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Memories and apple trees - the poignancy of life remembered by a wood fire

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The apple tree grew sturdily in the front garden just a few yards from the farmhouse front door.  It was a special tree because it bore a good crop of Sheepsnout apples every autumn.

The apples are aptly named because they are ribbed like the snout of a real sheep, long and green-skinned and the sweetest fruit of their kind. They are also quite rare, and Annie Naughton was very proud of them always.

Her rising family of three boys and two girls devoured almost all of them in the childhood years. Later, after they had gone out into the world, Annie gave most of them away as gifts to neighbors and relatives.

Her husband Dinny was a master carpenter. In their later years it was no trouble at all for him to craft a small garden seat for Annie against and around the lichened trunk of the tree.

The trunk served as the backrest of the seat and Annie could often be seen sitting out there in the summer, often knitting a sweater for a grandchild in America or Brussels .

The tree had developed a "Y" shape overhead, its whispering leaves a natural canopy. Generations of robins built their nests there knowing they were safe and serene.

When the children were young there was always a simple rope-and-cushion swing dangling from the left arm of the "Y" shape.  One end of the clothesline was also attached to it. The tree was both multi-functional and beautiful.

It was quite poignant what happened four winters ago.  Annie came to die gently and peacefully in her proper time and season, no shock at all, in the wallpapered bedroom at the front of the house.

A squall struck the townland, though, on that same night and the quick force of it toppled the old apple tree too.  It fell to its right side with a brown shard of earth adhering to the roots.

People remarked on the coincidence and said they were glad Annie did not live to see the fall.

A month or so after the funeral, when a calmness returned, Dinny quietly asked young Quinn to cut up the tree, replace the sod in its own place and leave the sawn lengths up beside the shed for seasoning.

The following summer Quinn cut the logs into firewood and stacked them in the gable shed. The garden looked as empty without the tree for a long time as the kitchen looked empty without Annie, but sure that is life.

Dinny, still hale and hearty at 91, coped as well with his bereavement as any hardy countryman, leased the land to the Quinns and quite fiercely resisted any attempts by the local womenfolk to help him with the cooking and housework.

He was well fit, he said, to look after himself and, indeed, the women later agreed, he was as neat and tasty around the house as any of them.  He was even able to bake his own good brown bread.

The Naughton clan always had hidden depths to them. They originally hailed from one of the Shannon islands where there are very ancient knowledges and lores.

What his inland neighbors could never know or understand was the fashion in which Dinny Naughton still guards and comforts himself on wintry nights when there is a danger of the lonesomeness of the loss of his dear wife suddenly striking him between the shoulder blades from behind.  It can happen that way.

What Dinny does is go out to the firewood shed and fetch one or two pieces of firewood from the old Sheepsnout tree.

He still has a big open fire and he lays down the firewood on top of the red hearth.

Then he sits down quietly in his fireside chair, sometimes with a small glass of whiskey, and he just listens to the fire. I would not know this at all only Dinny told the priest and the priest told me because he knows I'm interested in that sort of reality.

Dinny told the priest that after just a little while, as the firewood flames, he can hear the sounds of many of the apple tree's yesterdays out in the garden.  He told the priest that he has even heard Annie chuckling as a young wife at some story he had told her.

He often hears the young robins singing their first songs of May mornings or maybe the warning calls of the mother robin.  Or the sentinel sound of a cock blackbird.

The wood hisses a little with the core sound of the summer breezes of years long gone. He has never heard the laughter of young children but, quite often, the sound of the rope swing squeaking against the bark from which it was suspended for years. And the flap sound of white sheets on the clothesline.

Things like that, memory sounds like that somehow sonically embedded in the soul of the old wood. At times like that, Dinny told the priest, he is not lonesome any more. He knows hat Annie is close and he is content.

That is what the priest told me. He is young still, with a specialized university knowledge, and he wondered aloud if Dinny might be now in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

He is a nice young man, a good priest. I told him that Dinny is still as sharp as a tack, nowhere near any class of dementia, simply drawing from deep down in the well of his own folk knowledges.

Some morning, I suggested, and may it be long delayed, what might happen is that one of the young Quinns will call to the house and find Dinny apparently peacefully asleep in his chair by the hearth.

And there will almost certainly be a couple of firewood logs, nearly burned out, but still whispering gently away into the light of a new day.

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