Cutting Down the Tree
There they were, for the third day in a row. As I drove on the country road, the elderly couple stood closely together in a field. The first time I saw them, the tree had just come down. I wasn’t sure if it had fallen in the recent storm or if they had cut it down. The way they stood, looking down at the tree’s debris that first day was a picture that stuck with me the rest of the day for some reason. They stood so still. His arms hung limply at his sides. She stood, arms hugging her middle. They both wore hats, shielding their faces but like a Van Gogh portrait, they just looked utterly dejected to me.
I drove past that day and hadn’t realized how curious I was until I saw them the next afternoon. They were in the field again, working together to cut the tree into manageable pieces. I was driving slowly behind an Amish buggy so I had plenty of time to view their work. The woman was thinner than I had thought from my brief glimpse the day before. She had her sleeves rolled up, baring thin, wiry arms. She was holding a large section of the tree while the man worked a saw. He had his flannel shirt tucked neatly in faded work pants. He was thin and bent over and not just from his work but by his age.
They did not speak. Just worked together in tandem. As I watched, I saw the woman take a tissue from her pocket. She wiped her eyes and quickly looked down at the tree again. The man took her hand and held it a moment. Then they went back to their task. And I drove past again. Curious.
The third day I saw them, all the wood had been cut and piled on a trailer. The man was raking and cleaning the area where the large tree had stood. The woman was bent over something. As there were not many cars around, I slowed down and saw she had a small tree bound in burlap that she was cutting open. When I glanced at the man, he had picked up a shovel and was digging further back in the field. So they were replacing their tree. I wonder what had brought the woman to tears. Had their tree held some sentimen for them?
Some neighbors where I grew up had planted a tree for each of their children. They took pictures every year to mark the growth of their children and the trees. A friend of mine planted a tree when her mother died and had placed a memorial plaque at its base. Could the old couple have memories such as these wrapped up in that tree?
I never thought to have any answers as it was just a passing curiosity but fate has a funny way sometimes of enlightening when you least expect it. Within a few days of seeing this couple, I noticed the phone company working on running new wire and placing a new pole near where the old tree had been. So it looked as if that tree had to be cut down after all.
A month or so later, I opened the local newspaper. As I glanced through pictures and headlines, something caught my eye: “Not Just a Tree.” Because I had trees on my mind, at least one in particular, I read the article written by a woman named Ruth. By the end, I was wiping tears. Here is what I read:
“Chet and I planted the maple when our daughter was born and the oak when our son was born. We placed the trees at each front corner of our property, as our children were to be the cornerstones of our lives. We had prayed for healthy children and the Lord granted us happy, healthy, hard-working kids that we were constantly proud of. Each spring, we took a picture of the kids by their trees, marveling at the growth of all concerned. In some pictures, when they were very young, you can see how proud they were of each inch they had grown. They stood so tall, maybe even on tip-toe to look taller. In later pictures, they looked less enthused. Especially our boy who in one shot has his head cocked to the side with a smirk that just screams ‘Aw, Ma, stop with the pictures already!’
Our Maggie did well in school, getting high marks in math and science. She became a veterinarian and now lives a little over an hour away. We are grateful she chose to live close enough so we can see our three grandchildren often. Our Greg was a wonderful baseball player. He did well in art and English in school and wrote poetry, which the girls always seemed to like. He went with one girl in particular and they would have gotten married, actually planned on it after graduation, except the war came up.
Greg finished one year at college and then ended up going to serve our country. We were proud but nervous of course, as thousands of others had been as they watched their sons and daughters leave to go to another country to fight someone else’s war. But we prayed for his safe deliverance and were delighted each time we got a letter from him and terrified each time we got a phone call at odd times of the day. As time passed, I found I could hardly stand it for the waiting for some news. Until it came and it was news that I thought would break me. Greg died over there. He had been moving some things out of a school when the bomb went off and killed him and two friends. All the children had been evacuated so he would have been glad of that.
But Chet and I were broken. He became even quieter than ever and I became busier than ever. We kept up with our work and our lives but it’s funny, I can’t remember much from that time for about a year or so. The summer after Greg passed, Maggie decided to have a memorial in Greg’s honor. We had a picnic as a celebration of his life. We set up tables and chairs and horseshoes and enjoyed a lovely day, very close to his tree. For months afterward, I would sit under that tree and talk to Greg. I never liked going to the cemetery. It was a nice spot but I didn’t feel him there. I somehow felt him with his tree. I could hear his laugh as the wind blew through the branches. I could feel his strength when I touched the trunk. It was a connection.
Recently, Greg’s tree had to be cut down to make room for ‘progress.’ Chet and I did it ourselves. We have prepared some logs to be given to family members and friends to use as yule logs, stuffed with herbs and remembrance. We salvaged some pieces and made picture frames. Some of the pieces that couldn’t be used were ground up and we used it as mulch for our new tree. Another oak. We planted it not just in memory of Greg, but as a sign of hope. Maybe someone who lives in our home someday will sit under its branches and hear the laughing of a sweet boy or the poetry of a brave young man.”
I find myself driving that stretch of road even when it is not convenient. Just to get a glimpse of Ruth and Chet. And their oak. I also find that I notice trees more. In parks, at people’s homes, along roadsides. I know in my head that there are many lessons to be found in nature and by listening to people who have experienced more of life, but I was thankful in my heart to have learned from this family and their tree.