Issue Thirty-Six - Summer 2020

Mr. Yates’ Tree

By Kate Flannery

Vern Yates was barrel-shaped, like his wife, Ethel, and almost toothless. He often didn’t wear his dentures because, as he explained it, they were uncomfortable. Without his teeth, it was hard for us to understand anything he said, but he didn’t talk much so it wasn’t something we noticed a lot. He always ate soft food that Mrs. Yates mashed for him specially. Mr. Yates’ skin was dark and leathery. He told us he was part Indian.

In 1923 Mr. and Mrs. Yates had come from Broken Bow, Nebraska, to a new town, a “planned city,” built by a lumber baron from Kansas City, Missouri, on Washington’s Cowlitz River. A mill, the biggest lumber mill in the world, was going to be built in that new town, and Vern was excited to be there when it started. Over the years, he worked in the mill, just like he’d planned, first moving the large logs brought down from the forests to the gang saws, and later working to move cut lumber to the rough-dry sheds. Vern Yates was injured there after 25 years of labor.

Mrs. Yates did house-cleaning and babysitting. On the days she wasn’t cleaning our house, she often took care of my brothers and me, sometimes in her home.

In the 1950s I didn’t know what Mr. Yates had done for work, so I wasn’t sure he had ever done anything; he always seemed to be at home when we were there. He would be sitting in his dark green easy chair with white crocheted antimacassars on the headrest and arms when we arrived. Soon after we came into the house, he would slowly get up and go out the front door to tend his tree on the parking strip. He said it was an elm tree, like all the ones on Taylor Drive where the big homes were.

Mr. Yates’ tree was the only one planted on 48th Street. The city’s founders hadn’t planned for trees in Mr. Yates’ neighborhood near the mill, so he had put in the elm himself soon after he and Mrs. Yates first came to town. But it never seemed to grow much. He’d looked after it, trimmed its branches sometimes, and sprayed it to get rid of the tent caterpillars that seemed to arrive every spring. But the thing only grew to about 20 feet–a puzzle to Mr. Yates, given all his care of it.

Sometimes I’d peek out the living room window and watch him, standing there for a long time, looking at his tree. And just before we were ready to leave, Mr. Yates would come back into the house again and sit down in his green chair. And he’d fall asleep.

Mrs. Yates’ 1987 obituary reported that she had founded two of the local Baptist churches and was involved with childcare at both places, tending to over two generations of Baptist children in town. The obituary recorded the names of her ten children, her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other survivors. Two of the church elders officiated at her funeral. It was well-attended.

No obituary had appeared in the local paper for Mr. Yates when he had died earlier in 1971. His funeral was held in the chapel at the town’s only mortuary. I don’t know if anybody came.

Copyright Flannery 2020