Uncle Eugene's Tree



by John Tyler Connoley


June 17, 2005



I begged Mom and Dad for a pair of cowboy boots. It was 1980, and we were home on furlough -- meaning we'd returned to the United States for a short period between terms in Zambia -- and I had become enamored with cowboy boots. I liked the pointy toes. I liked the way the heels came in a little bit at the bottom. I liked the shape of the space between the heel and the toe, where the foot arched. And I especially liked the way they made men walk and stand. I wanted to walk and stand like that. I wanted to look like those men in their cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans.


But Mom and Dad were poor missionaries, and they didn't want to spend money on a pair of boots I wouldn't wear. "It's too hot in Zambia for cowboy boots. You'll never wear them after we get back to Jembo," Mom said.


"Yes I will. I promise. I'll wear them every day." But Mom and Dad wouldn't budge. They were not going to spend good money on cowboy boots. In Zambia, my sister and I ran around barefoot most of the time, so why would they buy an expensive pair of boots that I'd grow out of before I even wore them half a dozen times? "Cowboy boots are different," I said. "I'll wear them all the time. I don't want to go barefoot anymore." But still, they wouldn't hear of it. In Zambia, I'd wear shoes from the used clothes barrel sent by the kindly ladies from Wesleyan Women's International, or more likely I'd go barefoot. I wouldn't wear new cowboy boots.


Luckily, though, I had a Grandpa with a soft spot for his grandkids, and we were staying with him while we were on furlough. He told my parents he'd buy the boots for me. So, a week before we were to return to Zambia, Grandpa took me down to Montgomery Wards and let me pick out a pair. Wards didn't have the really pointy-toed ones, but I didn't mind. I would still be the only boy in Zambia with a pair of cowboy boots. I'd still be able to walk and stand like one of those grownup men in jeans and high-heeled boots.


I picked out a brown pair, with the pointiest toes I could find. And I kept my promise to Mom and Dad -- even when we got back to Zambia, I wore my boots every day.


I loved the way I had to push really hard to get the boots on as my foot slipped past the ankle of the boot. I loved the feeling of leather against my calves, where it stood up stiff under my pant legs (Wesleyans never wore shorts in those days). I loved the little loops on either side of the tops, and the heels that caught pebbles in the arch of my foot when I scuffed my feet along the red-dirt driveways at our house in Zambia. And, of course, I loved the way it felt to walk on the balls of my feet with my heels up, like the men in Oregon and Washington.


The only thing I didn't like about my cowboy boots was the slipperiness of the soles when I climbed trees. The heels were nice for catching branches, but more often the soles would slide out from under me and I'd be left dangling by my arms scrambling to get a foothold again. I was already afraid of heights, and I never climbed as high as my best friend Peter, but with my boots I couldn't even climb the lower limbs very well, and I was always afraid I'd fall and break my neck.


I could imagine Peter running into the house to tell his mom -- a nurse -- that I was lying under the tree, motionless. She'd come running, drying the dishwater off her hands on her skirt, and they'd take me to the hospital where they'd put me in a cast and tell my parents that I'd never move my arms and legs again. Then I'd have to learn to paint with my teeth, like Joni Erickson, and everyone would tsk tsk because I'd insisted on wearing those boots, which my parents hadn't wanted to buy for me in the first place.


So, after the first couple of close calls, I stopped wearing my boots in trees. Whenever Peter and I climbed trees -- which was every day -- I'd pull them off and leave them at the bottom of the trunk so I could hold on with my bare feet like a monkey. Everyone could always tell when we were up a tree, because my boots gave us away.


However, there was one tree I could hide in -- one tree I could climb without leaving my boots on the ground -- and it was my favorite tree to climb. In my head, I called it Boot Tree, but I think the missionary kids all called it something else, probably Crooked Tree or Bent Tree. It was actually two trees, growing from the same stump. Early in its life, the young tree had been split somehow, and like conjoined twins it had grown two bodies attached at the stump. One of the twins was tall and straight with branches far too high to reach and a trunk far too wide to climb. The other twin had grown out sideways at a forty-degree angle to the ground. Like its conjoined brother, it had strong branches and dark green leaves, but its trunk bent low so a child could walk up it like a gang plank, even in cowboy boots.


Boot Tree and its unnamed brother grew in Uncle Eugene's yard (we called all the missionaries Uncle and Auntie) at the end of our street, in the corner house where our cul-de-sac met the main road out of the Choma Secondary School compound. Many afternoons a week, I would walk down to Uncle Eugene's and climb his crooked tree. Sometimes, I'd hide in the branches, glad that I didn't have to leave my boots as a sign of my whereabouts. I'd watch the people driving and walking by on the road. Other times I'd talk to Uncle Eugene who was often out in his yard, wearing gloves and a straw hat as he weeded his flowerbeds.


Uncle Eugene loved pretty things, especially flowers. He had a beautiful imported flower-printed china set he'd bought in South Africa and carried up in his car. The fine white teacups had lilacs on the outside and little silver bands around the rims. Occasionally some of us missionary kids would have four-o-clock tea at Uncle Eugene's house, and he would serve us Marie Biscuits and peanut butter on his lilac china plates with Five Roses tea poured from the matching teapot.


After tea, the other kids would joke about how Uncle Eugene held his cup with his pinky out, or the way he crossed his legs, foot swinging idly. One of the kids would say, "Could you smell the hairspray?"


"Yes. I saw the can in the bathroom, on the back of the toilet. Natural Lady -- just like your mom wears." And everyone would laugh. No one could imagine what kind of man would wear hairspray.


But I could. He was a man who liked pretty things, like I did. Nice clothes. Fine china. Cut flowers in a vase. Hair that curled and stayed in place, just so. He probably even had a favorite pair of boots.


So, I would walk up Uncle Eugene's crooked tree, sit in the branches, and talk to him as he weeded his garden. He'd ask me what I was learning in school, what my favorite class was. And he'd ask my opinion. What did I think of the frangipani bush there in the yard? How did I like marigolds? Did I know marigolds kept away the bugs and rabbits? I did, and they were a pretty orange too.


I loved walking up that crooked tree in my cowboy boots. I loved watching the people on the street. And I loved talking to Uncle Eugene as he weeded in his straw hat and gloves.


Then, one afternoon, I walked down to Uncle Eugene's and found Boot Tree lying in the yard. No longer attached to its tall, straight, nameless brother, the crooked twin sprawled lifeless on the brown Zambian grass. Some of its limbs had been cut off and carried away, and one of the bigger limbs had been sawed into pieces. I ran up to the yard and stared at the still-green leaves. I looked at the place where the tree had once attached to the stump, but it wasn't cracked or broken. It had been hacked loose with an ax.


Uncle Eugene was on his porch, so I called to him, "Uncle Eugene, what happened to your tree?"


He answered, "Nothing. I had some of the secondary school boys cut it down. I never really liked it."


I couldn't believe it. "Why not?" I asked.


"It was too crooked. It didn't offer any shade, and it blocked the view of the road, the way it leaned over like that. Don't you think the yard looks much nicer with just the one straight tree?"


I admitted it looked nicer, but that hadn't been the point of the crooked tree.


The secondary school boys, who had been stacking wood in the back of the house, came back to the front, and I turned away as Uncle Eugene directed them to be careful as they chopped off my favorite sitting limb. I scuffled my cowboy boots in the dirt of the road as I walked away. When I got to the corner, I turned down to where Peter lived. I'd see what he wanted to do this afternoon. Maybe we could play war in the banana grove.


I don't remember talking to Uncle Eugene much after that. I moved on to other trees, though I didn't find another climbing tree as good as that one until I went to Indiana Wesleyan University, a small Christian campus with several nice old trees.


A few years after we left Zambia, we heard that Uncle Eugene had married. He'd settled down with Aunt Naomi, a single-lady missionary who wore boots and tore around on a Honda motorcycle. Aunt Naomi could fix anything -- trucks, cars, electric generators, water pumps -- and we joked that we knew who cooked the meals and who fixed the cars in that family. "It was a match made in heaven," we said. "Why didn't we think of it earlier?"


Many years later, Uncle Eugene's name came up again, when I told my father I was gay. I'd knocked on Dad's door late one afternoon, heavy with my secret and tired of carrying it. When he answered the door, I said, "Dad I need to talk to you." We'd sat drinking coffee at the kitchen table with my mom, who already knew, and I'd told him that I was attracted to men and not attracted to women.


After the tearful confession, Dad said exactly what I needed to hear, "I love, and I trust you. And, if you follow God -- and I believe you will -- you'll be okay." Later in the conversation, he said, "You know, you should be careful about telling people. You don't want to get tied down to one identity. I believe people can change. Remember Uncle Eugene?"


I didn't respond. But I thought about Uncle Eugene's tree, my tree, the one he cut down.


By the time I told my dad, I'd already spent two years in Christian therapy with counselors who believed I just needed to work through my childhood and I would be cured of my same-sex attractions. I'd read all the books on reparative therapy, as it's called, and had discovered there was no place for me in that worldview. They didn't know what to do with a good Christian boy who had a good childhood and parents who loved him, but who also happened to be attracted to other boys. When they couldn't straighten me out, the counselors had told me I needed to ignore my attractions, commit to a life of celibacy. One counselor had said, "You seem to want me to tell you this is okay. It's not, and I will never tell you that."


Sitting at my parent's kitchen table, I finally said, "Dad, I don't think these feelings are going away, and I'm not going to cut off part of myself." My dad thought he saw a difficult path ahead of me; but, just like wearing boots in the Zambian heat, I knew the joy of being myself would outshine the minor discomforts and sacrifices. I also knew everything was made for a purpose, like crooked trees made for climbing in cowboy boots, and I believed I had a purpose just as I was.






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Copyright 2005 by John Tyler Connoley

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