The cottonwood tree’s roots are numerous, and its branches are wide, stretching over the expanse of our yard. The combination of root and branch are such that our backyard is never very sunny, nor does it grow much grass. The tree is the largest in our Chicago neighborhood and the focal point of our backyard.
The tree is one of my first friends. It stands close to my bedroom window, and from a very young age I regard it as a benevolent sentinel. My earliest memories are of the sound of its rustling leaves keeping me company as I lie in my bed, gentle summer breezes coaxing me to sleep. To this day, I sleep better if I hear tree leaves moving in the wind.
It’s the 80’s, and I play every day under the tree with my puppy and my younger brother, mostly unobserved by my parents – the tree keeps watch. My father builds an A-frame playhouse at its base, and it is here that I develop a robust imagination, playing house, pretending I live in a fairytale forest – when the tree releases its cotton, it is easy to believe we are in a fairyland. In a few years, the playhouse transitions to a treehouse, and I spend hours in the tree’s branches, reading and dreaming. I love The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and create a small garden in the yard, willing the sun to peek through the tree’s branches. I plant roses, peonies and a lilac bush.
The cottonwood tree is a constant, a friend that is always present at my parents’ home. I return from college, and the tree greets me. I leave my first husband, running back to Illinois from Mississippi, and the tree holds my sadness. My mother passes away in 2015, and the tree is the one familiar reflection of my inner landscape.
This year, my father turns 79. Soon the time will come that I will need to sell my parents’ property. I feel no remorse or guilt about letting go of the house itself; the tree, however, is home, my consistent link with my childhood. The tree is family. The tree is love.
Thank you, Earth.