The 90-Year-Old Pond: Our Mississippi homestead, my father, and me

In front of me stood a 90-year-old pond.

At least, that’s how old I think it is. I can never remember if my father told me its correct age.

I can remember years ago on a warm summer day how my 70-year-old father stood on the bank of the pond with a stern, starry-eyed nostalgic gaze across the glassy, dark brown water. Around him, spring green leaves with hexagonal patterns of light and shadows played with each other on the bank like iridescent ghosts from a forgotten past.

In a coarse voice, he told me the story of how the pond was created, a spoken page out of his millennia-old book. Before heavy machinery was invented, my great-grandfather “dug up a hole in the ground” (words from my father), filled it with water, and let his cattle roam nearby so they could have a watering hole. It’s now the pond as I know it today, a six-feet deep pool that I suspected my great-grandfather dug up with a shovel and a bucket, and where my family would go to fish for trout and crappies.

The pond, along with the fifteen acres of land surrounding it, passed onto my father’s name after my great-grandfather’s passing in the 1970s. Now, after my father’s passing, the pond with the land would most likely belong to me.

This temperate forest full of cedar, pine and oak trees is one of my father’s inheritances to me and my family, carrying years full of memories, ones of children swimming and discovering terrapins, algae, or snakes, if they weren’t careful. Violet-colored muscadines could be plucked late summer on wild grapevines uncovered through hordes of thorns.

I walk to the pond early in the afternoon, right when the sun beat down on my head and sat down on the bank, feeling the wet, brown moss under my palms. I laid my head back and felt the soft crinkle of dying oak leaves under me as I stared at a wide blue sky emerging as the backdrop, the long fibers of pine needles from the last pine trees of my father’s property connecting with each other.

The fibers formed a misunderstood pattern above me, their bright yellow pollen cones making a centerpiece of the tapestry, with nearby dogwood trees blooming delicate white flowers as the finishing touches.

As far back as I can remember, my backyard was full of pine trees taller than New York City lampposts, long towers that crowded together like a line of wooden toy soldiers, one row after another, each decorated by long, identical prickly branches reflecting light off their shiny, thin armor.

Seven years ago, the trees began dying.

Thirty years after being planted, the bark began to rot from the inside out, trees turning into long, white skeletons with termites eating the roots or wilting statues with bark you could grab and tear off.

Five years ago, my father and I walked by these trees to inspect them one day in the spring. He stood outside this forest, looking curiously at the trees. I had just gotten back from my class at the nearby community college, wearing JCPenney jean shorts and a tired look on my face. My father was in his usual getup of an army green Hanes shirt tucked into his black denim jeans and a belt from Honduras with his name inscribed on the inside tying the outfit together.

“These pines are getting too old. See that hollow bark there?” he said, pointing at a tree with holes in the bark from termite damage. “It’s almost bare because it’s starting to die. I think it’s time to sell these trees.”

With the enlistment of a local logging company, the process to harvest our pines began.

A balding man in his 50s arrived one summer day with a feller buncher and started cutting the trees down, one by one, for almost two months. I would stop typing essays in the house to look out the window and see another pine fall from the sky with a loud thud, the harvester whirring loudly to drive off into the distance and cut another pine, and another, until finally by the end of summer there were no more pines left.

Everyone in my family, including me, was excited for this. Logging was a profitable business in Mississippi. A big, fat check! Free money! Who knew his tiny slip of land could be worth thousands of dollars that could be used for a new laptop, clothes, material goods I could own and feel expensive in?

After everything was done and the harvester disappeared, my family noticed that the pines were gone, but nobody had decided to discard the other trees: the dead, frail dogwood and smaller pines were cut at the expense of bigger ones. The pines were gone, and in its place was rotting wood, littered across our property like discarded trash no one wanted to throw away. There were so many rotten trees that nobody could walk on the land without stepping on them.

“I told them I wanted them to clean my land after,” my father said, walking the unwanted pines. “They didn’t do it,” he said, staring at the logs with an angry, disappointed look.

It was a defeated feeling, knowing that this land wasn’t the same anymore, all because of a quick profit. Deforestation for the cost of lucrative logging companies turning our thriving ecosystem into a barren desert.

I remember once as a student working at my university’s bioproducts department when I heard a professor in a class talk about the effects of planting southern pines too close together at the beginning of their life.

*Pine trees are strong, but the way they’re grown **too close to each other shortens their lifespan. They don’t get enough sunlight, so they die faster, *she said.

They could live longer, but the business of deforestation causes them to become weak. In the end, the pines still die faster.

After the logging incident, my father’s health slowly began to deteriorate, his body weakening from the inside out.

Over the months, he couldn’t walk more than twelve feet without feeling the urge to pass out. He still smiled and could keep a conversation going, but he looked like a frail man living day by day in an 85-year-old body.

His deteriorating health didn’t stop him from working. Each morning, my father still put on his boots and went to work in the blistering heat to work a job suited for a 25-year-old.

At his workshop, he would pour liquid concrete into fiberglass molds, shake them so that the concrete could be evenly distributed in the rubber lining, then take a five-minute break rest break. Then he would stand up, repeat the process, and take another five-minute break each time, not taking off his boots until his four-hour shift was done and he could sit and watch TV until night came.

After a year, he stopped working completely and his body began to shut down. He listened to his doctors tell him to drink more water, eat healthier, but the problem never left. His health kept getting worse, until finally, on a night where there were no stars in the sky, no wind to move the trees, and time seemed to stay still, his problems stopped after his heart did.

Why my father passed away so suddenly, nobody knows for sure. Maybe it was poor diet, his steady drink of Cola Colas, red meat, white bread, no water. Maybe it was too much pain medicine and not enough rest. Maybe it was an extended period of overexerting his balloon- shaped heart when he started his business, excited to finally make his own profit after retiring at age 55 with only $20,000 to live off as a newly married man with a newborn child. A family against a world full of money but not enough of it. Maybe it wasn’t enough retirement. Maybe it was all of the above.

On a hot Saturday thirty miles away from the pond, I stopped my car on a deserted, dusty road to take a picture of what looked like a mountain in the distance at first glance.

It was only a high rise, but the unusually high terrain reminded me of the two-day road trip I went with my father and family to see the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

On our way to New Mexico, my family and I would see high rises through every car window, and I took pictures at almost every one of them. Instead of this high rise peppered with life-sized cactuses, the hill I was looking at was emerald green, covered in lines of towering pines not yet cut, the same baby blue sky of New Mexico stretching out in front of me.

This was my father.

This is what he lived for, to experience nature and appreciate life the best he could, a gift he turned over to me in a big, shiny box full of mementos: an Old Panama keychain from who-knows-when, a pamphlet of the Las Vegas Flamingo hotel in 1993, and an expired Delta Airlines rewards card. Plus, an outlook that there are bigger, better, brighter things only thirty minutes from your house.

“Who will remember this when I’m gone?” my father said one day with me as we both got off his ATV and looked at the remains of an old settler community named Dido, now an empty wooded area given recognition only through bright rays of sunshine and large spaces where a stream flowed 100 years ago.

*Me, *I thought as I sat back to take in the view now, a no man’s land he appreciated and loved. Then, I drove off, ready to see what else was out there.

Seven months after my dad’s passing, the land is different, but the same. The pond still holds the same creatures, the same shape of an eagle taking flight. Occasionally bass still twirl their tails above the water, creating ripples in its passing, with northern cardinals and tufted titmouse singing on pine branches, claiming our home as theirs.

I rose from laying down on the ground and sat down alone by the water. Around me was the wasteland that I hated but still love, the land that never got cleaned but is somehow still thriving.

Beside me I saw a smaller baby pine tree as big as my hand inches from where I sat. That’s when I remembered the Bible verse Ecclesiastes 3:1-3 said at my father’s funeral, the words replacing the birds’ soft chirping with a loud echo overcoming all noise around me: There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal.

The budding pine was small but firm, its small needles lifting towards the sky to welcome whatever rain and sunshine came its way, ready for a new life.

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