When we moved to our medium-sized Canadian town for my residency in 2010, there was one tree on our rented property. It stood directly in the middle of our shared front lawn. Our south-facing back yard, though private, was utterly shade-less. Being a social and East Coast family (and also prone to sunburns), we gravitated toward the front lawn as our preferred place to play and hang out. Our dog was well behaved and stuck around, and the children loved to wave at the city bus that drove down the street every half hour. We met many neighbours as we spent time under the tree. As the children were 2 and 3 years old when we moved here, they could not be out front unsupervised. Therefore, outside time was by necessity family time, or at least one-parent supervised time with the children. When our third child arrived in the spring of 2011, his front-facing window would be left open at naptime as we played under the tree. When he woke up, the older children (now 3 and 4) would practice being "frozen" until I could scoot upstairs and return with baby boy, blinking in the sunlight.
Over the past four years, the tree has been the center of our family time. However, like a faithful friend or partner, I did not realize how much the tree meant to our family, until its existence was threatened. A large crack was discovered in the main tree trunk in 2013. Much to our relief, arborists from the city decided to bolt the tree trunk for safety, a fascinating process that we watched from our front window. This winter, when the city came to assess the tree after two large branches fell off during an ice storm, the children actually cried in the front window (all three of them, very loudly) until I could run outside in boots and no coat to receive hasty assurances that the tree was not about to be cut down. However, one week later, as I was home alone on a rare weekday off, an arborist from the city showed up at the front door. He wanted to give me some notice that the tree was indeed to be cut down. He remembered the crying children. He was sorry, but there were more cracks, and the tree could hurt somebody.
I cannot recall why I was home alone that day. I am rarely home on weekdays and if I am, one or more children are always attached to me, delighted to have Mommy present. Nonetheless, I stood in the front window alone that day, staring at the tree, and my eyes filled with tears. I watched the blue swing idly sway back and forth in the wind and snow, imagining the ground worn away beneath it, scraped by thousands of little footfalls over the past four years. I remembered nursing my baby, now almost three years old, under that tree, countless times. I remembered the kiddie pool full of water and splashing and fun in the shade on hot summer's days. I remember how many times – how many times! – we laid on our backs under the tree, watching our "tree movie", catching glimpses of blue through leafy green, one or more little hands tucked into mine, with baby gurgling and kicking in his bouncy chair, or chasing our dog across the lawn in later years. I remember hanging thirty balloons from the tree on my husband's 30th birthday, with a big "Happy Birthday" poster taped to the trunk. In the morning, we told our children that the tree was a magical balloon tree. They called it the balloon tree for months. I remember coming home from my first military assignment, an exercise in Alberta, and having my husband rush out of the house at midnight to greet me. We hugged in the driveway under that tree, and I remember being surprised to hear the rustle of leaves above us. It was mid-June when I returned; it had been April and the tree, leafless, when I left. The cab driver smiled and said how much he liked it when "they come out to meet you". How many branches has that tree given our dog to carry and prance around with and chew proudly on our front lawn? Oh, how many leaf piles have we made, jumping and squealing with delight, each fall? Our neighbours have not had to rake a single leaf since we moved here.
We had to plan when and how to break the news of the tree to the children. They all cried. And here we have another lesson from the tree, in a gentle way for young children – a lesson of life and death. We talked about seeds and new trees and how life goes on.
The tree still stands. The city has not yet arrived to take it down. In rare quiet moments, I look at the tree, and I marvel at how this one tree, amongst billions, will always be known as "ours".
MH is a wife, mother to three children under age eight, and a military physician, currently living in central Canada.