Very recently, I came upon some pictures of the neighbourhood where my parents purchased the last home they would ever own—a home where I spent the final ten years of my boyhood. The pictures, old black-and-whites, had been taken before all the homes were built, and the streets were still dirt-tracks. No one yet occupied any of the finished homes. The cars and construction vehicles parked helter-skelter were like a virtual museum of 1950’s-era vehicles.
It wasn’t long, however, before we and our new neighbours were moving in—into freshly-painted homes, with tidy lots of newly-laid grass, driveways of impossibly-white gravel, and (for the most part) no trees.
But my family was singularly fortunate in that, along our side of the rear property line, a row of mature trees stood, there for years before the developer arrived, perhaps marking the boundary between some long-ago farmer’s fields.
Our house was set amidst them—tall, ancestral trees, most of them, old enough that they could have known our grandparents’ names, and their parents before them. To my young eyes, they seemed to reach endlessly to the sky, then bow over, protectively, to shield us from the world.
In short order, my parents established a garden around and beneath those trees. Some were big trees, with trunks wide enough to hide behind, others were smaller, with branches dipping low enough to allow us to climb.
On the hottest of summer days, my siblings and I could return from playing in nearby parks to collapse in the cool, welcoming shade. In the crispness of autumn afternoons, we could jump and hide in (and scatter) the piles of fallen leaves my father had spent hours raking together. He never seemed to mind.
At dusk on a cold winter’s evening, we could stare through frosted windows at the skeleton branches, stark against the darkling sky. And in the rebirthing spring, we could search out budding maple-keys, housing seeds, peel them back, and stick them on our noses.
They were of many kinds, our trees. The maple, which we tried to tap one spring to make syrup, but unsuccessfully. An oak, scattering acorns on the ground for us to collect, and which brought the squirrels. A beautiful beech, with its lovely bark and spreading foliage. And a large, gnarled weeping willow that we used to hide under, its branches trailing snakily along the ground.
The oldest and most important of all our trees, however, was an elm. Standing firmly on a small rise at the back of the garden, she reigned over the other trees (in my mind’s eye, anyway). Encircling her base was a large rockery, broken in one spot by a narrow walkway of flagstone steps leading from the lawn up to the base. At the top sat an old bench, which we always referred to as our throne.
But we rarely played our games in or around the elm tree, as we did with all the others. At various times, we had swings attached to sturdy branches of some, and knotted ropes hanging from others. For a while, we had a treehouse roosting in one of our trees, complete with a crude ladder nailed to the trunk. And, of course, we climbed in as many of them as we could, playing at being pirates, or Tarzan of the Apes, or Robin Hood’s merry men.
But, we didn’t play in the elm tree. Somehow, she seemed too stately to suffer our nonsense gladly. She rose, tall and columnar, to a great height, before spreading her branches, fan-like, over the trees around her. They looked to be paying homage to her, perhaps because she’d been there forever. For us, she made the yard a wonderful and safe place to be.
The empress of our garden.
But then, one sad summer, her leaves turned brittle and brown, and began to fall before their time. During the other trees’ glory of autumn-colour, she was already bare. When the following spring arrived, she budded only partially as disease spread through her limbs, and in the ensuing summer she shed her leaves early again. When next the spring came with its hope of new life, she was dead.
For us, so young, her death seemed incomprehensible.
She remained standing for another year, maybe two, a haunting, spectral reminder of what she had been. When her rotting branches began to break and fall off with increasing frequency, she had to be taken down. And then, all that remained of her former grandeur was a large, wide stump on top of the small rise.
I still remember, quite clearly, sitting on the ground one day beside that forlorn nubbin. I was simply looking at our garden, when it suddenly struck me just how small it really was. Our trees no longer seemed so grand without their empress, nor so inviting.
It was about that time, I think, that I began to put away my childhood games.