My thoughts have wandered to my father this week. Maybe because he enjoyed the fall season so much. He had his jack-o-lanterns out every year to light the path up to our steps and celebrate this time with the trick-or-treaters. But it’s not that story I want to share with you tonight. It’s my father’s teaching and his life I want to touch upon.
These days when people in my hometown drive down Main Street, they see the Boro workers cutting down trees all along the sidewalk. They say the trees have grown too big and harm the sidewalk. Money earmarked for storefront and sidewalk revitalization come into play. We think it takes away from the town’s character. I wonder what my dad would have thought. Would he have supported the move? Would he have seen each tree as a life well-spent even in its prime?
Dad taught all us children from a young age how to tell the age of a tree. Once a tree was cut down, and the stump was visible, he pointed out the rings that determined its age. He’d wipe off the sawdust with the side of his hand, and then count the individual rings with us. He especially liked to do this with huge, old trees that he’d need cranes to help take down. He also liked to show us how you could tell the quality of the tree by the rich color of the rings left behind on the stump. These lessons were such a natural part of our lives that we didn’t even see them as lessons.
I also remember long, lazy afternoons driving home from church with my family when Dad would stop and look at tree jobs. Sometimes he’d let one of us kids go with him when he talked to his customers. I always loved this privilege. They’d point out specific trees they wanted cut down, and ask advice about others. My father was so knowledgeable. He’d gesture this way and that and make suggestions. But one tree disease he didn’t like to fool around with was “tree rot.” People would ask him, “Don, isn’t there anything I can do to save that tree? It’s been in my family for so many years.” Or “It’s such a lovely shade tree. I’d really hate to lose it.” My father would lean into the tree with a measuring eye. He’d examine the bark, and the leaves to see if beetles had been at them. If he determined the root of the problem to be tree rot, he’d bluntly say, “I’m afraid it’s had it. When it gets tree rot, best thing to do is cut it down, and plant something else.” On a few occasions when they pressed the issue, I saw him bring out a foul smelling canister of greenish black spray that he’d squirt on it but I could tell by the way he did it he didn’t hold much faith in saving it.
Looking back on those childhood memories, I can’t help but think of his recent cancer as a kind of ‘tree rot’ and recall his straightforward advice about how to deal with it. Did he ever think of his cancer that way himself? He faced his cancer straight on. Ever practical, he called Hospice himself the first time he fell out of bed. He didn’t mince words or pity himself. He prepared. Dad believed in quality of life, and not quantity.
But along with that obvious lesson, I also remember how he taught us to tell the age and quality of a good tree. My father lived for seventy-eight years. In that time, he provided us with gentle “shade,” which came in the form of his humor, his savvy, his easygoing nature, and his love for his profession. People would talk about the twinkle in his eye, and how he loved children. People enjoyed being around my dad because he made them feel good about life.
I noticed that my father had deep roots for family, but had a independent streak in him, too. He was sturdy, able to survive in all kinds of situations; sometimes he went against leadership when he believed he was right. He didn’t back down. He would rather resign a position than go back on the rights promised to him. He did that once in local politics. I admired him for that. He knew himself well enough to run a business, to make it succeed, and to develop other interests in his life, which became his avocation. He always took chances and dreamed big.
So, these days when I envision my father’s life, I always think of the trees he loved so much. We had one large tree in our backyard. In that tree, Dad built us a tree house that became the envy of all the kids in the neighborhood. It was high in the tree with a sturdy base, a roof, and a small section where a tree trunk came through. He covered that with a flat piece of wood that served as a shelf for food.
Our tree house also contained an enormous slide coming down, the kind that big, old-fashioned parks used to have. Dad always knew the right person or had the right timing to get something. So he must have gotten the slide from some park that had replaced theirs with a better one. There must have been twenty or twenty-five iron stairs going up to the tree, a nice wooden platform to cross over on … and then came the slide. With waxed paper, it provided a fabulous ride over two dips that all the kids in the whole area loved to line up and slide down!
Not only did that tree hold a tree house perfect for summer sleepovers – ample enough for two to three people – and a great slide, but it also had a perfect steel pole you could twirl down if you didn’t want to exit via the slide at that particular time. It was one just like the fire companies had, except my father had repainted it green. It was the coolest thing!
But there was more, there was a big branch that stood out from the tree, and Dad had made a tire swing hanging from the end of a long rope that we all loved. It seemed at one time my father had a knotted rope you could swing on, too. I don’t remember if that was in addition to the tire swing or if it replaced it. I just recall swinging from it.
As we grew older and my father built onto our house, he cut off bits of the tree until he finally cut it down altogether. I guess he felt it had served its grand purpose for us and it was time for something else. He replaced the tree with beautiful topiary gardens, which provided such beauty to all those who passed by. He tended those gardens with the same loving patience he endowed to that beautiful shade tree.
My father is like that backyard tree that provided such splendor – so accessible and inviting to children – to both those who knew his familiar “bark”, and to those who had just come out of the sun and into his “shade.” Like the tree, he offered himself out to others. Dad reached out, open-armed, and gentle. Strong. Dependable. He often extended or reinvented himself, as with the trees and shrubs that took such unusual forms. My father knew how to carve beauty out of a simple backyard, just as he carved beauty out of his unpretentious life. My father lived like a tree of the very best kind. I guess that’s why he called himself “The Tree Man.” The name stuck with him until the end of his life – familiar to all, still beckoning those who knew and loved him in the days of his splendor.
My father’s story — or bits and pieces of it — lie wedged within each of those seventy-eight odd tree rings that define him to his core. But like all trees, some rings vibrantly stand out – wide and dark-hued, while others, chipped and nicked, seem to fade away until joined by another ring. These denote both the strong and lean years of Dad’s life. Some tales trail away into obscurity or remain unfinished while other bold tales pay tribute to the pulse of the town where my father’s life made a difference each day.
When I look at the thin tree stumps the Boro has yet to remove along Main Street, I remember how my dad responded to life around town. He’d likely bend over and count the rings, then shrug. “It’s gonna look purty when it’s all said and done.” Just like that, he’d move on. My dad lived his life with optimism. The townspeople also lean over and count the rings my dad’s left behind whenever they recall his presence to me. I can’t help but think Dad would have a broad smile on his face envisioning my thoughts tonight; he always loved a good tree tale.