The Giving Tree

Author Francine Prose never considered herself a tree hugger. Until she found love in her own backyard. Here, she pays tribute to her gorgeous crab apple and a relationship that has weathered many storms.

Photo by Howie Michels

At the beginning of Break of Day, perhaps the most beautiful book ever written about a mother-daughter relationship, the French novelist Colette quotes a letter that her mother, Sidonie, wrote at the age of 76 in response to an invitation to visit. Sidonie refuses, with regret, because, though she is eager to see her adored daughter, her rare pink cactus is about to bloom, an event that happens only once every four years. “I am already a very old woman, and if I went away when my pink cactus is about to flower, I am certain I shouldn’t see it flower again.”

I’ve always loved this passage, but I didn’t really understand it when I first read it as a young woman. Only now that I am older, only now when I refuse any invitation, no matter how attractive, to leave home during the precious days when the crab-apple tree in my backyard is in full bloom—only now do I understand Sidonie’s letter.

As a child, I never imagined that I would fall in love with a tree. A husband and children? Maybe. But it never crossed my mind that I would lose my heart to the tree whose gnarled branches I see from my window this very minute.

There were several handsome trees in the yard of the Brooklyn house where I grew up. But the only ones I registered were the fig tree and the rose of Sharon, and that was because they attracted great, terrifying swarms of bees. The other trees grew leaves, turned colors, lost their leaves, and sprouted new ones without my much caring or paying attention.

Later on there were times, I confess, when I used the term tree hugger to describe a sort of person I was very sure I wasn’t.

But now, it seems, I have become one.

The tree was already there, in the middle of the backyard, when my husband and I and our eldest son, then a newborn, moved into our Hudson Valley farmhouse 30 years ago. I have no idea who planted the tree, nor how long it had been growing. Yet from the day we moved in, its presence was impossible to ignore. The tree was simply too beautiful.

It’s true that the tree is at its showiest and most spectacular in the spring, when its delicate white blossoms, veined with a deep pink, first burst into bloom. But I also love those days, just before the flowers appear, when it is surrounded by a kind of aura—a red haze you can see only in certain lights and at certain hours.

It’s with some regret, but also fascination, that I watch the blossoms fade and the tree turn green incrementally, day by day, a yellow green that darkens as the summer progresses.

I have often wondered if the person who planted the tree knew that its position—sheltered by the house on one side and by a forest on the other—would ensure that it stayed leafy long after the other trees in the neighborhood went bare, or that the curled brown autumn leaves, protected from the wind, would cling past the first snowfall that coats the branches with a tracery of white and then drop, revealing a mosaic of dark gleaming bark and furry gray green lichen.