Once I consulted an astrologer. He examined my chart, hesitated and spoke with some puzzlement. “You have your whole family in your hands?” I was stunned. I had just come from a major family reunion and was fully aware of the vast numbers of aunts, uncles, cousins, spouses and children surrounding me, their lives leading in a hundred different directions.
I was as puzzled as the astrologer. What could it mean? As the oldest female of my generation did I have some unrecognized and unfulfilled responsibility? Then I burst out laughing. “I’ve got the Family Tree.”
My parents and aunts and uncles were were entering, or about to enter their seventh decade. Cousins had spread out all across the United States and we collectively began to fear some unraveling of the family ties. I was appointed to gather information for The Family Tree, dates of births, marriages and deaths. Modern life being what it is I also had to collect the more reluctantly divulged dates of divorces, adding remarriages and information about step-children and adopted children. I put all the information on my computer – and continue to maintain the master copy as it increases. I literally have the whole family in my hands.
A family tree is an interesting concept. I remember a trip my husband Henry and I took many years ago, before we had moved to the country. One hot summer day when we ere driving through New Hampshire we decided to stop at Canterbury and visit the Shaker Village. Our tour guide, a young man, used us to a walkway that led to the old Meeting House and gave a brief history of their lives, and explained their belief in the simple and pure life, which included embracing celibacy.
The inevitable question is how did a sect which could not produce its own new members to grow and thrive. There were converts, of course, but in 1776 when Mother Ann Lee brought the first Shakers from England to Watervliet, New York (then named Niskayuna), there was no shortage of orphans. Once the Shakers were strong enough to take care of themselves, they admitted those orphans into their communities. They cared for the children and educated them so that if they did not choose the Shaker way at the age of 18, they could leave with a small amount of money and a trade that would enable them to earn their own way.
For about a hundred years children were welcomed into the Shaker communities, until the advent of laws and regulations governing the disposition of orphans slowly put an end to t he practice.
Our tour guide pointed out the long avenue of old maples that stretched down the dusty road. “When children come to live in Canterbury Village, they were each given a tree to plant and care for.” Then the young man stopped and hesitated. He touched the much younger tree beside him. “This is my tree.” We never forgot that young man or that very special moment when we understood that families grow in different ways.
Over the years my husband and I have planted many trees, but in the spring of 1991 we decided the time had come to plant trees that were not only useful or ornamental, but symbolic.
But what kind of tree should we plant? Finally, because we had just begun keeping bees, we decided on the little-leaf linden, which has heart-shaped leaves and flowers that bloom in early summer, filling the air with delicious perfume. These trees are so attractive to honeybees that they are sometimes called bee trees.
On Memorial Day Weekend 1991 we were able to gather our three daughters. Diane, the eldest, brought her two daughters, Tricia and Caitlin, ages 5 and 1. Number 1 son Philip was busy playing golf but sent 10 year old Tracy off with her aunties, Betsy and Kate. Our six official official planters were prepared to dig in.
The girls in order of seniority were to plant their trees just west of our house. Eventually the trees will throw afternoon shade and keep the house cool in the summer.
Since the seedlings the nursery sent were so small we thought the job would be easy. However, we hadn’t taken our girls’ devotion to fashion into consideration. Their trendy sneakers didn’t provide much protection or give them much of an advantage as they tried to drive the spade into the heavy weedy turf and the rocky soil. They stood on the edge of the shovel blade and jumped, hoping their weight would help push the spade into the soil. (What were we thinking?!)
Tracy didn’t even have sneakers. At ten she was very aware of the demands of fashion. Knowing that this was an important day, she wore her patent leather party shoes!
At the age of one, Caitlin was just learning to walk. Although the rule was that each girl had to plant her own tree we made the necessary allowances for Caitlin. Her mother and sister and helped her jockey the shovel. Once her tree seedling was in place she showed excellent technique at filling in the hole with dirt.
Then friends who had brought their children took over the chore of planting the “friendly flowers,” a flat of marigolds around the base of each tree. Our family is not a self-contained entity – it is always reaching out to the community, spreading and reaching out, just as roots and branches do.
The first time Tricia returned to our house she immediately ran to her tree. “How is my tree growing?” At each visit the girls checked their trees and weeded around the base. Since trees grow faster than little girls, Caitlin’s tree already over tops her.
One day I reflected that our family trees are an especially appropriate symbol. My mother’s family is Swedish. My grandparents left their rocky family farms and emigrated from Sweden when they were only teenagers. As I look at our young trees I imagine their roots spreading deep into Heath’s rocky soil, which may not be very different from Swedish farmland; I am reminded of Yggdrasill.
In Norse mythology Yggdrasill is the immortal tree that joins the earth to heaven and the underworld. According to legend, it always has been and always will be. Even at the end of the world it will endure, sheltering a single man and woman in its branches so that they can go forth and repopulate the earth. Yggdrasill is the Guardian Tree, nourishing the animals and birds that live in it, suffering from their demands, but enduring always. Even the dew that drips from its branches is so sweet that bees drink it and make honey.
Our linden trees link us to the past of our forbears and to the future of our grandchildren. They will even feed the bees.
We have moved, and no longer live near the Family Trees, and the young goddesses are very mature and taking care of new trees.