The tree stood like a king in the middle of the field, gazing over its sovereignty. It was tall, taller than any building in town. And old, as evidenced by a trunk so thick that it split partway up so as to give the appearance it was two and not one. Its canopy stretched out and then down, as if gathering up those who pause beneath it.
To see it was to recall the Ents of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The tree was that magical. Put your ear to its wood and you could swear you sensed a beating heart and coursing blood just beneath the bark. Listen, and beneath the chirps of the robins and mockingbirds and the squirrels snacking on nuts you could almost hear the stories it had to tell, old stories of long-ago times and long-ago people, back when times were simpler and a man named Wenger owned the field.
The oak was known by many names, but mostly it was The Kissing Tree. There was evidence of that if you look closely enough, names and initials scrawled into the wood but even then mostly absorbed, adding to the stories the tree could tell. Some said the tree had grown to such magnificence because it had been watered with love as well as rain. But I knew better, even then. No doubt there had been much love kindled beneath that gathering canopy (and no doubt many children), but there had also been much love that was kindled only to be extinguished by fickle hearts and dashed dreams.
Such was my experience there on that day.
Her name was Sara, a neighborhood girl who lived down the road in a house that defied any description beyond a simple Fancy. She was smart and achingly pretty and knew how to climb trees. Once on a dare, she leaped into the murky, snake-infested river down by the place where Murphy Johnson swore he saw a ghost. She swam to the other shore and back again and said it was no sweat.
I knew then I was in love with her. She was perfect. And best of all, she wanted to kiss me.
I was eleven that summer and had never kissed a girl, didn’t know how or how long a person should do it and what I should do afterward. But I at least knew where to take her for that kiss.
We met at The Kissing Tree on a hot afternoon in July. That’s when I saw the tree as king of the Ents and felt it’s beating heart. Sara was already there, dressed in a pair of denim shorts and a white T shirt that showed the bumps on her chest. Seeing them and her and knowing we were alone under The Kissing Tree was enough to make me turn tail and run away, but I didn’t. I was too scared to move.
We talked for a bit, me about baseball and going to the beach the next week and Sara about how her mom and dad always fought and she wished she could run away. I think in that moment I saw her for the first time, not the tough little girl who swam across the river to where Murphy saw that ghost, but the fragile little girl who wanted nothing more than to be loved. As scared as I was, I wanted to kiss her even more then, just so she could hold that happiness tight, if only for a moment.
We closed our eyes and kissed beneath that great oak, adding our names to the stories it could tell.
Things between us didn’t work out. They seldom do when you’re eleven. But I ran into Sara the other day, and our talk wound itself back to that day beneath The Kissing Tree. It was strange that our versions were similar but not exact. She could not remember telling me of her parents. I did not recall us bumping heads before we met lips. And while I swore we kissed beneath the tree, she promised it was away beyond its shadow instead.
It was strange knowing one of the moments I thought had defined me was a fuzzy one. Not as sharp, as exact, as I thought. Now I wonder of all of my reminiscences are such, if my memory has glossed over them and rounded their sharp edges. I wonder if memory is simply an incomplete experience.
And I wonder if that is our blessing or our curse.