The hickory tree was much taller than our house and centered our yard like a pillar. Its branches spidered out in all directions like the spines of an umbrella. They were very high and through them you could see the sky, a sharp blue in winter or grey and heavy with snow. In the summer, the tree leafed out so thickly you could only see the sky in glimpses. Our hickory was the stuff of legend in the small town where we grew up in Michigan. But it was also the center of our Polish family history. A lot happened under that tree, and I came to know it all intimately.
To begin with, hickory nuts themselves are legendary. Of all tree fruits, hickory nuts are the most impossible to open and the most difficult to eat. They are small and very hard and need careful positioning at the top of a nutcracker to crack. In late summer, our tree produced so many nuts they littered the ground like a brown gravel. With great sweeps of my hand, I would gather the nuts into piles and then sit against the trunk and start working my nutcracker. If I was very careful, the nuts might come out whole like tiny walnuts which you teased out of their sectioned filaments with a nut pick. But most of the time, the nuts crushed under the force of the nutcracker, and you’d have to sort out the fragments from the nutshell mess in your hand. But what a wonder they were to taste when you were done.
But the tree, of course, was much larger than just a bit of nutmeat in your palm. It inhabited our imaginations. It was part of our story. We all had our own take on the tree. Some said the tree was there when Chief Pontiac lived in the area. He and his band of Indians had picnics beneath the hickory—this speculation from my picnic loving uncles. It was there when the oldest woman in Oakland County was little “and the tree was huge even back then, and she’s in her eighties now,” —this from someone in town. But I say the tree was tall as the sky and had curling bark that scraped the skin off the back of your hands. It dropped nuts that were so sharp once the squirrels got into them, the nuts scratched your feet to bits. And the tree had a trunk so hard that when I ran into it full tilt, pretending to be a horse on all fours with my head down, I knocked myself out. And this was how I became a full-fledged member of a family that had a few historic head bumps in their past, most importantly the one involving my dad, who fell on his head from the upper landing of his home in Pennsylvania when he was a small child and lost consciousness. This led to his evil stepfather thrashing him on the spot for General Stupidity, which led to a retaliatory thrashing of the evil stepfather by my dad’s brothers, which led to their immediate banishment from home. The evil stepfather did “a take the family money” and ran back to Poland, the fabled land out of which he had mysteriously appeared to marry the family mother, who was still grieving the death of the family father. The evil stepfather was never heard from again, though not before all of the brothers lined up in a row and each had a turn spitting on his Cadillac—which would have been a lot of spit, and the evil stepfather threw them out of the house, and they fled to Detroit and went to work in the factories, which is the worst banishment of all—the factories that is, not Detroit.
And here, my dad was not even so stupid as to run into a hickory tree with his head down, but that’s how fairy tales go, not always a lot of rhyme or reason to them. Though it does go to show you what a head bump can lead to and why the tree was so revered by our family, not really because of the head bump, but because as all good trees do, it watched over us. It became a home for us where by and large evils were held at bay, and we grew up healthy and strong and sometimes teased out with a painful patience the sweetest morsels of hickory nut, which in the end were and still are worth every minute of anyone’s utmost affection.
Well, I take that back about the head bump. It’s still on the back of my head. And if we ever meet, you’re welcome to see it. There still is plenty of hickory legend and story left there, and I’d be happy to tell it.