I pump my short legs as fast as I can, racing to the weeping willow tree with my friend Jessie. One step farther, and we will reach my “magical” tree house. There we “play house” for hours. We tie the lush green branches into curtains and build doors out of limbs. Lying under the willow, we laugh at cloud shapes through the tree’s “windows.” We plan our future weddings and experiment with naming our “doll children” unusual names like Ledum and Natalita. This is the place we became “best” friends. The willow gave us an unspeakable security, allowing us to share our innermost thoughts and dreams.
Today, eleven years later, the sun peeks through the clouds, sending me a warm hug. The grass is a deep green from last night’s rain, and Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal devour seed from our bird feeder. The weeping willow tree waves its scarce limbs in the breeze as the sky turns gray. The harsh buzzing of a chainsaw breaks the peace of the morning while my brother eagerly pulls the tree down. The willow shakes, the trunk splinters with a loud “crack,” and down it falls with a crash. Fragrant wood chips fly in the air, spraying the ground with dust. Moments later, my tree friend is on the ground—slashed into pieces.
Over twenty years ago, my parents bought a tree for each member of our family. My daddy chose a weeping willow with one lonely shoot. Rather than choosing a sturdy oak or fiery maple, my daddy saw potential in this weak little willow. Ever since my mother told me this story, the tree has reminded me of my father’s strong and gentle spirit. Whenever I was under the tree, it felt like my daddy’s arms were hugging me. Maybe that’s why it became my favorite place.
Today, standing over piles of wood that barely resemble my daddy’s tree, I trace its story rings and see a reflection of my own timeline. I see myself in my prairie dress making three-layer “cakes” from mud and holly berries, “baking” them in the fire pit my brothers built at the hearth of my tree. I gathered whole walnuts by the nearby creek, soaked them until they were soft, and dyed cloths with their deep brown juice. Skipping back to my “real house,” I gathered my “doll children" to join my tea party. Towards the end of summer, I took hedge clippers and gave the willow a “bob” haircut. The day my best friend moved away my heart broke, but the tree seemed to understand. I looked out the window and thought, “It’s weeping for me.” Today, I think about how often my mother called, “Anna, it’s time to come in!” I often would delay until the lightning bugs sparkled in the warm summer evenings. As I played “house,” the willow tree became my home.
For the last several years, the tree has slowly been dying. Its bark turned black and its once green boughs snapped and fell. At the same time, illness took me from my home, but as I recovered, the willow sickened. Once I returned home, it was painful for me to spend time beneath the tree. It became a reminder of everything I had lost—the years of my childhood that I could never get back. This year, my daddy’s tree died completely. It’s as if the tree knew I needed closure to that difficult time of illness.
Today, as I stand over the willow’s remains, the wood smells sweet and is almost soft from rot. Part of me is sad the time has come to cut the tree down, but part of me only sees dead wood decomposing in the earth. I didn’t know something once precious could become so transient to me. I kneel down and see new life beginning to form—beside its stump sprouts a tiny green sapling. Though the tree is gone, I feel peace. I have memories that will always remind me of my special days with my daddy’s tree. Both the willow and I went through rough times, but I am still alive, and free to begin a new story ring of my own.