Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Silver Maple

In our glass-fronted cabinet among our seldom-used fine china and various vases, there is a small ceramic music box, glazed a deep cobalt blue, with a moon and sun on the lid. The box belongs to my daughter, as do its contents—a collection of samaras from the silver maple tree that grew in our yard in Omaha. When we were regretfully leaving that house—and that tree—in the late spring of 2010, I remember the moment when my daughter, five at the time, rushed into the house cupping in her hands a small mound of maple keys that she had collected from the yard. “Be sure to pack these,” she told me, transferring them carefully into my open hands. “I’m taking them with me.” Since I was then in the middle of packing up some of the more fragile items in the glass-fronted cabinet, I simply placed them in the blue china box before packing it away.

Our silver maple, a grand tree about a hundred feet tall and fourteen feet in circumference, produced a bumper crop of samaras that year; they were everywhere—all over the roof, covering the back lawn, punctuating the front yard like a spill of blond commas. As the movers traipsed in and out of the house, sealing up boxes, moving out furniture, they brought the samaras in with them, and when we finally began to open our boxes in our new home in Connecticut, the samaras began to tumble out of the book boxes, the dish boxes, the toy boxes, reminding us of all that we had left behind. I kept finding them for weeks, months, until the last were finally swept out.

I first laid eyes on that silver maple in May of 2009, just weeks before my grandmother died, and I last saw the tree in May of 2010, when we left Nebraska, but in that single year I spent more deliberate time with that tree than I have with any other tree. From the time we moved into the house in early summer, I went to that tree every day.  I went to it because it was a magnificent tree. I went to it because my children played in its shade. And I went to it because I was mourning the death of my grandmother, and a tree was the sort of stalwart and silent companion I wanted in that time of grieving.

A couple of months into my acquaintance with the silver maple, I began photographing the tree every day. On some days, I took a single shot, and on others, I took dozens. I took close-ups, photographing its leaves, its bark, its buds, its branches, its keys. I took photos at every time of day—morning, midday, dusk, night—and in every kind of weather. I photographed the tree in the wind, the rain, the snow, the ice. I took pictures in the fall, the winter, the spring. I took shots from the backyard and from the roof, from my son’s bedroom window and from the back porch. My plan was to photograph the tree every day for a year, but my project ended when we moved away just shy of the nine-month mark.  I missed a whole summer with my tree. I wanted more time.

Still, I know something about that tree. Still, I have 1,736 digital photos. I have been meaning to write about the silver maple for nearly three years. I have been meaning to write about the tree and the photos and my grandmother and grief. Maybe this is a start.

When my mother was helping to clean out my grandmother’s house in California, she found the blue china box sitting on the dresser in her bedroom. In the weeks before her death, my grandmother had written my daughter’s name on a slip of paper and put it under the box, one of her final bequests. When my parents came to visit us in Omaha, they brought the box with them. And then we filled the box with samaras and brought it to Connecticut.

On a snowy January day when school is cancelled, I take the blue box from the glass-fronted cabinet and open it for my daughter. “Remember these?” I ask her. We haven’t moved the box since placing it in the cabinet in the summer of 2010. She gently lifts a papery samara from the box. “Oh, yeah,” she breathes. “This is from the tree that used to be in our backyard.” She lifts the maple key over her head and lets it twirl to the floor. “I remember when they would fall from the tree and I would chase them.” We carefully count the samaras—there are fifteen—and place them back in the box. “I miss that tree,” she says. And together, we remember our tree.

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