Witness Tree by Katherine Jamieson
We met Leah at the train station on a bone-cold day when only crows walked the white snowfield outside our house. The threat of black ice on the highway would usually deter mom from getting in the car on a morning like this, but today she couldn't be stopped. We headed out an hour early in case there were accidents, but we passed only one car that had spun off the road. Through the driver’s window we could see that the woman was yelling into her cell-phone, so we didn't bother stopping.
We were half an hour early and the train was twenty minutes late. We stomped our feet on the platform and blew foggy puffs in the air. Mom worried that she wouldn't recognize her, and they'd forgotten to give some kind of identifying code: a ribbon in the hair, a coat color. I reminded her that there were never more than a few passengers arriving in this kind of weather, and there was a good chance she would be the only woman in her mid-20s traveling to Essex Junction, Vermont on a Wednesday morning in late January.
Leah was the first one off the train, pulling a bright red roller bag by its long black handle. As soon as she saw us she ran over, the bag tottering behind her, and gave mom a big hug. They both started crying and laughing, then pulling back to look at each other, then hugging again. She had mom’s rich chestnut hair, but without the mottled salt and pepper streaks. After awhile, they remembered me. Leah was a few inches taller, or at least her heels were, so when she threw her arms around me I smelled the earthy perfume on her neck and felt the brush of her blue wool coat against my face. "I couldn’t wait to meet you either, Tricia," she said.
On the ride home, Leah and mom talked about her trip from New York City and how much colder it was in Vermont and how happy her father was that she was finally going to meet mom for the first time. I watched her in the rear view mirror and saw how she smiled as she chattered on, seemingly delighted to be bumping along the highway in our beat-up Buick. She had a knit hat with a flower on one side, but not the kind you find at a church bazaar. Her wide blue eyes were surprising; I would have expected brown to match her hair. With her high arching eyebrows and narrow face, she looked noticeably, bizarrely like mom, more than Roy or I did, I thought. But besides being younger, she appeared healthier, and brighter than mom ever did. It was like looking at a past version of her, an old photograph before it had been faded by the sun.
At the house, Mopes ran out and jumped all over Leah's nice tweed coat but she got down on her knees in the snow and let him lick her face like it was nothing. Roy was sullen and quiet when they met, checking her out like he does with everyone new but she embraced him as she had me and he didn’t pull away. He’d even turned down the TV for her, which he never does.
I showed Leah to the guest room, which was just mom’s painting studio with a blow up mattress on the floor covered with some worn flannel sheets. She didn’t seem to notice the shabbiness of it, or at least she didn’t let on. “Who’s this?” she asked, pointing to one of the photos mom had tacked to her bulletin board amidst outdated oil bills and quotes from Rumi.
“My grandparents. They live out in Portland now near my uncle’s family,” I said. She nodded, looking at the photos of my uncle and his children, Mopes when he was a puppy, Roy and I on our matching green tricycles. Our grandparents, I could have said. Our family.
“Did you like college?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, Yale was wonderful. I wish I could have stayed for four more years,” she said. “Are you applying for next year?” she asked.
“Yeah, I just did all my applications. I only really want to go to Hampshire, but my father’s threatening not to pay though—he thinks it’s too Bohemian,” I said. Then without thinking I added, “I wrote my essay about you, I mean about mom telling us about you.”
She turned around from studying the bulletin board. “Really? Oh, I’d love to read it Tricia,” she said.
“Ok,” I said, wishing I hadn’t mentioned it. The essay described mom’s ups and downs over the years, and how I wasn’t so surprised to hear that she’d had a baby at twenty. I didn’t know how much Leah knew about how she came to be: the child of the student-mistress, the bastard of an academic and his star pupil. Born of “intellectual passion taken too far” as mom had said when she’d broken it to us. I wrote about how it felt to learn I had a sister, and what I thought that meant. I wasn’t sure I should show the essay to her, or what she’d think of me after she read it.
Over lunch we heard all about Leah’s life, all twenty-seven years of it. Mom had had hours long conversations with her over the phone before they’d made a plan to meet. But she seemed to want to hear the same stories repeated in person, as if this would make it more real, or make Leah more real, I guess. Maybe it was hearing her voice in our house, the way it lilted over the leggy plants and bounced off the old Aga stove that mom wanted. In any case, Leah told her story well, and so we listened.
Roy and I knew up to this point: Leah had been adopted through a Jewish agency because mom’s “lover,” as she liked to call him, one of her visiting professors at Columbia, was also Jewish. He’d suggested the agency and done all the footwork to avoid having the University find out, and mom had liked the idea of her baby going to a Jewish home. “Somehow it felt like giving her over to family,” she’d told me, wiping tears from her eyes. For a month after Leah first emailed her, she couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t blame her, of course, but it was hard to know what actually being in contact with her “lost baby,” as she called her, was going to do to her emotional state, which wasn’t so hot to begin with.
Being put up for adoption isn’t an ideal way to start out life, but Leah’s story just seemed to get better from there on out. She was given to the Bernstein’s, a young couple that had always wanted children but had been told they couldn’t have them. They were both doctors, he a psychiatrist and she a pediatrician, but she—her name was Deborah—had decided to work part-time so she could stay home with Leah. After less than a year, she ended up getting pregnant after all, so Leah had a sister so close in age that people always thought they were twins. A few years later her brother had followed.
“Were you worried they’d love them more because they were their real children?” Roy asked.
“Roy!” mom said, drawing in a breath. “What a rude thing to ask. Sorry Leah, he doesn’t think.”
“It’s ok,” she said, smiling at Roy who was blushing now. “Actually, I might have been worried, but I didn’t yet know I wasn’t their biological child,” she said. “They didn’t tell me until I was thirteen years old because they didn’t think I’d understand. But right before my bat mitzvah we met with the Rabbi and they gave me the whole story. They made a big point of telling me they loved me just as much as my brother and sister.” These Bernstein’s were something, I thought. I was starting to feel like I was in some kind of afterschool special.
Leah’s parents sounded like fairy tale people: educated, kind, rich. She described a childhood of summer vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, Shabbat dinners with her grandparents who lived in the downstairs apartment, epic Scrabble games on Sunday nights. As she talked, I imagined them as some kind of Jewish Brady Bunch. We sort of forgot about mom’s Jewishness because our fathers (Roy and I had different fathers) hadn’t been Jewish. Sometimes mom got wistful and talked about joining the synagogue in Burlington, and we did go a few times on the high holidays. But after a few years she got embarrassed that we couldn’t afford to join, and we hadn’t been back since.
The one tragedy of Leah’s life, as far as I could tell, was that her mother had died of cervical cancer a few years before. She’d taken off a year of college to care for her, and then returned to finish her joint degrees in Chemistry and Religion, with a minor in Arabic. “Then I met my fiancé David on the last day of our senior year. So that’s the end of the story, or the beginning, I guess,” she said giggling and taking a bite of soup.
Mom was looking at her proudly, like she was the daughter she’d never had, which was the supreme irony. I couldn’t help wondering if Leah had had to move around year to year and change schools and deal with mom’s moods her whole life if she’d be quite as calm and beautiful and mannered as she was. Or would she be more like me?
After lunch Roy showed Leah the hollow tree where we’d seen a raccoon poke its head out at us the week before. She seemed genuinely amazed, so Roy said he wanted to show her something else out by the train tracks. Leah had on her knee-length coat and high-heeled, black, leather boots, both so completely wrong for walking deep into the Vermont woods that I had to protest.
“Aren’t you cold, Leah?” I asked.
“No, I’m fine,” she said, though I could see she was shivering a little. Her face had tightened in the brisk wind, and she looked smaller out here in the woods than she had cozy by our kitchen table. And I could see that for all the places she’d traveled with her other family—Mexico, Thailand, St. Kitts—she hadn’t spent much time here, where we lived: in nature.
Roy kept us walking out a quarter of a mile at least, not noticing that Leah was getting more and more chilled. Her boots must have been soaked through. Finally we arrived just where I knew he was going to bring us, the Witness Tree our neighbor Trench had told us about. It was an ancient sugar maple with an enormous wide trunk and high branches that spread out above us, each balancing a few inches of snow. Leah walked toward it, took off her glove and ran her hand along the scarred bark.
“It’s incredible,” she said after a few minutes. “What does it mean that it’s a witness?” she asked. Roy explained what Trench had told us: that trees that had been alive at crucial points in history were considered witnesses to that time. “This one was alive during the Revolutionary War,” Roy said. I chuckled.
“Don’t laugh, Trish, it’s true,” he said, kicking snow up at me.
“Ok, ok, it’s true,” I said. “But not everything Trench says is true, right?” Roy scowled at me. He had unending affection for our alcoholic neighbor, a fifth generation Vermonter who found it in his heart to love “flatlanders,” imports from outside the Green Mountain state, like our family.
“I love that idea,” said Leah staring upward. “It’s like the tree has seen so many people pass by, going through different things in their lives, and now it’s witnessing us here,” she said. “Meeting each other.” She looked down from the tree and directly at Roy and me. “Thank you for letting me come here. I know it must be strange for you.”
“Mom was really happy you wanted to see her,” I said. “She was worried you’d hate her.”
“I’ve wanted to meet her since I knew about her,” Leah said, wiping away a tear with her mitten. “She seems like an amazing woman, making it on her own as a single mom all these years. You’re so lucky to have her—we’re lucky,” she said.
I wanted to tell her the truth of that luck. I wanted to say that mom was having one of her good weeks, but in the bad weeks everything was up for grabs. I wanted to tell her what it was like when she lost another job and couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, or when the dishes piled up and started crawling with roaches, or when the money ran out and we had to eat instant noodles every night for a month. I wanted to tell her that she was the one who’d gotten away, before she even knew what it was she was escaping.
Instead, I said, “Yeah. She’s a complete original.”
“Can I ask you guys something?” she said in a quieter voice. “You know I’m getting married, but my mom just died last year. I was thinking of seeing Nora if would give me away at the wedding. Do you think she’d like that?”
When I was little everything mom did had seemed magical. She’d painted my room with my favorite characters from picture books, and made me grilled cheese and hot chocolate whenever I wanted it. She’d put on music and call out, “Dance party!” and we’d groove around the living room until we fell on the floor laughing, exhausted. This was the mom that Leah was asking for now. And maybe she was the missing piece, the grief that had set mom off track all these years. Maybe now that she was back things would change.
“She would, Leah. I think she’d love it,” I said. She beamed again, and I felt the rush of her relief.
“You’ll come too, you’ll be there?” she asked.
“Of course we will,” I said. Leah was smiling but she looked pale and frozen, a little New Yorker in our vast, unruly wilderness. As we started our tromp back and Roy told her stories about the “Green Mountain Boys” who fought in the Civil War, I thought about mom and Leah and what it would be to give up a baby. To give away someone so small to something so big: the world.
As we passed into the warm house, the smell of mom’s baked chicken wafting over the threshold, the last line of my college essay echoed back to me: Half-sister, now that you have found us, can you make us whole?
© Katherine Jamieson 2013
Katherine Jamieson is a graduate of the Iowa Nonfiction Writer's Program, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. Her essays and articles have been published in The New York Times, Narrative, Meridian, Alimentum, Brevity and The Best Travel Writing 2011. Based in the woods of Western Massachusetts, Katherine leads a dual life as a reclusive writer and road manager of an internationally touring musician (her husband). You can read more of her writing at:katherinejamieson.com
Witness Tree was read by Calaine Schafer for the Secrets & Lies Show on 6th March 2013