Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Birthday Tree

It's Saturday morning, the first day of November, All Saints' Day.

The maple tree in front of my house is bright red. Not a rusty fall sort of red, but scarlet--a red that fills the bay window and turns the air in the living room pink. Parents of trick or treaters stopped to admire the color yesterday. The tree and the blue sky curving above it smiled benignly on the witches, superheroes, and firemen climbing my front stairs for Tootsie Rolls and Mary Janes.

In our family that tree is called The Birthday Tree, specifically, Kris's Birthday Tree. Kris, the first baby in our family, was born on a grey and rainy All Saints' Saturday twenty-two years ago. He was born at home, with a midwife, in a house that we had purchased and moved into just a month earlier. On the day of his birth, the house sheltered us, a cocoon around this new mother, new father, vulnerable infant. The next day dawned brilliant, clear and cold, and we saw for the first time the splendor of this maple tree, displayed, it seemed, just for us, a celebration of our little Kristoffer.

The tree's boughs are close enough to the ground to inspire climbing. During the summer, a couple of neighbor kids dragged a box found in an alley somewhere to the parkway in front of our house and used it to get themselves up to those first branches, so they could sit there, superior, surveying the stop sign, the intersection, the sidewalks. When our kids were small, Lon would lift them onto that low bough and stand beneath, ready to catch them if they fell, ready to help them down when they got bored.

Ten years ago, when construction trucks tore up our street, laid new sewers, and then repaved it, the tree took a bad hit. Carelessly, when no one seemed to be looking, some random piece of equipment chunked away an eighteen-inch circle on the street side of the tree trunk. I called the town forestry department. I don't know if they came out with emergency medicine for the wound. The leaves seemed thinner the next couple of summers, but the tree came back. The scar is ugly. The bark that thickened around the exposed vascular tissue of the tree is crude and gnarly. But the tree's canopy is full, deep green in the summer and celebration red on the last days of October and the first days of November.

The birthday boy called earlier this morning--earlier than I expected to hear from him today. Halloween on a Friday night means great parties for twenty-somethings. But he had awakened to an emergency: his computer wouldn't turn on. With two weeks to go on the one-year warranty, this is a good time to have this problem. I went to the internet to find customer support and turned Kris over to his sister for a happy birthday conversation. By the time I had information, Kris had figured otu what was wrong. The laptop's battery needed charging. Connected to a power source, it was fine--ready to play music so that its owner could go back to sleep.

A boy still needs his mother, I guess. We all need each other. The maple's leaves nourish the tree, and even after the leaves are shed, the tree will live on through the winter and bud again in the spring. Our lives nourish each other's and make each other's lives possible. Riches and complexity of thought and feeling come from those who have gone before and from lives all around us.

I read two nourishing stories in this morning's New York Times. After weeks and weeks of reading mostly election news--some blatantly partisan, some flatly balanced and blind to objective truth, the vivid human emotion in these stories was a relief. One was about medics and an Army doctor fighting to keep a bleeding man alive after a shrapnel attack on their post in the wilds of Afghanistan. The other told about opera-going Supreme Court justices, liberal and conservative, awed at meeting Leontyne Price at a National Endowment for the Arts luncheon in her honor. Very different settings. Life, death and violence in the first, the recollection of artistry subtly portraying these things in the other.

Dare I quote Studs Terkel who died yesterday? Or my sainted husband who loved to satirize the checkered-shirt Chicago icon: "Oh, the humanity . . . the humanity!"

Saints, a procession through the ages, of people sanctified and made holy, growing up and growing old, bleeding and dying for each other, giving life to new generations on God's good and fragrant earth.