It’s never been easy for this tree person to choose a favorite tree, but a memorable one is the tulip-tree that grew—and still grows—in my grandparents’ yard at the main farmhouse next door to my childhood home. I was fascinated by its tulip-shaped leaves, the first to turn color—a brilliant yellow—in fall. That was the only time of year I got to see the leaves up close, because the tree, typical of its kind, had no branches close to the ground.
As much as I admired that tulip-tree, aka yellow-poplar or tulip-poplar, the farmyard’s silver maples got more of my attention in those days. There were “helicopter” samaras to set sailing on the wind and wide branches within reach of a six-year-old, who would occasionally hide among the limbs to avoid being called for farm chores.
While a variety of trees had been planted about the farmhouse, the trees around my own home were mostly native oaks left standing when my father built our house on the hill in the early 1950s. He didn’t plant the trees but he carefully chose ones that would be left to grow and shelter his future family. The trees at the time were not much more than saplings but would grow along with our family and stand guard as the house was completed, babies were born and brought home, toddlers grew into teenagers and eventually left for college or careers.
The oaks were less interesting to me than the trees next door, maybe because they were a part of my everyday backdrop. The trees were chosen based on their locations around the house—scattered in front yard, backyard, and along the driveway. Two oaks flanked the bottom of the drive, and one of these, with its double trunk, offered a perch where one of us sat as we all waited for the school bus each morning. Other oaks, in the backyard, held swings of the wooden seat and tire varieties.
One white oak grew at the top of the hill on the kitchen side of the house, and Daddy looped the driveway around it. As it grew it became an integral part of the vista overlooking the valley across fields to the saltbox-style farmhouse.
Over the years, this particular oak was first base in kickball games with cousins, another oak was second base and the steps to our side door was third. For many years, that first-base oak tree did double-duty as its trunk held the basketball hoop and net against a homemade plywood backboard.
The tree appeared in many photographs of family events both mundane and momentous. Snowmen built and first cars gleaming in its shadow, outdoor barbeques and picnics that marked summer birthdays, Easter family portraits and graduates flanked by proud parents.
A year and a half ago, not long after we lost my dad in his 98th year, we noticed that the oak was in decline. Daddy passed away in the summer and branches came down in storms over the next year. The leaves shed from the oak the following autumn were the last to grace its branches, which then stretched eerily to the sky. With the tree dangerously close to the house, we knew that the towering oak would need to be felled before storms toppled it. Some would say its demise at that time was coincidental but I’m not so sure.
I’d planned to be there for the felling of the oak but circumstances kept me away that day. On my next visit, I pulled up the hill to a big sky overlooking the pleasant valley. The tree had come down, branch by branch, then the trunk with hardly a thud, I was told. Mom chose not to witness it. We all knew it was time, just as we knew it was time to bid goodbye for now to its caretaker. I have yet to count the rings on the stump that is left of the mighty oak, but I’d not be surprised if they number 98 or so.