When I was a kid, the thing I remember most about the drive from my house to my aunt’s house in Manhattan, KS, was the tree that stood by the side of Kansas Turnpike between the El Dorado exit and the Cassoday exit. It had been struck by lightning, causing one of its largest branches to separate from the main trunk. The branch hadn’t fallen to the ground, though. It toppled over, crown first, and stayed there.
Two branches embedded in the ground kept the base of the large branch propped against the tree. Over the years, that severed branch lost its bark, and by the time I was making the drive by myself, between my parents’ house and college, it was a bleached white bone.
That white limb, as big as the living tree it leaned against, took on an echo of the lightning strike that severed it. Stark and jagged, it caught the eye. It became a landmark, to let me know how much further I had to go. I marked it every time I passed.
After I’d been away, first to Japan, then to Florida, it greeted me on my return. A quick flash of white, an act of violence frozen in time. It’s amazing that it stood there so long–at least 35 years by my reckoning. It’s not surprising that it fell. The progression of decay. That relentless Plains wind. A series of grazing cattle using it to scratch their rumps.
When did it fall? I don’t even know. Was it there that Friday when I drove by on the way to my dad’s funeral? I couldn’t swear to it, because my mind was elsewhere. When I drove down for my mother’s seventieth birthday on the 4th of July? No. It had fallen by then. Finally become what it was. Not the glinting white echo of a bolt of lightning, but a half-rotted dead tree branch. I slowed as I approached and scanned the field. Craning my neck to see over the grass in the ditch, I located the branch in the muddy edge of the cattle watering hole.
Just like that, one of my landmarks was gone. Really, it was two. Not just the tree, but my pop, too. In the year since then, it has started to dawn on me that this is what life is about. Landmarks aren’t just things, they are people and ideas. They are guideposts that you use to make decisions about your life. You base your decisions on the landmarks around you, but the older you get, the fewer landmarks there are.
I became a secretary, just like my grandmother. She was one of my landmarks, pointing the way for my decision to take that first secretarial job. There were other decisions, though, that pulled me away from her. When I chose not to have children, when I ended my marriage. Those things toppled that landmark. I couldn’t use her as a guidepost for a lot of the decisions I made after that.
The grade school where you learned to read will be torn down. The grocery store where you had your first job will go out of business and become a Family Dollar store. Someone will blow up your favorite café. All the people who made you who you are will die. I’m sorry, but they are going to die. But you will tear down your own landmarks, too. You will walk away from the life that was laid out for you. You will turn your back on relationships. You will make different decisions than your grandparents did.
It’s painful, losing those landmarks, but you’ll find new ones. You’ll make new ones. Those will disappear, too, but you’ll get used to it. You’ll realize the older you get that we’re always at the edge of what each of us knows. We’re always looking at a fork in the road and trying to decide which way to go.