Twenty-one years ago, it wasn’t much to look at. Barely 7 feet tall, its spindly branches seemed anemic and its wispy leaves too wan to offer much shade from the scorching summer sun.
But we loved the house and the property had possibilities – one of them being that the lone tree in the front yard could be replaced. So, we bought the place and moved in with our two toddler sons.
A year flew by and the tree survived. That first autumn I planted tulips, daffodils and crocuses around its base and dreamed of springtime flowers. I wasn’t disappointed. When March came, tiny white crocuses peeked out from the bark we’d scattered at the tree’s base. Next came brilliant yellow daffodils and scarlet tulips.
The tree grew and so did our family. A third son arrived during our second autumn in the house. By the time summer rolled around again, our tree had filled out and offered a shady place for the baby and me to watch the older boys play.
One afternoon the four of us reclined beneath it on a comfy quilt. I’d brought out stacks of Dr. Seuss books and hoped to read the busy boys into an outdoor doze. No dice. As soon as I closed the cover of “Green Eggs and Ham,” Ethan was rolling across the lawn and practicing cartwheels, while 3-year-old Alex tried to scale the tree. Baby Zachary clapped his hands and squealed, scooting off the quilt.
A preteen neighbor girl wandered over. “Are you babysitting?” she asked.
“No, these are mine,” I replied.
She put her hands on her hip, surveyed the scene and said, “They’re cute, but there’s just too many of them.”
Four years later another baby joined us in the shade of the now towering tree. Sam and I kept watch while the three older boys operated their first lemonade stand, luring customers (mainly neighbor kids) into the yard – enticing them with 25-cent cups of icy lemonade and a shady place to park their bikes and scooters for a bit.
The tree served as a backdrop for a succession of Easter photos. Four boys posed, grimacing in the constraints of “church clothes,” while itching to get into the sugary contents of their Easter baskets.
Soon they’d all scampered perilously close to the top – carving footholds – claiming space. “I was here first! Go find your own tree!”
Ethan would perch in the cradle of two large branches and read for hours. Alex was more about conquering new heights, Sam was content with the lowest branch, and Zack – well he’d climb up and belt out a song or two. And one day his climb had disastrous results.
I’d taken Sam to soccer practice, Alex was at football practice and Ethan was at work. Zack decided to climb up and wait for his dad to come home. My cellphone rang. “Mom, I fell out the tree … .” Long pause. Ragged breathing. “I heard my arm snap. I think it’s broken.”
Then there was the time Milo the cat bolted out of the house and darted up the tree before any of us knew what was happening. He spent a few minutes glaring at us before hopping down and running for the front door at full speed. Luckily, Sam was there to open it.
Lately, the tree has been home to a plump and very grumpy squirrel. If one of us dared to walk under the branches while Mr. Squirrel was in residence he’d run out on a limb and scold us, until we moved away from his house.
We’ve never been sure of exactly what kind of tree it was, but in the warm days of summer its glistening leaves emitted a heady sweet fragrance, perfuming the entire block.
On Aug. 2, as I set the table for dinner, a fierce storm rapidly descended. We didn’t even have time to take our deck umbrellas down. Helplessly, we watched them both snap in half. As the sky darkened ominously, Derek, Sam and I looked out the living room window. “Well, there goes our tree,” Derek said.
No loud sounds, no creaking cracking or snapping. The tree just slowly toppled to the ground and flung its branches into the street. Its huge roots, draped in a carpet of sod, rose from the ground before settling on the lawn.
When the winds settled down, neighbors and strangers gathered to survey the destruction. Many people we didn’t know stopped to snap pictures with their cellphones. They shook their heads and said, “We loved that tree.” And, “It was such a beautiful tree!”
Our next door neighbor has a wood-burning stove, and he and his chainsaw made short work of the sturdy limbs. On Saturday, an enterprising guy stopped by and offered to remove the stump for a reasonable price.
Now, all that’s left of our once towering tree is a hole covered with a smattering of wood chips.
We know how fortunate we are. My mom lost all of her evergreens and many friends and neighbors had trees fall on their homes, cars or garages. The storm was merciless and random in its destruction.
Someday, we’ll plant a new tree – something that won’t grow quite as tall. But for now our home looks naked and exposed without the faithful guardian that sheltered it from the heat of the sun and the eyes of passers-by.
Twenty-one years worth of memories were wrapped in those branches. It feels like we’ve lost a dear friend. Sam, 14, said it best, “RIP Family Tree.”