The Sycamore Postcard

My childhood's backyard
Terrell, Texas

One summer day, a stranger walked into our backyard and into my childhood, asking permission to make our Texas-sized sycamore a "photo postcard." Today, the police would have been alerted and the dogs loosed, but this was small-town America. I'm surprised he didn't stay for supper.

What he looked like, I have no clue, except that his hat reminded me of the Lone Ranger's, my Saturday morning re-run hero. He might as well have been wearing a mask, too, for all I recall of his face. He quickly took the photo, using my big brother and me for scale, then disappeared.

Who was he? I asked. Who was he? Who was he?

Upon my vow to shut up, my brother explained: He was a traveling photographer who made and sold postcards for a living on the road.

Whoa, Silver, I thought. My aunt had once sent me a postcard from the beach. Wish you were here, it said. Had he been to the beach? Where'd he been? Where's he going? He was all magic and moving-on mystery, the Lone Ranger in my backyard, and my little world tilted ever so slightly in the nonchalant way that young lives do.

The next day, a blank envelope appeared in our mailbox with one sycamore postcard inside. It was black and white, blurry, and had a caption with a glaring, business-dooming goof.

"Would you look at that? hooted my brother. "He misspelled Terrell!"

"Good Lord, he did," my mother chuckled.

"He misspelled Terrell!" repeated my brother. "What an idiot!"

But I only had eyes for me and my tree. And I taped the postcard, misspelling and all, into our family album.

Recently, while cleaning out the house after my mother's rest-home move, I found the postcard. The house had just been sold and along with it, the tree. I stood at the window, staring back and forth between the postcard and the sycamore. I had watched the house decline along with my parents. But that blessed sycamore hadn't changed, ever the same, forever and again, amen. And I had only one thought: The nice new owners have money and style to burn, but if they don't love the sycamore, they'll be idiots.

I took the postcard with me. It's still not much to look at, as postcards go, still showing little hope for its wandering creator's future career success. I stare at it now, though, and smile, marveling at a certain serendipity: I grew up to be a traveler, a photographer, a lover of trees, a sender of postcards, and a damned fine speller. I mean, who can say what seeds are planted and when?

You never know.

This one thing I do know—that summer of the postcard was the summer I became aware of the tree. Hills, dales, horses, holes, bushes, bicycles, baseball—all would gash me, scar me, and break my bones. But never did I tangle with the sycamore. So never did I break my little neck. It was too big to disrespect, too close not to love. From my upstairs window, its limbs were the last thing I saw at night and the first thing I saw in the morning. It was a presence as real as family and as protective as a big brother.

And the sound of its big leaves' soothing rustle is what I hear when I recall the teenage midnight my uncle woke me to tell me that my big brother had died.

Every glance now at my sycamore postcard makes me see its limbs, hear its leaves, and be with my brother on that picture-perfect day. I wish I were there...And bam, I am.

The Lone Ranger left silver bullets; the lone stranger left me a sterling postcard. Who was that masked man? I don't know. But I never got a chance to thank him.