Ode to a Robinson Crabapple Tree

Oh wavy tree, your trunk meandering nigh
Belies descriptions I so often read.
In catalogs, desirable symmetry…
Yet in my yard, Van Gogh not Klimt doth tread.

Your flowers - bright magenta - turn to pink,
Each spring I wait, anticipate the show.
But they emerge, and barely do I blink,
So short the time before away they go.

Now purple leaves turn bronze-green in their place.
Unruly branches sprout red fruits in fall,
Our christmas globes, the season to embrace,
But oh, I can’t get past your crooked sprawl!

Extoll your merits I may, but still can’t bear
This Dr. Seuss tree swerving here and there.

In 2017, I replaced a dying but lovely Zelkova. Extensive research landed me at a Robinson Crabapple, which offered flowers, attractive bark, berries, a generally symmetrical form, and appropriate root formation (it’s near a water pipe), while still being disease and pest resistant. Based on what I’d read, the Robinson Crabapple ticked all the boxes.

I enlisted my boys and husband to help plant it, convinced that as the tree grew over the years I’d not only love it, but love the memory of all of us working together to nurture what was sure to be a glorious defining feature of my front yard. A few things have happened in the five years since, though.

While I used to love planting and yard work as a child, my sons do not. This isn’t, therefore, the tree that we all look at with fond memories of togetherness. Hearing them tell it, they were conscripted for hard labor that day, toiling in the mud against unreasonable expectations of their ability to dig a hole and hold the tree straight while we filled it in. They have no affinity for the tree, and really wish we’d just have paid someone to put it in.

That’s sad, but I could get over it. The big issue: I don’t like the profile of the tree. Erratic is a good word for it. Unruly. Unkempt. While many stock photos appear as if the branches and trunk of Robinsons are straighter, they’re really not. And while I appreciate it in others’ landscapes having spotted them more since having my own, I just really don’t think it’s my style. I had a classic structure in mind, and this just doesn’t have it.

So I enjoyed its flowers again this spring. I marveled at its shiny burgundy bark as I walked the big dog last night. And I admitted this morning that it may be time to eulogize my Robinson Crabapple after all.

How I learned the high price of lying.

For young children, the line between what they hope is true and what they know is true can blur. This is probably a gradual process for most, but for me it came all at once, with a painful splash.

When I turned 5, I began kindergarten and my mom enrolled in college. Among the benefits to me was better access to recreational classes, like swimming. I already loved the water, but lessons made it even better. The pool even had diving boards. One was low, and the other went up forever.

At some point I learned to dive, and began diving off the low board repeatedly. My mom would watch me to my delight, though it must have been boring watching the same moves over and over.

One day I ran to her and told her she’d missed a great dive. She asked if I’d gone off the high diving board. I don’t know what possessed me, but I said, “Yes”. I immediately wished I could take it back. She said something like, “Oh, I missed it.” I don’t know if she prompted me to “do it again”, or if it was my own idea. Either way, for some reason, I thought that if I simply did the deed, my lie would become a truth. And so off I went, wet feet splattering water everywhere, toward the high dive.

My mom must have thought that faced with that prospect of doing anything from that height, I’d own up to my lie. Years later she shared that she had watched me go, thinking that I’d turn around at any moment. She watched as I climbed up the ladder…and up…and up…and got to the diving board, and stood at its edge. And she thought I’d turn around. But I never turned around. I was doing this. I dove off.

That dive was the most painful of my life. I attempted to do a shallow dive, but my chest and legs hit at an angle that made it feel like more of a belly flop. It felt like death by a thousand slaps. I resurfaced quickly but the pain made it hard to catch my breath. Eventually I did catch my breath. I swam over to my mom and confessed that it was actually my first time off the high dive.

It was a good lesson. Sometimes it’s easy to think that if we say things and believe them hard enough, they’ll be true. But it’s good to have a reminder that it doesn’t really work that way.

Following our passions is getting easier.

“Cowboys and Indians” was the earliest game I remember playing in my neighborhood. I always wanted to be the ingenious Indigenous, powerful and stealthy from knowing the place, strong and tan from living off the land. I didn’t understand why most kids wanted to play the boring interloper cowboy, but it worked for me.

Behind the scenes, I didn’t just want to play the role, I wanted to be an American Indian. The way my four-year-old self saw it, there was only one thing keeping me from sleeping in a teepee and hunting game on horseback with my new peeps: golden blonde hair. I knew from every TV show I’d seen that there was no such thing as a blonde American Indian.

Nightly, I would pray to the Guy in the Sky to give me long, straight black hair. I pictured myself at the top of a clay mountain on horseback, the sun high overhead, waving goodbye to my family as I prepared to gallop away. A shirtless brave with equally awesome long black hair was on his own horse beside me. We set off for my new home, our matching hair waving majestically in the wind behind us, along with some feathers from our headbands.

As I grew older, I came to understand that I would not be fishing in cold, clear streams with my fellow tribesman and sleeping under buffalo skins. I never lost my soft spot for the Indigenous people, their culture and traditions, though. The more I learned, the more I believed I’d been on the right side of that childhood game. So in my 30s, when the consulting firm I worked for landed a contract essentially helping the attorneys for the “cowboys”, I was horrified. I decided to decline being staffed on the project, even if it meant giving up my job. Fortunately I wasn’t staffed on the engagement, so it never came to that.

A few years later, now at another consulting firm, I learned of a project working to reconstruct the records of Indigenous tribes in an effort to get their assets appropriately assigned. I was thrilled at the chance to right some past wrongs. Alas, the job involved a lot of on-site time at remote reservations and came with a hazmat suit, and I was pregnant. Contributing in that way would have meant a lot to me, but the time wasn’t right.

Over the course of my career I haven’t always felt passionate about the projects I undertake or refuse. I was reminded of these two engagements, though, when I read about an increase in employees making working decisions based on the values and social positions of their current or potential employers. The importance of Corporate Social Responsibility has been increasing in recent years, but the pandemic seems to have accelerated employees prioritizing it from their employers.

I wonder how it will shape assignments and engagement choices in the future. I suspect it would be much easier to decline an assignment that clashes with your values, without having to accompany it by a resignation. I feel comforted knowing that as businesses evolve there will be more of a place for our social conscience, and more opportunities for employees to do work that touches their hearts.

You don’t have to go far to make a memory.

Travel advertisements seem to always promise that you’ll make memories if you simply join them on this cruise or at that resort. I have made such memories, and would never trade them. But I’ve also noticed that many of my fondest memories come from everyday experiences. The slightest objects, smells, or sounds can bring us right back to a moment past. Here’s what I mean.

Sometime in the early 1970s, on a hot summer night, my dad introduced me to plums. We were huddled in our TV room – which we called the Blue Room because it was – you guessed it – blue. He sat down with plums and asked me if I wanted any. I said I didn’t think I would like them. He responded, as he did many times, “You don’t know unless you try.” So I tried. They were black plums, deep purple on the outside and deep red inside. They were juicy and they were delicious! They were so refreshing in the summer heat.

Over this past summer, that night came back to me, as if I were a small child in that blue room, talking to my dad. I’d bought a variety of plums and to my delight found that some were exactly the same as those I remembered. The second I cut into the first, saw the inside and smelled it’s sweetness, it all came back. It tasted like our smiles in the light of the television.

Cherries reminded me of my mom for many years, and still do. It’s because one summer she’d put a bunch of washed cherries in a big metal bowl, we took them out on the very green grass of our front yard, and she taught me how to eat them while we picnicked. Now they also remind me of my son, who also enjoys them.

Grape Kool-Aid reminds me of childhood days at the beach with my mom. She’d fill up a Tropicana glass gallon jar full of ice and grape Kool-Aid, and I would help mix in the sugar. The cold jar beaded condensation by the time we got to the water’s edge and spread our towels. It was too heavy for me to lift, but she would pour it into the cup for me. I loved the sound of the ice rattling against the glass jar, and how it tasted when the ice was melting, watering it down. I still love watering down flavored drinks, like Gatorade, and even orange juice.

Kiwi reminds me of my college friends. I had never had a kiwi before college. My friends got one or two to cut up and try. We all decided we liked them, even though they looked pretty gross. Because I was extremely opinionated and largely unfiltered in college, I am sure I said exactly that upon trying it. But when I eat kiwi now, I always think of the girls we were and the women we were becoming on that day.

Touching fresh mint springs brings me back to a tender scene with my grandfather. He would make iced tea and add fresh mint from his garden. I remember him bending down and asking me sweetly in his Italian accent if I’d like some. Sometimes when I drink something with fresh mint, I’m back at his summer home by the bay, the breeze blowing through the house from front to back, the hydrangeas on either side of the front door, and the pea gravel back yard where we sat enjoying those summer days.

Anything made of Mother of pearl reminds me of my grandparents in New Jersey, and of being at their home as a child. My grandfather had a business that made buttons. They mixed shell scraps into the cement for the sidewalk at their home. I thought the sidewalk, which ran along the house and next to a big apple tree, was beautiful. I would crouch down to trace the shell scraps with my fingers, little half-moon cut-outs where buttons had been successfully punched out at the factory. Other pieces were broken buttons damaged in the process. They were shiny and reflected light unlike the chalky-feeling outer shells. I marveled at the layers of shell that could be seen in some pieces. When my mom told me that they were scraps that weren’t needed after the buttons came out, I couldn’t fathom how anything so beautiful and interesting could be unwanted. I don’t have mother of pearl in my sidewalk, but I do have some picture frames that bring me joyful memories of those days.

Creeping phlox in my garden remind me of another grandparent. I think of her when their flowers emerge in my garden each spring. My grandmother planted long borders of them along one side of her sand-colored brick house. We would sometimes visit the home in Pennsylvania for Easter, and would be met by a long row of neat, mounded pink and purple blossoms visible as we approached over the hill. Everything about my grandmother’s house was very neat. Yes, even the creeping phlox.

Her husband – my grandfather – was just as neat. His garage was literally as clean as the inside of the house. Every tool shined and had a place on peg boards or in drawers. The floor was a shiny gray. Though the house and garage were relatively small, there was space around everything, and no clutter to speak of. Having lived through the Depression, they lived out the “waste not, want not” principle. Sometimes when I look at my own garage I have an urge to get everything out, wash it, paint the floor a shiny gray, and find homes for all that remains. Alas, I came of age with the saying, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” and my garage reflects that. So it’s a little easier said than done. But a girl can dream!

Music transports me to many places and experiences from years passed, but in a different way than objects. I don’t think there’s anything else that can move me across a variety of decades in the way music can. And there are both special days and every-days that surface for me. If I give in to the memory as the music plays, I find that my mind moves rapidly on to related memories. It’s as if I’m at a buffet, and there’s just one table after another of deliciousness to choose from.

Hearing Styx’s “The Best of Times” through the car radio, with its own nostalgic quality, I was immediately back at my cousin’s wedding as he married his high school sweetheart. I was in that room dancing and watching them dance, surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles and other relatives that I loved then, and love still though some have passed on. As I gave in to the memory, it shifted. I was at my own wedding many years later when that groom was a guest watching me get married. Then I was at a pool in Las Vegas celebrating my aunt’s birthday with our families, yet another wonderful experience.

We have so many precious gifts locked away in our brains, just waiting to be brought back to life. We can miss them on days when we move too quickly through the logistics of just getting things done. We should give ourselves the time to pause in the present, and to enjoy our experiences. Then we not only make new memories, but we are sometimes rewarded by moments of unique beauty past.