The Magazine

Two Fathers and a Wedding

Mary Katharine Ham on power-gardening

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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There is an apple tree in my parents’ backyard. Its bark is blackened, limbs reaching unevenly and feebly into the sky. If an art-house filmmaker needed a metaphor for resilience in a war-ravaged country, he would choose this tree. It looks like it’s growing in spite of something, straining against some great force.

Casual

That great force is my father.

Ever since I can remember, the flora of our backyard has shrunk in the face of his single-minded determination to mold natural growth to his exact specifications.

I remember the day the apple tree met its match. One moment, my seven-year-old brother was huddling in its branches in a round of hide-and-seek. The next, he was left sitting, stunned, atop a bare stubby shrub that afforded no cover.

My mother went inside to slice up a few apples for the kids and came back to find her tree incapable of bearing fruit for the next five years. 

My father’s standard response was to impose upon the act an air of nonchalance and inevitability.

“What’s the big deal? This is just undergrowth. You gotta get rid of that.”

My father’s proclivity for what I call “power-gardening” has many upsides. It comes with a well-manicured lawn, a fruitful garden, and brothers trained in the arts of raking and mowing. 

So I did not hesitate when my dad offered to help with yard work before my wedding. A hare-brained scheme to have the ceremony in my backyard put a rush on home improvement. 

He drove up and popped the trunk on an arsenal worthy of the John Dillinger of lawn maintenance. I imagined him hurtling toward my peach trees, riding the running board of a Studebaker with hedge-trimmers in place of a tommy gun.

I knew I was in trouble when I saw the groom’s eyes light up. Jake’s father, too, is a power-gardener and had trained him since boyhood to tame an acre of tall Tennessee grass into the clean lines of Comiskey.

Realizing there was a growing threat, I asked—perhaps ordered—that no branch be removed from any tree without my express permission and supervision.

Under this strict rule, all flower-planting, weed-whacking, and mulch-laying proceeded without complication.

The week of the wedding, my father-in-law arrived and joined the battle against a holly bush the size of a box car and buzzing with every bee species native to North America. It’s times like these that you thank the power-gardeners in your life because you don’t have to distribute decorative, stenciled EpiPens as wedding favors.

The two fathers recognized in each other brothers in arms. I should have known not to leave them alone. But the day before the wedding, I went on a last-minute Costco run. 

When I got back to the house, tents had been hoisted, grass mowed, seats arranged, the sun was shining. I walked down what would be the aisle, admiring my vision. 

Mr. Bluebird was on my shoulder, everything was satisfactual .  .  . until I turned around.

I don’t remember much after this point, but my brothers tell me I took on the voice of Zuul.

There, where I had envisioned my walk down the aisle would begin under a graceful lovers’ arch formed by the limbs of two peach trees, were two bright white, freshly sawed sand-dollar sized circles where two branches had been. They gaped at me like sad eyes, pools of sawdust on the lawn like tears.

The dads responded with an air of nonchalance and inevitability (though I noticed it sounded a little unsure in the face of my reaction).

“Really, those were dead. They could have hurt someone.”

“Yep, had to come down.”

No mere nuptials can stop the trimming of two power-gardeners. In the wake of my Bridezilla moment, I got several explanations of how exactly two limbs got lopped off the ceremony trees the day before the wedding.

My favorite describes the scene as one engulfed in an unstoppable, fatherly force, a moment under the influence of the purest, combined need to prune that this world has ever seen. In this scenario, our helpless siblings and mothers tried to stop it, but were drawn in by the sound of the saw. Manipulated Matrix-style, the universe turned words of objection into words of assent, and resistance was futile.

That may have been the moment when our two families truly joined—when all the pride, work ethic, determination (and, yes, occasional stubbornness) our wonderful dads taught their kids came to bear on a pair of poor, defenseless peach trees.

The incident did not, of course, scar the ceremony, and the scars on my peach trees stand as a symbol of all we love about our dads and all they’ve given us—both literally and figuratively.

And, if I ever forget it, Jake’s there to remind me, standing on the roof, with a chainsaw.

“Yep, these maple branches are too low. Gotta get rid of these.”

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