PUTNEY — I don't know how many of you - though I'm betting it's a lot of you - know the street my mother, Rupa, has lived on for the past 30 years.
It's called Canoe Brook Road, and if you turn on to it right off of 5, you get rewarded with the stupidest steep hill you've ever encountered, which levels out a little if you then follow the road to the left, where it meanders its way past Mom's place.
But if you go straight, up Waterman Road, the hill kicks back in, grinding its way straight up to just a touch of flatness before shooting up again. At the top, it goes level for a second and then drops back down, like this gorgeous middle finger that's just there to totally mess you up.
It's sort of my nemesis.
When I was a kid and bike racing was my thing, I'd power myself up the side of the slope, celebrating when I'd make it up in one go like I'd just taken the tour, so getting off and walking wasn't an option.
Since I've been back with Mom, though, it's become something different and yet the same.
When I go for my runs, it's the ol' enemy, though I've softened somewhat and just think getting up it at all counts as a win, but when I walk with my dog, Rothko, it's an old friend, I can laugh as mutt and I pant, working our way up.
* * *
It wasn't until I started walking the hill with Rothko that I noticed that there's a special tree at the top. It stands blunt against the sky behind it, alone in a clearing, and its branches writhe away from it - I swear they're moving - and its clothing of leaves is too sparse to hide all of this.
One of the branches, shooting out to the right, looks tied in a knot, like it really grew back into itself and then out again, and it gives the tree tension. It's like a story and, as you amble past the thing, it unravels itself.
The knot is a trick of the angle - it's grown crooked away from itself, but the angles are sharp enough that they survive the change of perspective. The contrast that the tree is always set in, with the sky as its background, adds to this.
I was so taken with this tree, and with the knot in particular, that I started taking pictures of it, always trying to find its good side, the angle where its contortions would translate the shift in dimensions, and I've shared a couple of the shots on Facebook.
About a month after I arrived in Dummerston from Portland, my mom saw one of the pictures I'd shared, and she got excited. She liked to take pictures of that tree as well, to take many of them, like I have, to try and figure out the thing's mystery.
The hill up Waterman Road had significance for Mom as well, you see, as she also liked to walk up there, and a good friend of hers lived just off of it, one for whom Mom partook in a similar caretaking process to what I did for her.
Knowing this commonality, I started driving up Waterman when we would go to the Putney Co-op, usually on Senior Discount Tuesdays, as funds have been tight. We would pass the tree and, each time, Mom would comment on how we both found it, the same one, but for very different reasons - different routes, all leading to the same destination.
The tree is the reward for the run or the amble. It's just there, in bold type, for us to see.
* * *
On the second-to-last walk I took with Mom, during one of the amazingly high-energy days she managed to have right up to the end, we walked the length of Canoe Brook, from her house to Waterman. Rothko wanted to turn and keep going up, and Mom was game.
Up we went. Mom decided she really wanted to make it to the tree again, so we pushed.
When we reached the slight leveling before the hill shoves itself skyward some more, Mom was too tired. She was leaning on her cane, which at that point she only really used for steep steps or exhaustion. But she wanted to see the tree, so I beckoned her to come to the side of the road I was on, over by the right, and pointed up.
From there, the tree peeks most of its form out, past the bend in the road that obscures it. She could see it from there.
I wanted to make it to it, she said.
Sometimes seeing it is enough, I said. Anyway, this is its best angle.
* * *
We looked at it for a few moments, Mom mustered her energy, and we walked back down the hill.
When we reached home, she said that she'd realized she'd always been wrong, that the front side of Canoe Brook Road we'd just followed is actually a hillier one than the back, the “non-maintained” side, that leads to the bridge over the brook itself.
That other walk would be our last, though, which is a different story, for a different time.