I have largely forgotten the houses I have lived in during my nearly five decades. When I try to recall them, I can usually conjure an image of the home’s exterior: the brick facade, the entryway, the front door. Then I picture the windows and try to imagine the rooms beyond the panes. In the far right window of my parents’ house, my bedroom light shines. Through the large window to the left of the front door, guests gather for conversation in my first “married” home. And beyond the second-story window of my last house, the baby naps in his nursery.
With stillness and thought, these houses return both to memory and to life. I begin to remember kitchen linoleum and shag carpet, screened-in porches and stuffy attics, creaking hardwoods and familiar shadows. However, a prominent memory of each house actually stands beyond the four walls: the trees. Each house had a noteworthy tree that stood sentry.
For my childhood home, it was a magnificent weeping willow in the side yard. It was a nemesis of my father since it was difficult to mow under its arching branches, but my sister and I defiantly protested any suggestion to chop it down. We loved the beauty of the branches and the mysterious shelter they provided. This willow—whimsical, beautiful, and free—symbolizes the playful years I spent growing up in its shade.
When my husband, Tim, and I purchased our first home in Birmingham, a towering oak dominated the steeply sloped front yard. Its roots knuckled their way to the surface of the ground, interrupting the grass and making Tim’s job as groundskeeper difficult. Yet, this oak communicated the history and character of our downtown neighborhood in a way that our brick rancher did not. Its roots were a metaphor for our life, as we reached our fifth anniversary and brought home our first baby. We were digging deep and becoming established.
For some reason, I tend to overlook the first house we purchased in Knoxville, our next hometown. Maybe it’s because we lived there so briefly; maybe it’s because we actually cut down several of its trees. Looking back, I remember it as a time of significant personal upheaval for us, so perhaps it’s fitting that the only trees I recall are the ones we uprooted.
Our second house in Knoxville, however, was a new construction, so even the small yard was ours to create. For that work, we called in the experts. Tim’s father and his wife, native gardening gurus, beautifully sculpted the front beds and knowingly chose the grasses, plants, and shrubs to fill the space. Five years later, the rock-walled beds were budding with life while inside the house we were grieving the loss of life: our third child miscarried.
Days after the tragedy, some dear friends gifted us with a weeping cherry tree, which we planted in the center of the front bed on a sunny spring day. The boys, ages 4 and 7, helped their dad dig the hole and lower the root ball into it. Then we knelt on the soil and filled in the hole with dirt. It was a holy act of honoring loss and holding on to hope. The tree took root and grew slowly over the coming five years. Each March its blossoms would burst in vibrant pink, a sweet symbol of life.
Then, in the fall of 2012, our family moved to our current home—another brick rancher in an established neighborhood with established trees. Our one acre is bordered by towering trees that provide a hedge of protection from the noises and lights of the city just a few blocks away. Nestled near the back of the house is a giant maple, nicknamed the ‘Trinity Tree” by a friend who observed how the trunk, as it rises, splits into three.
The roots of the Trinity Tree stretch across the yard, revealing themselves along the way as a reminder of the maple’s strength. It rises higher than our house and shades our deck, and from the vantage point of our hammock, we can stare into the beauty of its far branches. In its presence we are reminded that it was here long before our sixty-year-old house was built, and it will likely be standing long after we have moved on.
As I look through lamp-lit windows in my mind’s eye, I catch a glimpse of the stalwart trees guarding the temporal house of my life. They remind me that the root system God established for my family stretches wide across the decades. We may seem less dedicated than these trees, for we have not anchored to one place as they do; instead of digging deeply into the soil to stand firm, we’ve clung to each other through heat, drought, wind, and rain. Yet such tenacity yields a beautiful result. Strength to weather storms, stature to protect and inspire, and shade in which to rest. Whenever I may doubt, all I need to do is look at the trees.