In the photograph of my living room that appeared in my most recent post, there’s a set of books by Jane Austen, with red spines embossed with gold lettering. They are beautiful, and new in my life, and they are all about love, as far as I know.
They are full of stories, of course, and not just love stories, or even just the stories Jane Austen wrote. Every once in a while they remind me of the sad story of Jane Austen’s acorns.
It was the spring of the year 2000, or thereabouts, at a garage sale my parents were holding at their home in Barrie, Ontario. They were clearing the basement, selling their unneeded stuff, in anticipation of retirement and eventually, a big move out West.
Among the many strangers poking around aimlessly that Saturday morning there was an older man I liked on sight. He was a quiet, thoughtful-looking fellow in a sweater, not much interested in the usual yard sale things.
He had found a little ziploc bag with seven acorns in it, in and among the other items. He asked me what the story was behind them. They were elongated, clearly not Canadian acorns. He was curious.
We got to talking. I told him about a trip I’d once made to Jane Austen’s house in England with my ex-wife, while we were over there for a friend’s wedding. She and the bride and a group of female friends wanted to go in, and take the full tour. Not having read any of Jane Austen’s books, I elected to stay outside and just roam around a bit.
There was an oak tree on the property that had been planted by Jane Austen herself. It being autumn, the tree was dropping acorns, and with my fondness for trees I pocketed a few. My intention was to plant them on the land in Nova Scotia where my wife and I were about to build a cabin, and where our daughter, who was then no bigger than an acorn herself in her mom’s belly, would soon be born.
A lot of water went under the bridge after that trip to England. The marriage we’d been over there to celebrate failed almost immediately, and our own wasn’t far behind. It would take a novel to describe the changes in life and love in the year that followed: Depression, separation, divorce, the spectacular failure of a glorious dream, and finally a fresh start in Toronto in the house my dad had grown up in.
I never did plant any of those acorns. But they must have made the journey with me somehow, and wound up tucked away in my parents’ basement, among my tree-planting gear, most likely.
Tree-planting, eh? The older man asked me about that, wondering when I’d gone up North. I said my first season had been the summer of 1990, and he nodded. His daughter had gone planting that same summer. Ah – so he knew a bit about it. It was good to talk to a guy who knew about tree-planting.
The yard salers swirled around my parent’s garage, the knick-knacks and the familiar bric-a-brac of my youth up for sale all around us. The conversation continued. The tree-planter’s father was turning Jane Austen’s acorns over in his hand. I saw little holes in the shells of some of them. A borer of some kind had gotten in.
The tree-planter’s father asked, did I remember a van crash during my first season? Yes, there’d been one that summer – it wasn’t on my crew, it was on another one. A terrible accident; several planters had died. All but one of a van with a whole crew on board. We all felt connected. It could have been any of us. A tragedy.
He told me something then that he had to say twice. He said it quietly, and anyway I thought it couldn’t be true. But it was true when he said it again. His daughter had been killed in that crash. It was her first season planting, and it was just one of those things. Just one of those things that happens.
He was fingering the acorns. I was looking for the seed of something in me that could make it all not so.
His wife, he said, had taken it very hard. She was in the corner of the garage, looking through my mom’s faux flower arrangements. Their daughter had been their only child. It’s a terrible thing but you have to move on, don’t you? It was good to talk to someone who’d been a planter, to get a sense of what it was like in the camps and the clearcuts, and what his daughter had been doing up there.
We talked a bit more, and after a while his wife gestured that she was ready to leave. I told him he was welcome to those acorns, sadly noting that a bug of some kind seemed to have bored into most of them. There was one that might be worth a try, but it wasn’t likely they’d sprout. He said that was alright, he’d like to have them anyway.
We exchanged phone numbers, I think, the older man and me. I can’t recall his name now, but if I remember right, he lived in the Newmarket area. Our paths didn’t cross again. It was a long time ago now.
Life goes on, right? This is what we tell ourselves, and it’s true. My parents moved out west a few years later. I’ve had a couple more relationships since then. Romance has not been my strong suit, at least until recently. Maybe it’s because I never read that kind of books.
My daughter is fourteen now, a lover of books and trees. There is a used bookstore we visit together near her home in Montreal sometimes. Last time we were there, I picked up a gorgeous boxed set of the complete works of Jane Austen, and gave them to the woman I love for Valentine’s Day. I was so excited, I couldn’t even wait that long, and I gave them to her right away when I got home.
Meghan says they were the world’s most beautiful early Valentine. I think that’s lovely and hope it’s true. I’m moved by the fact that they always seemed right at home, in my home, even though they’re thoroughly her books.
It’s funny about books and stories. There are the stories in the books, and then there are the stories the books are in.
Sometimes when I see those books, with their stiff red spines and gold lettering, I see the bookstore and a sunny day in winter. Other times I see the moment when I gave a gift I couldn’t even hold onto until Valentine’s Day. Once in a long while, I remember a trip to England, what seems like a lifetime ago.
And sometimes, like today, I remember the tree-planter’s father, and I remember the time we had together, in a quiet moment amid the hubbub of a Saturday yard sale in the springtime in Ontario. Two men talking over Jane Austen’s acorns.
I can’t help wondering if he planted that one intact acorn, and whether it ever grew.