Family Tree

photo copy 3

Last week, the giant ash that has lived across the street for the more than two decades we have lived here, the one whose branches create an almost-arch over our street and whose leaves I could see when I was laying on my bed, which filled my window, always the first to turn colors in the fall, was cut down. My neighbor Ruthie told me it was just a twig when they moved in 42 years ago.

It was infected with emerald ash borer, the name of a green beetle who is so very unhappy to be away from it’s native Asia or Russia and is taking it out on Chicago area ash trees.  Those of us who happened to be around that morning – there were at least seven or eight of us – watched, our mouths in pout, as four strong men took their positions in and around the tree and two worked the chipper. It was loud and fast. Forty-two years for it to grow to it’s towering state. Gone two hours later.

As it came down, branch by branch, we knew it was a loss, but that loss became far more pronounced in the days to come. It was a full moon that week, and I never would have suspected that those branches had long been doing the job of a thick curtain in my window all of these years, blocking the bright moonlight from keeping me awake at night. Not to mention the shade it produced; the family photographs taken in front of it when fall colors were at peak; the place some pesky squirrels hung out when they were attacking some of our cars, where acorn halves fell, or the focal point of a commercial that was filmed here years ago when all of our children were young.

That tree was a character in our lives; like a family member. Here’s what it looked like the day before it was cut down. You can see the slash that marked it.


And here is what it looks like now. A week later.

photo copy

I’ve been thinking about the tree all week, wanting to remember it in some way. Wondering how my grownish kids will feel when they come home and (not) see it. And then I came across this article in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a review of children’s books that focus on telling family stories by way of a thing. In one story, a rope goes from jump toy to suitcase tie to clothesline. Another story focuses on a broken wedding cup.  Another on a quilt.  And a forth on the stage the child’s parents made their living on.

The idea that an object or a thing – intact or broken, alive or dying –  can tell a larger family story is just … true. It can tell a small part or a large one. But like another very well known children’s story about a tree (The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein) it wasn’t until it left us that I realized how much it gave. And that’s where good stories come from.

Photographs by Ellen Blum Barish.