciding to make a pilgrimage, as it were, to visit the tree. (I am sure the essay was full of specific details, but I have long forgotten what they might have been). Finally, he arrives at the location and starts to look around. At first, he is uncertain because so much has changed, but at length, he narrows it down and comes to the place where the tree should have been. But there is no tree.


So eventually he asks some people who are passing by if they remember a tall sycamore tree (or whatever it was) standing there. And they answer that, well, hell, there were a lot of trees there at one time, but they had all been chopped down to make room for the apartment buildings just over yonder because people needed a place to park their cars, and so on.
In other words, the tree had been liquidated; it had stopped growing years ago; it was dead; it did not exist anymore. Neither, therefore, did the physical manifestation of that old bond between father and son exist anymore either.


At first, the son was crestfallen. He was besieged by a sense of loss. And his most powerful reaction was that of anger -- that somehow he had been cheated of something akin to a birthright and that he had wasted his time coming here...
But gradually a much more profound emotion began to grow in him, as he returned to his car and drove away. He did not know exactly when the tree had been chopped down and plowed under -- and it didn't matter, because in fact, the tree had been growing in his heart all that time. The tree was part of his spirit and through the years, on those sporadic occasions when he remembered that morning with his father, he always pictured the tree, first as a mere little germinating bud, then as a promising sapling, then, more and more, as a mighty emblem of wooden force and shimmering greenery -- home to birds and all the glorious insects of which nature is constituted. He imagined that tree glowing in a white coat of wintry snow, its sinewy branches reaching upward and outward. He imagined it in April amid the rains and thunder, and finally then the birdsong amid the rushing-out-of-doors that is our true springtime. And then the summer -- the tree standing tall and stately and poised while on the earth beneath the human lovers came to entwine and chart their future. And at last the autumn, season of fire and melancholy, season of the harvest and the last of the summer wine, season of the ragged lantern-bulb of the full moon. And the tree swaying like a dancer in the gathering wind.


He had imagined all that -- in his own way, in his own words (not mine), and as he drove down the road he felt the existence of the father more powerfully than ever. Other men could remove the tree from the actual landscape, but they could never remove it, in all its emerald and olive fecundity, from his heart.


That is how the essay ended.
Maybe what triggered this in me was my sudden realization this morning that I will never again see the inside of my two-room, old-world krushovka in Moscow. I miss that place. A lot happened there. It's over now, but it still unfolds in my mind. Maybe this is merely sentimental and over-nostalgic, and I know that Moscow is not a place for such emotions. But it was my home, and I understand now that it was the home of a different chapter in this my life. Other people are there now, but they will never see the ghosts that I see in those rooms, even from far away in Bulgaria.


Every May, Russia honors those who fought in the Great Patriotic War. It would be very satisfying to believe that all of those millions of Russian people who, one way or the other, died on account of that war, somehow, even in death, knew the eventual outcome. If would be great if they all knew that in fact, their deaths had not been in vain and that therefore they had, in dying, actually signed their names to a wonderful, victorious cause.
But of course, they did NOT know that when they died. Imagine: you have just been bayoneted by some Nazi soldier and you lay expiring in agony. At that point, do you feel like celebrating a great triumph that will happen a few years down the road?. No, my friend, you will be too busy dying to celebrate.


But WE celebrate them every May, and not only then -- we celebrate them every time we choose or just happen to remember... WE remember. (Well, I am American and so have no business saying ”WE” in this case; however, I hope I can be forgiven for wishing also to honor the Russian dead, the parents and grandparents of my many Russian friends).


And so, it seems to me that there is an unbreakable link that exists between the living and the dead in all places, Russia and beyond. We speak to the dead in our dreams, prayers, and precious memories. And they speak back. Can you hear them? I can. The clanking of an imperishable chain.
Likewise, I feel a humble compassion for those parents whose children died before they had a chance to grow up. Many of these mothers and fathers, riddled with a grief that will soften but never go away, will mark the birthdays and what would have been the grand occasions of their offspring, year after year.


They will imagine them as if they were alive, because in the core of their hearts, that's how they are.
Alive and safe... And forever young.

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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