When I was a child, our dining room had a large window facing east. The view was of the back lawn with pin oaks and maples and, right in front of the window, a billowy cherry tree. When winter began to thaw in earnest, our tree sprouted pale green leaves, and its buds and roots drank in the rain of April. Come mid-May, thousands of pink blossoms appeared, perfuming the air with a delicate scent, one you’d never find in a bottle. We had dinner in that room, most nights my mother setting the table with our blue willow dishes.
Mom was an avid bird watcher and the cherry tree provided her with an array of visitors. I learned about robins with their pale eggs, nuthatches that clambered up the trunk with startling agility, and the shy Baltimore oriole, resplendent with orange and ebony feathers.
We grew up with a profound respect for the earth and its many gifts waiting to be opened. My mother was a city girl who had a love for all things natural; each of her fingers was green. She fearlessly pruned her red roses, which climbed up the side of our house, and the catmint growing beneath, blue and fragrant. In our yard the gardens bloomed, and as my siblings and I grew, so did the trees, their roots firmly in our lawn on Claremont Avenue, their branches reaching skyward.
Eventually all of us left, one by one, and I married a Brooklyn-born Irishman with a thatch of silver hair and a generous heart. After several years living in Cobble Hill, near streets named Pineapple, Poplar and Willow, Tommy and I purchased an old farmhouse in a small Westchester town with three fireplaces and rambling gardens waiting to be woken up. If it wasn’t heaven, it was pretty close.
Our life rambled, too, each year revealing a new challenge inherent in a house constructed in 1921. We built a small library off the kitchen with a cozy sofa and books on the walls. We ate dinner in front of a fire on winter nights; in summer we opened all the windows. We had our daughter, Molly, after ten years of trying. We had a new purpose, and so did the house. We were parents. Our tiny girl, with her cinnamon hair and eyes the color of a summer pond, gave us a meaning at once profound and enthralling.
On Mother’s Day, as many of my friends opened small velvet boxes containing precious stones, my Tommy led me outside to present my gift to me. A tree. A flowering crabapple with deep pink blooms, the color of lipstick I always try on but never have the courage to wear. It brought me to tears. My husband, who didn’t know a tennis bracelet from a tennis ball, had found something of genuine beauty, something he knew I would love.
That crabapple was the first Mother’s Day tree for me. Each year was different. I received a pear tree, two apple trees, several weeping cherries and a rare magnolia with deep green leathery leaves and pale lemon-colored flowers as big as saucers. Our trees drew a bonus: grosbeaks and wrens, song sparrows and waxwings. Our Mother’s Day trees joined our majestic fir trees, with their resident owls. In spring and summer, our soft lawn was graced with a cascading ball gown of pink from my weeping cherries, which had grown almost to the height of the roof. My gardens were unruly — a mass of coreopsis, bee balm, clematis and roses, all crowding one another for a plot of soil. We were thriving.
As the trees grew, something else was taking root. A grim parasite was looking for a host, and it alighted on Tommy when our daughter was 13. Cancer. Unwanted and virulent, it took him from us in under a year. Molly and I turned to the farmhouse as a cocoon, our grief a thread that wound tightly around us, shielding us from the world. I found solace in the soil, and my gardens flourished. I planted a new garden, for Tommy, with all his favorites: deep blue hydrangeas and daisies, roses scrambling over the rock wall. That garden blooms from spring to frost.
Tommy has been gone for almost six years and every year I attempt to shed a layer of grief as the trees shed their leaves. I’ve learned to re-seed happiness. When I look at my trees, bursting with blossoms and life, I remember the soft May morning when he brought me outside and proudly showed me that first crabapple. I know that wherever he is, there’s a tree nearby giving him some shade, and it’s peaceful there.
Cathy Donovan is a writer and painter. A former advertising creative director, she now contributes to several blogs. In addition to the Hudson Valley Writers Center memoir workshop, she is currently enrolled in a memoir class at Sarah Lawrence College, where she anticipates earning her MFA .