To Celebrate a Life
Long before I came to know them by name, I was only vaguely acquainted with trees. While not a single tree was to be found on the paved streets of our neighborhood in the Bronx, up on Fordham Road in a sliver of an island we called Banana Park, two or three trees graced a few benches with a canopy of shade. But as a city boy I could not tell you what types of trees they were. To me they were just trees.
On occasional jaunts to other parks in the area, we became acquainted with some variety among trees, mainly by the seeds they dropped. We gathered chestnuts in the Fall and pelted each other with “itchy balls” that dropped from the branches and clung miraculously to our clothes. We opened other seeds and made polynoses or twirled them like helicopters when we sent them aloft in Spring and dove headfirst into piles of leaves in the Fall, all the while blissfully unaware of the species that had dropped these treasures in our paths.
When my wife and I bought the house “in the country” some years later, trees, of course, abounded everywhere we looked. Over the decades I came to appreciate their species, their lifecycles, and their boundless beauty. We mourned the loss of trees to storms, infestations, and disease. We were ambivalent when the stilted willow that had served many years as first base in our backyard baseball games made way for the pool, but we lamented having to cut down the choke cherries and ash lest they fall on a neighbor’s house.
Over the years I have come to cultivate many trees, mindful that they will grow to imposing maturity after I myself have returned to the earth. I planted whips of poplar and ash, honeysuckle and lilac. More recently, I have planted twigs of hawthorn, buckthorn, and crape myrtle, all of which have sprouted hardy stems and leaves after four years of blazing New York heat and frigid winters. They’ll soon be ready for transplanting to more prominent areas of the yard.
I can think of no more fitting gesture to commemorate someone we love than the planting of a tree in that person’s name. Whether to mark a birth or a death, planting a tree celebrates a life in all its transient beauty and all its enduring memory. So it is that we plant a tree each time a grandchild is born. We planted a sugar maple when our Canadian American granddaughter Chloe was born in 2010 and a Kwanzan cherry tree when our Japanese American grandson Alex was born in 2017. This year we planted a Yoshino cherry to mark the 2020 birth of our Japanese American granddaughter Lilia. All three of these grandchild trees grace the yard with their distinctive beauty and celebration. The maple drops its helicopter seeds with which I may someday teach the children to make polynoses, and in the Fall its golden yellow leaves illuminate the dusk. The Kwanzan cherry sprouts its graceful pink blossoms in the Spring and, alongside it now, the Yoshino cherry opens its snowy white blooms. If the grandchildren are visiting in springtime, we may picnic beneath the cherry blossoms to celebrate their transient beauty.
It is with such transience in mind that I planted a clump of white birch trees to commemorate the life of John Palencsar, my closest friend of more than sixty years, who died rather sooner than we’d expected in 2021. John was fond of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” with its idyllic image of a young boy swinging the pliable branches who “flung outward, feet first, with a swish,/Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.” I see that tree now, John’s birch, outside my den window, and I find comfort in knowing that, like those of the grandchildren, it is rooted firmly to mark a life, the “going and coming back,” in all its days of storms and resplendent beauty, to celebrate a life that once was, and—in all its seasons—a life worth remembering.