Such a treat a bright blue sky is after a morning of gray in the Pacific Northwest. Even more special is when the equally bright white elongated clouds line up just so, creating a perfectly complimentary background of blue and white for a group of dark earthy green conifers, towering over unremarkable manmade structures and people too busy to pause and look upward to notice how proud they look, standing tall enough to pierce the clouds, without self-consciousness or apology. Theirs is a quiet kind of confidence, such an enviable quality. How wise they seem to me. How I admire them. But these are not my trees. Even after living with them for twenty years, they feel foreign, a constant visual reminder that this is my second home. My trees are two thousand miles away and don’t reach the clouds.
When I first moved to the Northwest, I quickly became one with the saltwater of Puget Sound. It nourished my soul. It eased the pain caused by the dysfunctional family I had run away from. But I found the stately trees of my new home to be dull in comparison to the ones I had left behind—their twists and turns, the soft lines of their canopies, as fanciful and dreamy as the clouds above. As a child, I would lie in the grass and stare at a single tree for hours at a time, getting lost in its intricate branches, marveling at how intertwined they were, squinting my eyes ever so slightly to allow myself to view the tree abstractly, to trick my eyes into seeing not the branches, but the negative spaces between them—a myriad of shapes, each so unique only nature could have created them.
If I had grown up with the Northwest trees instead of my leafy ones, would I still have lain in the grass to admire them? Or would they have gone unappreciated as they did for my first twenty years of living with them, my fondness for them developing only as a result of a Pacific Northwest sun break—the sun’s unexpected appearance to provide a break from the gloomy sky above? Perhaps even if I had not consciously admired them, their very presence, their seemingly unshakable confidence, would have helped me to better cope with my difficult childhood. Instead of running as fast I could on a flat country gravel road as an escape from the dysfunction around me, I might have climbed a Northwest hill to enjoy the view of rolling green all around me, surrounded by these giants in the sky, feeding off their strength, and then return home, entering the house with my newly straightened posture mimicking that of the trees and with a sense of self-pride that could not be damaged by even the most bitter verbal assault.
Perhaps if my grandmother had stayed in Maine longer, where she was born and with its own conifers she, too, would have had a sense of self-pride; and this would have been enough for her to end her abusive marriage sooner, before she became too damaged to enjoy the fanciful trees of her second home in Illinois. Perhaps she would have never started drinking and instead of staying inside a dark house with vodka her only company, she would have come outside with me, in the bright sunshine that summer after my mother abandoned my brother and me, and lain in the grass beside me, as we both looked up at the trees in the front yard, and just as children find faces and animals in the clouds, we would have found them in the spaces—the shapes—between the limbs and branches. I wish I had this memory instead of just imagining it, but neither of us seemed to realize at the time we needed each other’s company, that we could have helped to heal each other’s wounds, so Grandma stayed inside with her vodka and I stayed outside by myself.
I sometimes look at the Northwest conifers, such a symbol of stability and find myself thinking of fathers, strong and protective. Perhaps this is because I grew up without one and have an idealistic view of what it would have been like to have a father in my life. I vaguely remember as a child, with all the chaos going on around me, thinking that if I had a father, things would be much different. That my mother would not have had wild card parties with her shady friends and that I would have been able to go to sleep in a quiet house without having to worry what kind of trouble the adults in the next room might get into—that I would never be awakened by shouting matches or the sound of police banging on our trailer door.
Yes, conifers are strong, confident, and protective; but if not for my oaks with their curvy limbs, would I still be creative or would have the erect and almost-severe nature of the conifers have robbed me of that? If I had to choose between the strength of the Northwest trees and the whimsy of the Midwest ones, which would I choose? My imagination was nourished by my trees with their lush green foliage as a child, and now, as an adult, my confidence is nourished by the tall angular ones of my second home, allowing me to share my creativity, my inner thoughts, in a public manner without self-consciousness. I was, after all, painfully shy growing up, spending much of the time with my head bent down, just as the leaves of my childhood trees looked at the ground instead of the sky.
I can’t help but to think of willow trees reaching for the ground in the gentlest way, content with the green before them and never wanting for the blue of the sky above them. My Aunt Sharon had one in her front yard and my cousin Rachel and I used it for our fort, a place we would hide from the adults when they were on their worst behavior. Just as conifers remind me of fathers, willow trees remind me of mothers. Our willow embraced us and gave us a protective cover like a loving and attentive mother would if her child was frightened, just as my mother-in-law, who became my real mom, did for me when she first came into my life, recognizing immediately that I needed the warm shelter of her love. Because of her, my head has straightened itself. I now raise it high enough to see the pointy treetops in the sky and feel almost as tall as they are.
In thinking about the qualities of both the trees of my childhood and those of my second home, I realize I could not choose between the two, and how fortunate I feel that from my office window, when I take a break from writing, I have a view of each, with the large maple and apple tree closest to me, inspiring me to write, and further in the distance, a group of conifers giving me the confidence to not second-guess my work. I sometimes wonder, though, if I had an entirely different landscape, a foreign one, how I might be different. Like the cliffs of the Isle of Mull my great-grandfather enjoyed as a child. Certainly, he must have stood near the edge of a cliff, high above the water with the wind beating his clothes against his skin and felt empowered, knowing that when he was old enough, he would conquer the world. If I had this view from my office window, I think I might write fiction—adventure stories full of heroes and heroines. Even better, stories of immigrants who traveled the blue ocean from Scotland to the lively but dirty streets of New York City in the early 1900’s. The thought of this excites me and so I again look out my office window and try to imagine a busy and noisy street scene, but as soon as I am able to form the image it becomes unappealing, and I am relieved that my view is of trees. I think back to the day of the sun break that made me first appreciate my Northwest trees—the ones I had previously found no use for—and realize I am exactly where I should be, that I am who I want to be, and that my view is a lovely one.
Amanda Marjorie McKinnon first started writing when she felt a strong need to document a specific time period in her difficult childhood. In doing so, she discovered her passion for writing. She primarily writes creative nonfiction but is now also exploring fiction. Originally from Illinois, she now lives in Washington State.