Under the spreading maple tree

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By Kelly Dolejsi

I was 6 or 7-years-old, sitting cross-legged in the grass in front of the duplex home my parents shared with my grandmother. I was puncturing helicopters with my fingernails.

It might not sound like much, but I remember this better than my first communion, my first boyfriend or my first day at any job I’ve ever had, maybe because this was the first day I did something unlike myself, the first time I had enough sense of self to experience such a sensation. Or maybe because of the worms.

Back then, we lived in Kenmore, N.Y., a place where I liked living because the community pools had water slides and there was a Dairy Queen so close I could walk to it, although not by myself because I wasn’t allowed to cross Elmwood Avenue without an adult.

Like every house on the street, ours was beautified by a large suburban maple tree growing beside the curb, shading the sidewalk and most of our front yard. Every year, it released great branch loads of what we called “helicopters,” or what some people call “whirlybirds,” in an effort to entertain children.

I played under this maple tree all the time. I fantasized vainly about climbing it, about wrapping my arms and legs around its trunk like a koala and pulling myself up into the cloud of leaves.

But, exiled to the ground, I would instead play hide-and-seek under the bushes lining the house or run around on the lawn. I would pop the yellow heads off the dandelions just because I liked how cleanly they separated from their stems. I would feel like a failure if one didn’t pop, if I had to saw at it, shredding the stem into strings.

I would also pluck the buttercups so I could hold them under my chin, even if I had no one there to tell me the flower’s verdict. I didn’t need a flower to tell me that I liked butter. I loved the buttercups because I loved the idea that they knew things, that they knew me. I already preferred magic or poetry over obvious facts.

Anyhow, my point is that I liked destroying plants’ reproductive parts. Nobody in my family would have been surprised to see me piercing to death the winged seed pellets that looped their way down toward my first-grader feet. It wasn’t anything new.

Yet, I recall killing the helicopters with the same detail I remember the Christmas my mother was supposed to be in the hospital but came home early, despite great pain, just to be with us. Specifically, I remember the helicopters the way I remember my dad picking me up from the sitter’s house the day before Christmas and the moment I saw my mom sitting beside him.

Perhaps, in the case of the helicopters, I recollect everything so well because every single pod was full of tiny worms. And, quite against my character, I kept touching them anyhow, digging my nails in, feeling tiny worms against my fingers and then reaching for another. I busted open hundreds of helicopters that day, and touched thousands of wriggling, maggot-like worms.

In hindsight, the whole episode seems like a dream. It has that kind of compulsive energy, where I just keep repeating the same act despite a glaring lack of logic. It also has that endless quality. I mean, I remember the position in which I was sitting. I remember the grass tickling my legs, the warm sun, the sound of New York birds – but I don’t recall ever stopping. The memory fades and the worms are like a pop-song refrain, growing quieter but going on and on until a new memory takes over.

And maybe it was a dream. I don’t know and honestly, I prefer holding onto the question – not knowing whether the helicopters was a dream or a weekend afternoon is more interesting than finding out the truth, which I admit is probably that it didn’t happen. That’s why I’m a writer and not a scientist, banker, pharmacist or pilot. I’m suited best for dreaming – or not dreaming, or some half-way place where I’m constantly flying through an open car door onto my mother’s lap, throwing my arms around her neck.

That particular memory, by the way, is real. My parents and I still talk about that Christmas sometimes and whenever we do I can smell my mom’s hair and hear the arms of my coat rubbing against the upholstery. It’s a fact that as a child, I never spent a Christmas morning without my mother. But even that fact has its blur. For instance, why is this special holiday memory linked in my mind to an afternoon a year or two later that I might have spent playing with worms? Was that Christmas the first time I witnessed my parents’ mortality? Is mortality just a dream? Are “out of character” actions really just those free from ego? What can they tell us about who we are or who we could be?

Christmas is coming and like lots of people, I’m emotional, sentimental, anxious. But what a time of year to be full of questions, or to say it another way, full of wonder. What a time to think about symbols, childhood and impossible stories we believe.

E-mail Kelly at kdolejsi@gmail.com.