My husband descends from a pioneering family that settled in the small village near our current home. Immigrating from the Alsace region of France and Germany in the early 1800’s they were part of a small pack of persevering souls who established the quaint town that’s now more tourist destination than residential. A haven for those who relish the opportunity to travel back in time, shop, nosh and recall simpler days.
We knew snippets of family history from my mother-in-law, Maxine, but believe the surface-level storytelling and limited sharing was the result of embedded, gender norms – favoring the retelling of patriarchal tidbits of family history much more than the matriarchal. Sigh. It was his mother’s family – not his father’s – who literally blazed a pioneering trail but her legacy and history were sidelined as less important. How irksome; but that’s not the point – at least not at the moment.
Maxine’s great grandparents arrived on the plains and brought traditions from their wooded homeland. Evergreen trees were plentiful in heavily forested Alsace and one of most endearing stories was the tale of the painstaking transport of three small evergreen saplings across the Atlantic. I can imagine some arguments about this – a sentimentality vs. practicality tussle – but how lovely that sentiment won, I say.
We often wondered if all the human travelers in the family made it to America safely, because the ‘tree tale’ was more vibrantly recounted. Records are spotty, at best, even with the dynamic search engine tools like Ancestry.com. At least three family members – the husband and wife and one child – arrived safely and a few cousins, it seems.
Piecing together facts from decaying photo albums and journals, along with the family Bible yielded one fantastic find. A simple red frame home that still stands in our tiny community was the homestead. Built by the grandparents, three times over, and identifiable for years as theirs because of the three stalwart and regal trees that stood in their modest front yard. Evergreens.
Maxine, before she passed, acknowledged the ‘little red house’ built by her distant elders but she never mentioned the story behind the trees. A local historian helped to fill those gaps using records long forgotten about the family. The sweet crimson structure still stands – now converted into retail space. Sadly, only two of the three trees remain. One wonders what happened to the third.
Discoveries about family history can come in large lumps or in tiny waves. Learning about the house and the trees was like the latter – ancestral echoes that, once summoned together, created a spectacular story. If only we’d drilled down more with Maxine to better understand the oral history, to supplement the archival tidbits stitched together.
Time was not on our side; she passed AND years passed and it wasn’t until we bought a nearby home that the a-ha moments arrived. Of all the remarkable aspects, one especially stands out and it’s about the three trees.
Across many years of married life, we’ve lived in several homes – fixing them up and moving on – but with heavy hearts each time. As much as we knew we’d miss certain features of each home, the greatest lament always involved saying goodbye to beloved trees.
Without knowing it (at least in any conscious way) every home we’ve ever lived in was improved upon, landscape-wise, with the addition of three or more trees.
Most received a cluster of three evergreen trees for decorative screening, shade, or wind control. Often we planted more than three but always three together, somewhere on each lot.
There’s more. When our daughter was born, we wanted to instill a love of nature and conservation and decided an annual tradition of planting a ‘birthday tree’ (yes, an evergreen) would do the trick. And we did. As she grew, we finagled and fretted every spring…where will the next tree go? An homage to family, in ways we never suspected. Three trees, please.