The Yellow Branch

The Yellow Branch


I grew up in a co-housing, which is basically a less creepy and extreme version of a commune. Our co-housing community had been built on a seven-acre walnut grove in the early nineties, with most of the ancient trees chopped and cleared for the ring of twenty-seven trim new houses arranged in an oval. In the center of the oval there was a common house with an attached community-wide garden. A broad grass served as the location of countless football, capture-the-flag, and ultimate-frisbee games. Indigenous plants were carefully planned and planted and brought a lush, if muted meadow of color that felt distinctly local, as if their effect could only be felt in our one little pocket of northern California, nestled in the Sacramento valley under the shadows of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Sycamore, aspen, oaks, and salvaged walnuts sat heavily among the garden beds, shading a path winding through the length of the community, crossing occasionally with an often-dry riverbed draining the pond at one end. The community entrance was a small driveway off of a main thoroughfare through town. The entrance was ringed with an orchard of peach, nectarine, cherry, orange, pomegranate, and mulberry trees, and as the driveway widened into the parking area a sign was posted: Please Drive Slowly: Children at Play

The community was beautiful and charming, idyllic really. But it was the wild area next to the village, outside of this carefully constructed sanctuary that held the real fascination for us as children. An old wire fence ran the length of the north side of our community, over which grew a gnarled and enormous fig tree. The tree started on our side but leaned over so extremely that it had split the fence, and its branches spread entirely over the ground on the property next door. All you had to do was scamper up and over on the tree trunk and you were dropped into another world. The fig tree opened to a thick forest, from which you could climb out on seemingly endless interconnected tree branches. Beyond this forest, acres of uncharted territory awaited. There was the impossibly giant walnut tree where the older boys swore they had seen an evil ghost dog lurking at night, watching for innocent passing children with glowing red eyes. An old car was sunk into the ground in the middle of a field next to a dilapidated metal hut. I’m still haunted by a grotesquely disfigured deer I once saw limping in a clearing. And, though I can’t be sure if I heard this secondhand or I experienced it in real life or made it up entirely, I remember being chased off the property more than once by an angry old woman holding a hunting rifle. Our community was constructed specifically to be a safe haven for children, but we were always drawn to the dangerous possibilities of the mysterious wilderness over the fence.

One time my best friend, Lily, and I were covered in yellow paint (if I remember correctly, we had raided the tools of a construction site across the road and used the paint to draw circles around all the trees in the area in a rather poorly executed attempt to save them) and as we climbed our fig tree we tracked paint along the trunk and several branches. Lily declared when this paint was gone, so was our childhood. About eight years later, we biked home from high school to find that just over the fence the majestic trunk was sliced in a clean chainsaw line. The bottom foot of the trunk on our side of the fence was all that remained of the great tree. The rest of the trunk had been severed into arm sized splinters and stacked high with pieces of its amputated branches. The wilderness next door was meeting the same fate the land across the road had met eight years earlier: It was being turned into suburban housing developments. Lily, lit by a desperation I didn’t fully understand at the time, frantically dug through the piles until she found two twisting branches containing small, smeared handprints of yellow paint. She turned her branch into a shrine to what she calls our golden childhoods (a phrase I’ve always found curious, considering—my childhood was easy sailing, plagued only by chronic absentmindedness and a more lovable brother—but hers was decidedly not). She had her friends string glass beads onto several pieces of heavy plastic string, which she hung from the branch like a wind chime. Along each length of string she devotedly attached several photos of our childhood. This memento followed her to her dorm room at University of Chicago, then to her home in Seattle. She’s now thirty years old, and the branch is currently in the center of her bedroom in Santa Barbara, hung prominently from the ceiling. I lost mine within the year. 

Lily cherishes nostalgia, nourishing and tending to it like a mother to an ailing child. I attempt to avoid it at all costs, until it unexpectedly catches me in the middle of a mundane task. Then the past will rush me in a river of images and emotions and textures and sensations in an experience I can’t think my way out of. I get carried in nostalgia’s current for however long it seems to see fit. Additionally, I’ve noticed in graduate school, 2,862 miles away from my childhood home, I often turn to the places and people I moved here to get away from for inspiration for essays, stories, poems. I’m homesick so often I wonder whether, if I do move back, I’ll continue to feel homesick out of habit. I’ve often been told I have a terrible memory, and while a good portion is undoubtedly from a lifelong inability to pay attention to my surroundings, I think it also comes from a deep-seated desire to not hold on to the past any more than is necessary. I don’t know why I feel an aversion to the past, especially given what an intentional past it was supposed to be. Though maybe that’s part of it. As carefully sheltered and secured as the community was, the outside always got it in. There were arguments and pacts and pettiness and spitefulness and resentments and affairs and betrayals.  One of my childhood friends was molested at fourteen by a community member—the father of one of my brother’s playmates. Even a bunch of well-meaning peace seeking hippies can’t avoid the pitfalls of being human. 

Many of the kids from the community have had a pretty rough time once the sun set on their golden childhoods. There has been addiction, confusion, pain, and listlessness in our transition to adulthood, more than seems necessary even in the modern age of isolation and apathy. Several young girls I used to babysit have been hospitalized for eating disorders, anxiety, and repeated suicide attempts. My first boyfriend and childhood companion smashed his impeccably handsome face in, by running into a fence while drunk driving at twenty. After a seven-year series of unsuccessful rehab stints and relapses, my little brother is in the county jail. I think I’ve attached a lot of shame to our inability to thrive in adulthood, and to my own inability to understand why. Maybe it is that our childhood was too perfect. I’ve had several well-meaning adults, starting their own families and faced with that single terrifying and ultimately unanswerable question of how to best not fuck up their children, attempt to understand how so many of us had gone wrong. “Maybe kids need something to push up against,” they say to us in answer to a question we hadn’t asked. Or they ask the question themselves -“it certainly seems like you and your peers have gotten pretty lost, huh?”- before looking expectantly to me for a response.

After my brother committed a violent crime, members of the community turned away from our family in fear. I had thought our co-housing was supposed to represent something higher than base humanity. That for all the internal drama and intrigue, these people were striving towards a more generous, gracious, forgiving, and loving way of living. Which I now realize is the easiest thing in the world to spout off until you’re confronted with the reality of the horrors all humans are capable of. Community is all about everyone until fear rears its ugly little head, and then it is about everyone making sure they don’t get dragged down the rungs of humanity to share a bar with their lowest fellows. It’s tricky to cherish the golden memory of the past once you’ve realized the seemingly sun-drenched glow actually came from an artificial light bulb coated with a hazy yellow film.

Over time, I have learned to recognize some of the dangers of idealism and idealistic thinking. The community no longer represents the vision of a cohesive utopia it once did for me. And I’m still working out whether striving toward a vision of utopia is ultimately beneficial or insidious. But my upbringing gave me love and friends and play and joy. The wild property next door taught us to be brave and seeking, while the security of the community taught us a home will always be just one leap away if you know where to go. Like everyone, my relationship to the past is ever-changing. I wish I had valued that dirty paint-stained branch and kept it with me through my life, a memento of a time and place I’ll never fully understand, and I’ll never get back. 

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