My mother and her immediate family moved about frequently when she was a child. But the last place for the clan to call home was an old country farmhouse on Glendora Road near Buchanan, Michigan. I’ve mentioned it many times before. It was a two-story frame structure standing on the crest of a hill overlooking an adjacent grape arbor and a stand of virgin woods beyond.
On any given summer day my Uncle Max was inclined to sit in the yard and, using a small penknife, carve whistles from the branches of a nearby willow tree. One afternoon, after crafting one, he took the remaining branch and simply stuck in the ground. And that was that.
For those of you who may not be all that familiar with the weeping willow tree, it is easily rooted. All one needs to do is insert a branch in the soil, as the young Max did, and make sure it gets plenty water.
And then Max shipped out to the U. S. Navy.
That tree had grown quite a bit by the time I started tooling around the neighborhood on my bike (we lived nearby), and later, in the old, rusty 1947 Chevy pickup I drove during my first summer out of high school. And then I, too, moved away as, eventually, did all the rest of my Mom’s immediate family.
Meanwhile that tree just kept growing and growing.
I recall coming home to visit from time to time when I was in my twenties, noting over my shoulder as I drove by how tall the tree had grown since I had last seen it. I knew that if I could notice the difference, then I probably had been gone too long.
In these more recent years when visiting my hometown I am often inclined to take a drive out to the old homestead. The farmhouse was long ago sold and is now occupied by folks unknown to me. But it still keeps its decades-long vigil on the property below, which is no longer its business since, over the years, it has been parsed out and sold, piecemeal.
Uncle Max’s tree is now about sixty feet tall with similar breadth. It has a huge trunk, probably four feet in diameter, and completely enfolds the drive with its long sinewy tresses flowing all the way to the ground. Sometimes I marvel at how something so majestic could grow from such a seemingly insignificant sprig.
In that regard I have always been of the mind that a tree, be it a weeping willow, a mighty oak, or a quaking aspen, is an apt metaphor for a human being. Like a sapling, a newborn baby who, at birth, is so tiny and in need of no more than warmth, sustenance and plenty of water, will eventually grow into a strong young man or woman. But, hopefully, also with a combination of strength and compassion that seems to be simultaneously embodied in that particular species of tree.
The trunk of any tree must be strong enough to carry the load of its branches when it explodes its foliage into the air every spring. And every tree seems to wear its deep green canopy with pride. But, hidden down below, the tree’s roots, which are equally as expansive as the crown, have been growing as well and ultimately provide the anchor for all that the world sees above. Thus, both the tree’s crown and its root system are critical to its ability to prosper.
Similarly, the outward appearance and behavior of a man or woman may be his or her crowning glory, but each must also be rooted with a well-developed sense of responsibility and kindness in order to achieve a full and rewarding life.
That weeping willow is a fitting, albeit offhand, gift from Uncle Max to rest of us. For us older folks, it may remind us of how much time has passed in our lives, oh so quickly. But perhaps for all, it also reminds us of the potential of every person born into this world.