The Family Trees

by Elaine Greene Weisburg

In elementary school my class was told that a troop of Campfire Girls would be formed if enough of us were interested. The idea of woodcraft and especially of learning to identify trees and birds was thrilling to me. But I was the one girl in the fourth grade who raised her hand and so the only trees I would know remained those stunted volunteers in the empty lots dotted around our neighborhood near the ocean in Queens. Although our treeless property was edged by waist-high privet, and rambling roses grew thickly around our front porch, I felt deprived of more ambitious landscaping.

The trees in the empty lots, which put forth dubious little fruits, rose out of a thick undergrowth of poison ivy, goldenrod, and ragweed. They were afflicted every summer with tent caterpillars which spread their filthy black-spotted gauzy-white tents wherever the branches formed a crotch. I tried not to look at them.

Some twenty-five years later when my husband and I acquired an old waterside cottage at the other end of Long Island, I finally had some lovable trees of my own. The best was a large weeping willow on the southwest side of our half-acre, high on a bank facing a saltwater cove. The sturdy branches started low and formed a sort of spiral staircase, a perfect climbing tree for our two young sons and their friends. One summer August had been particularly hot and muggy but on Labor Day, suddenly–as though a switch had been flipped–the air cleared and a fresh breeze blew. I walked outside to find the willow tree filled with gleeful little boys, five or six of them. A wave of euphoria swept over me that I can still recapture.

The weeping willow is a fast-growing tree with a relatively short life span and our specimen is long gone, but an even older tree, a white mulberry, still survives down on our beach. A friend who collects vintage local postcards gave us one with a 1906 postmark that shows our shoreline with the Long Island Railroad tracks still in use–a spur from Bridgehampton shut down in the 1930s. On the postcard the mulberry with its three equal-size trunks is already mature. In 1985 Hurricane Gloria blew down one of the trunks and in 1991 Hurricane Bob did the same thing.

Another of Bob’s victims was an old wild cherry street tree outside our picket fence and we went to some trouble and expense to turn it into lumber. We wired an old license plate to the fallen tree and on it I painted a note to the village cleanup crew to leave it for us to haul it away. Then I called in a favor from a superstar local contractor about whom I had written an appreciative passage in a House Beautiful architecture story. For a fair fee he removed the tree to a sawmill, returned the rough planks to us, and showed us how to prevent warping during their storage in an outbuilding behind our house. A few years later he fetched the seasoned wood to be planed and then it sat in the shed for another twenty years, awaiting a suitable project. At last, two years ago, a cabinetmaker turned our cherry wood into a beautiful new dining table that easily seats ten in the nearby summerhouse of my elder son. We all treasure our unique family connection with this piece of furniture.

The shapely buckeye inside the fence near the front porch came to us in the mid-1970s as a stick in a clay pot. It was a gift from William Flemmer III, head of the Princeton Nurseries renowned for developing a disease-free elm tree. I was in Princeton to interview him for a story. At work William Flemmer dressed like an outdoorsman–Robert Redford in the Africa movie–with a grafting knife in his belt. When we drove around his planting fields he hopped out of his Jeep to demonstrate the art of the graft. When I asked him whether I could plant a horse chestnut seedpod from a near neighbor’s property and achieve germination, Mr. Flemmer offered to give me a healthy buckeye sapling from the same arboreal family. That became the tree that keeps me company on summer mornings while I sip my caffe-latte on the front porch.

When I brought the sapling home and dug it in, the tip reached my knee. A year later, under my motherly care, it was hip high, then it reached my waist, my shoulder, and now stands at about 25 feet. I thanked Mr. Flemmer for the baby tree with a recording of north-eastern birdcalls—his wife’s suggestion when I phoned for advice. Trees and birds go together: I felt the buckeye was validated only after I saw a bird perched on a branch.

Our latest new tree is a red maple planted a few years ago. It replaces an unlovely Norway maple that shaded our car every summer and was a place to lean bikes, but several limbs began to look ready to hit the house in a storm and no one ever loved it anyway. Members of the family voted variously for the successor and I finally settled on a maple that turns red in autumn after neighbor Jon said the fall color would make the whole street happy.

I always look forward to watching the maple turn red in our yard. When I looked at it the other day I wondered how many more times I would see it transform itself… but why dwell on that. 


Elaine Greene Weisburg for some fifty years was a writer and editor at Seventeen, Esquire, House & Garden and House Beautiful and free-lanced widely for the New York Times and other magazines.