The following is an excerpt from Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane, a smart, funny novel about friendship, trees and the art of being a good houseguest. Rules for Visiting is published by Granta Books in the UK and Penguin Press in the US.
The first time I smelled the blossom of the orange tree (Citrus sinensis) I was thirteen years old. It’s one of the most fragrant flowers in the world, and in Florida millions of the waxy, white flowers perfume the air in the spring. My mother, brother, and I stepped out of the Fort Lauderdale airport into that sweet-smelling air. We’d come for the christening of my new cousin, my mother’s sister’s new baby. The christening had become the occasion for a rare family reunion at my maternal grandmother’s house.
I knew some things about my grandmother. I knew that on my mother’s eighteenth birthday a friend of the family gave her a beautiful watch that my grandmother liked so much she took it for herself. I knew that when I was six she wanted me to say ‘I’ve had an elegant sufficiency’ before I could be excused from the table. I knew that when I was in elementary school I often came home to find my mother crying in the kitchen, a letter in her lap, the return address always her mother’s.
The first two days of the trip passed comfortably. Everyone ate breakfast at different times and occupied themselves for the morning. The walls of the condo were covered with photo-graphs of my grandmother in her prime. In most of them she looked like a 1940s movie star, which she had been, briefly. There were only a few pictures that included my mother, but I understood that was because my mother hadn’t come to live with her until she was eight years old. Before that, my mother lived with her father, my grandmother’s first husband, and didn’t know her mother at all.
The night before the christening, I came to the dinner table with my hair down. At the time, I had long hair and usually wore it in a ponytail. I’d been swimming that afternoon, though, and when I got back to the condo I’d showered and washed my hair in order to be ready for the christening the next day. I brushed it out neatly and left it down to dry.
When my grandmother saw me, she told me to leave and come back with my hair up. I hesitated, unsure whether she was serious, but then she shouted it was rude to wear one’s hair down at dinner, she couldn’t believe I didn’t know better, I had no manners. I looked at my mother, but she nodded at me to go.
I returned to the table with the highest ponytail I could manage, so tight it was hurting my scalp. I concentrated on the candle flames and listened to my grandmother’s voice. She spoke in bursts that waned as they lost momentum, as if the initial idea were long harbored but began to fade as soon as it was released. She attacked everyone at the table. It wasn’t until the end of dinner, when my aunt started clearing and my grandmother demanded another bottle of wine, that I began to understand.
My memories of the last two days are hazy. I remember the blue dress my grandmother wore the day of the christening; it matched her beautiful eyes. I remember the new lavender dress my mother had bought me as a surprise. My grandmother drank all afternoon and by dinnertime served us a burned casserole, helping herself to bites from the ladle between slapping portions onto our plates. No one bothered to light the candles.
The next day it thundered all morning. My grandfather drove us to the airport, his mood quiet but not gloomy. The last thing he said to my mother was ‘Your mother loves you.’ She had been about to open the car door and step out, but when he said this she paused. She looked pale and sad, the way I grew accustomed to seeing her. I thought she was going to respond, and I waited. Years later it occurred to me that when someone says what my grandfather did, what they mean, what would be far more accurate, is ‘She is trying to love you as best she can.’ This might be okay with you, or it might not. It might not be what you need at all.
After a moment, my mother nodded and stepped out of the car into the rain.
A few years later my grandmother died, and sometime after that so did my mother, and now I am forty years old, older than my mother was then. I don’t have a daughter and I don’t know if I ever will. But if I do, we will not carry this sadness forward. I’m tired of holding it.
I don’t love the bank of mock orange behind the house on Todd Lane. Mock orange is not a tree, it’s a shrub, but its flowers have a similar sweet scent. Gardening catalogs will tell you it’s an old favorite, perhaps not fitting for a more modern landscape, but sure to bring up much nostalgia in a more traditional setting. You can decide if you want that or not.
Most people can’t identify more than three trees local to their area. Maybe every profession has something equivalent that leaves its practitioners stunned. Builders might marvel at my inability to distinguish between wrenches, for example. But trees are some of the most extraordinary living things on earth. So are blue whales, but few people get to see them. Unless you live in a desert, you probably see a tree every day. It’s only because trees are common that we don’t appreciate them, and yet if they weren’t common, our planet would be uninhabitable, at least by humans as we recognize them. Some trees can absorb 40 percent of the water they need from fog and have bark thick enough to withstand the heat of a forest fire. Yet Samuel Johnson defined a tree as ‘a large vegetable rising, with one woody stem, to a considerable height,’ a dreadful description from an otherwise great writer. It seems the trees’ plight is to be always underappreciated by humans while working the hardest of any plant on earth for them. We cut them down, we poison them, we introduce disease and destructive pests. But we also plant them when someone is born, we plant them when someone dies. We want them to measure and commemorate our lives, even as the way we live hurts them.
An example: it is possible to do the needed pruning around power lines without making bad cuts to the trees, but the people who do the work are often paid by the mile and move too fast. The resulting tree shapes can be troubling, not to mention harmful. A few years ago Blake and I started documenting the worst local examples of what we named arbotchery, the severe and heartless pruning of trees around wires, leaving them stunted and misshapen forever.
The new owners of the Goulds’ house had recently taken out a badly arbotched tree, a decision I had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, the tree looked ridiculous, a small sugar maple (Acer saccharum) sheared into a slope. On the other hand, it was a sugar maple. The leaves on the branches that were left turned scarlet every fall.
I asked Blake what he thought. We were filling all the beds around the Green with impatiens (Impatiens walleriana).
He shrugged. ‘Was it unstable?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Hard to say.’
Graduation was a week away and the coral and white impatiens were part of the decorations, as fragile as crepe paper. The Super Elfin cultivar was bred in Costa Rica, developed from its native wild form into one of the most popular annuals in the world. I’m not a fan of annuals under the best of circumstances – they are an enormous amount of work for a few weeks of color – and my scorn for the impatiens is second only to my contempt for the petunia, an annual that is equally fragile but also sticky.
‘I’ve been meaning to tell you,’ Blake said, his voice serious and quiet. ‘It isn’t just the yew. Have you noticed the Douglas fir by the science building? Or the blue spruce by the auditorium?’
I shook my head.
He said recent measurements indicated those trees, too, were growing much faster than they should have been. Blake had talked with several people at the US Forest Service about what he was noticing on campus and they told him recent measurements from around the world showed mature evergreens of all species now regularly exceeding previously recorded height records by twenty to thirty feet.
‘Why?’ I asked.
Blake settled a little coral impatiens bursting with buds into the soil. ‘Global warming,’ he said. ‘I think they’re trying to save us.’
I pretended to have some trouble getting the next seedling out of its flat so he wouldn’t see my eyes filling with water.
We worked for a while in silence and then, without pausing in his planting, Blake said, ‘I don’t think I’d ever take out a sugar maple.’