One of my more embarrassing college relationships involved a boy who wrecked my car, while borrowing it to stalk his ex-girlfriend.
He was older, having already left one school under dramatic circumstances. We met in a creative writing class and I liked his romantic backstory, his problems with alcohol, his divorce. I was 19, maybe 20, years old, five feet tall and 100 pounds, small boned with short hair and an endless appetite for attention and drama. He described me as a pixie, a sprite, a wood nymph. I liked this image of myself. I liked the idea of being a wood nymph held safe by a dangerous, solid tree of a man.
One fall night, when his own car was still operational, we took a stoned drive through a park I’d never been been to before. He liked to drive with the heat on and the windows down. It’s wasteful, but try it just once, you’ll see. We parked and took a walk making up stories about the trees in which the trees were fully verbal characters, bound to the ground. We kissed, leaning against a tree for support. “You are a wood nymph,” he whispered into my hair. “I like kissing you here in your element.” As laughably stupid as it sounds now, I’m sure that at the time it sounded very romantic to us both. Drunk on kisses, romance, and actual alcohol I broke free from him and ran through the park hugging trees.
It was the first time I had ever hugged a tree. The next time was in my late 20s in Muir Woods. I worked for a start up that made video games, and we were taken to San Francisco for a launch party. I was a professional writer, on a project that involved launch parties! I was on a glamorous trip, staying at the Ritz! Overcome by the size and beauty of the Redwoods, the excitement of the trip, the thrill of feeling like I was actually successful, the stress of trying to be cool for an entire long weekend, I leaned my head against a redwood and started to cry. “Marta, what are you doing?” someone asked. “You know me, I’m just a hippie tree hugger,” I laughed, ineffectively wrapping my arms around the giant.
That was it for my tree hugging, until recently. A few weeks ago we learned that a large tree in front of our house would be taken down. It is the third tree we’ve lost since we moved in 14 years ago, the last of the trees that was here when we bought the house. It was my son’s favorite. Once, in kindergarten, he asked if he could just stay home “and watch the trees wiggle,” meaning this tree. As much as I wanted to let him do so, I sent him to school.
My son is a hugger. He hugs me, he hugs his friends, he hugs the dog, he hugs his sister, no matter how much she objects, he hugs the tree. Two nights ago, when the no parking signs made it clear the day was close he asked me if I wanted to come outside and hug the tree goodbye. So we did. We hugged the tree, and took a branch, and gathered some leaves. It was his first day of middle school and we were both doing our best to hold it together.
Today, while he was at his third day of middle school, workers came and took down the tree.
If you had told me in my teens or twenties how brief that time would be, I would not have believed it. It seemed to stretch on forever, an endless searching for people to love me, a search for myself. It’s a cliche, but it was not until I had my own children that I began to see how quickly time goes. Trees are supposed to live for hundreds of years. It does not seem too much to ask that one tree could follow my boy on the brief journey from birth to elementary school to middle school and high school, to his own stupid college romances, and eventually his own children.
I never liked the children’s book The Giving Tree. The self sacrificing female tree, the boy who keeps taking and taking and gets away with it … it all cuts a little too close to home for a girl who would loan her car to a guy so he could follow someone else. But today I guess I feel it. Trees have sheltered me throughout my life and I have hugged them three times.
It is my reminder that nothing is permanent, not even the trees.