John and I took a nice walk on the trails this morning, another unseasonably mild day in February. A lot of trees are down in the woods, particularly white pines. This winter has been tough on trees, with so much warm weather keeping the boughs pliable enough to bend and break when a heavy snow or ice storm suddenly descends. It makes me sad; I love trees. In my drawer of unfinished novels, two of them are fantasy stories that explore our bonds with trees, their wisdom, their generosity, and their ire with puny humanity for being so childishly selfish with the natural world. “The Giving Tree” is my favorite children’s book.
But with this crazy weather we’ve been having, we’ve started thinking about cutting down a few of the large white pines that loom over the house. During one snowstorm early this month, a huge bough slammed down into the driveway in the exact spot where Mia usually parks the CR-V. The back yard is littered with sticks, twigs, needles, pine cones and branches.
On our way back from the trail, we decided to stop at our neighbor Ruth’s house, to check on a dead cedar out back by her garage that Ruth’s daughter Lynda needs to cut down. Only it’s not Ruth’s house any more, because she died of cancer after Thanksgiving, and her kids will need to put the house on the market soon. She was my neighbor for 23 years, and I loved her. Westley bounds up to her front door and scratches. She always gave him treats. She was considering getting a puppy from his litter, at age 84, although thank God she didn’t, because she became ill right around the time we brought Westley home. Ruth loved dogs the way I love trees.
Ruth was a gifted gardener, and she took deep satisfaction from working in her yard. She had a gorgeous perennial garden out back, tall ornamental grasses and dahlias, stands of daisies and butterfly bushes all artfully arranged around little gravel pathways, dotted with funky garden sculptures she’d collected over the years. She could hear everything that went on over here because our houses are each sited up against our shared property line, even though our lots are quite large. If I’d had a particularly aggravating day tussling with the kids, or had gotten home very late from work, Ruth knew it. And I knew she knew, because the next day, there would be a beautiful bouquet of peonies or tulips on my back steps.
I remember one day towards the end of a particularly long and tough winter. Nate was a little terror, we had a puppy, we were doing construction on the house, John was traveling all the time, the power had gone out in storm after storm, and I was pregnant with Lucy. I felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder, stoking my wood stove in the basement to keep the house warm, constantly shoveling snow, rummaging in the dark for matches and candles. It seemed the winter would never end.
But one day, I opened the back door to find a mason jar filled with the most beautiful arrangement of pussy willows. I knew Ruth had cut them from the tree right by her front door because Nate was fascinated by the downy buds. And I burst into tears to see them there.
Today when we were over at her house, we cleared away a few branches that had fallen in the recent storms, since two of her kids live out-of-state, and her local son is a long-distance trucker and hasn’t been around in the past few weeks. The pussy willow by the front door had lost a big branch studded with soft buds. I dragged it down the gravel driveway to the woods across the street. At the end of the driveway, we noticed that her daffodils were starting to come up, green spears poking almost a full three inches above the earth.
When they bloom, I’m going to cut some and leave a bouquet by her front door, sunny and yellow, dancing in the spring breeze. I know she’s not there anymore, at least not in body. But still, it’s the least I can do for her.