Saturday, May 06, 2017

Twin Oaks

Sometimes, you get a notion, a scene, or an idea, a character, and if you are a writer, you have to — must — write it down before you lose it. If you wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant notion about anything, by the way, best you try and write it down in some form you will be able to use to recall it, because if you don’t, it will be gone in the morning.

This piece? I dunno where it will go, have no story or book upon which I am working into which it will fit without some stretching and prodding, but I had to write it. I wanted to give it the ring of truth, to make it something that somebody could read and nod and say, Yeah, I can believe this happened. 

How writers do that varies, but precise details in the right place can sometimes sell it.

Um Anyway, here it is:


Things change.

In the spring of 1881, Lucas and Katherine Stillwell borrowed money from family and a small bank they would outlast, and bought a hundred and sixty acres just west of the Sabine River, in Jasper County Texas. Good farm- and cattle-land, and since they were both farmer folk, they expected they would thrive.

Thrive they did.

On the way to the house they built, right next to the dirt road, there were two oak trees about thirty yards apart, probably a hundred and fifty years old, those trees, and almost identical, and the Stillwells saw these and named the place “Twin Oaks.”

They weren’t the first to name a farm that way, nor the last. 

Children were born and reared, crops sowed and harvested, cattle run, chickens and dogs roamed the yard, cats ate mice and rats in the barns. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was, by and large, good, and the family prospered.

In the fall of 1919, a late-season, dying hurricane blew through East Texas and the tree nearer the house caught a hard gust and crashed down, thick roots peeled up like a boy pulling up a weed.

A week later, Lucus Stillwater, fifty-four, had a heart attack and passed into the next world.

In the summer of 1941, lightning from a major thunderstorm struck the remaining oak tree and split it more or less vertically down the middle to within six feet of the ground. Bugs and disease found their way inside, even though it was patched with concrete, and during a winter storm three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the wind and rot combined to topple the remaining oak.

Four days later, Katherine Stillwell had a massive stroke that paralyzed one side of her body and took her speech. The family put her into a wheelchair, and she lingered until the spring of 1942, dying from pneumonia.

They buried her in the family plot next to Lucas and the two babies who passed over shortly after birth.

Now, you might well think this story is a metaphor about trees and people, but it isn’t. The trees and the Stillwells going as they did? Probably just coincidence, and if it wasn’t, that still isn’t the point.

The story is about change. Nobody born after 1919, save for the grandchildren who would sometimes ask, or some mildly-curious passerby who might find a local who knew, had any reason to know why the farm was called “Twin Oaks.” They might have guessed, but they wouldn’t know.

It’s still called that, by the way, what’s left of it. Most of the property got sold off the developers in the 1950’s, there’s only a twenty acre parcel left upon which the house sits, and the only surviving great-grandson sold that when he up and moved to Los Angeles in 1978, to become an actor. He changed his name, and since he was good-looking and a quick study, he got steady work in the movies and on television — you’d know him if you saw him, oh, yeah, that guy, I’ve seen him! Though he was second male lead a few times, he never had a starring role in a movie. He did get his own television show in the late 1990’s, and it was renewed for a second season when he was killed by a drunk driver going the wrong way on the 405.

Like the trees, the Stillwells of Jasper County, Texas are all gone.

Things change. That’s how it goes.