When I was still in my mother’s belly, my parents planted a tree together in the backyard of their new home. They hadn’t even moved in any of their belongings into the house yet, but my mother had insisted: “She is already sprouting her little limbs, Mason! I want her tree to start sprouting, too!”
With both their hands cupped together and full, my parents both dropped a hearty scoop of fresh soil onto the seed. My father patted it down with a shovel he’d borrowed from his dad. My mother gave it its first water using her old iron watering can that had holes rusted out along the sides of the spout, a gift from her grandmother.
“Now our home is complete,” my mother had beamed. “Well, almost,” she corrected with a chuckle, soothing my fetal body with a gentle rub across her stomach, her soiled hands staining her dress brown. My father swore he fell in love with my mother all over again in that moment, telling me about how it had been a perfect afternoon and a perfect sunset and a perfect day to plant my tree.
When I was born, my tree was just about two feet tall, and I was just shy of twenty inches long, so I guess it hadn’t mattered who started growing first; my tree was always going to be ahead of me. My parents named me Elma, after the seedling, so naturally the tree quickly adopted the name, “Elma’s tree” or “my tree”, since before then it had only been referred to as “hers.”
It is a special thing to come into a world with not two, but three, wise beacons dedicated solely to you, for that is what my tree had always been, like a third parent. Although I can’t actually remember (my parents told me the story so many times it feels like I have the memory myself), it is said that my first steps were taken one evening when we were having a family picnic beneath the tree. Apparently, I walked away from my parents, arms outstretched to the living skyscraper, and placed my hands on its crackling bark; I looked up, smiled, and said either, “Mama” or “Elma” (my parents disagreed every time they told the story); and when they tried to bring me in for bath time, I pressed my soft, bubbly cheeks into my tree’s trunk and screamed, crying the entire evening until I’d eventually worn myself into a sorrowful slumber. (In the morning, I’d indicated we go back to the tree immediately for breakfast. Which we did.)
Over the years of my childhood, we’d spent nearly every day out in the yard near the elm tree. My mother and I would read books beneath it; my father would sing me songs, or we’d write our own songs together; and all three of us would play tag in the yard, using its enormous trunk as a shield as we pivoted around it, avoiding the touch of whoever was “it.
Collectively, we were in awe each year as it grew greater and greater. We’d known that elm trees were famous for their expansive branches, their bushy circular canopies large enough to offer a great deal of relief from the sun; but it was an amazing surprise to witness its grandeur in real time, discovering that even in moderate rain, my tree provided us with enough protection from the downpour that we could enjoy an afternoon beneath it without returning home drenched. It was only the big storms that kept us caged behind our living room window, humanely worrying about its wellbeing, as if it were an unstable ship against the rage of rough open water rather than a two-ton giant rooted deep into the ground, Mother Nature herself sprouting from earth.
“That is how you are,” my father would say, wrapping his arms around my ribcage and resting his head on my shoulder.
“Your roots run deep, Elma, like your tree. Not even a storm can take you down,” my mother would add, running her fingers down my golden locks.
As a child, the tree was like a parent to me, but as a teenager, it had became more like a best friend. Despite having no siblings, I was not a lonely girl, and I had plenty of friends; but my tree was always there without the dramatic influence of other teenagers, nor the sovereignty of my mother and father. It had become like a living, breathing journal: it guaranteed unconditional attention, without the judgment and all of the trust. I would go there alone to write my own stories, sing my own poems, and to reveal my most vulnerable secrets that I’d never dared to tell my parents or my friends. Only my tree knew of the tremble in my hand as I gripped its bark when Neal Lucas gave me my first kiss; and only it knew of the ounces of tears I’d shed after he’d disposed of me and gone after Lauren Healer.
The night before I’d left for college, I’d spent my last summer night sleeping beneath my tree, listening to the crickets and promising I’d be back in the winter with plenty of stories to share over a heaping cup of hot cocoa. “You know, you’re old enough to go to college with me,” I’d joked, feeling a little silly, a little embarrassed, but mostly comforted as I cloaked my arms tightly around its trunk.
Unexpectedly, the tree and I were reunited much sooner than winter, and without the stories, nor the hot cocoa. I had only been away for two months when my father had his heart attack, and I was called back home to bury his body with my mother. It’d taken every ounce of her strength to once again cup a pile of dirt in her hands and release it onto the topsoil.
“My tree will keep him safe, Mom,” I’d said through trembling lips, patting my mother’s back, staining her dress brown like she had done when she’d planted the great elm for me all those years ago.
I tried to go back to school after my mother insisted my father wouldn’t have wanted me to give up my education on his account. But when I came back in the winter, all too aware that this should have been my first college visit home to see both of my parents, my neighbor, whom I’d only ever had few and short interactions with, had invited me over for afternoon tea.
“I’m worried about your mother,” Mrs. Westwood had said. “She doesn’t leave that tree’s side.”
That evening on my way home, I’d realized how true Mrs. Westwood’s words were when I saw my mother knelt below the crown of the tree. Even from a distance, it was unmistakable: she was sobbing.
Wrapping my arms around her torso, I pressed my cheeks against her shoulder and made my decision to quit school. “Come on, Mom,” I’d said, lifting her to her feet. “Let’s go back inside.”
My mother had fallen into a depression, so deep that she could barely get herself out of bed most days. Instead, she folded into herself like an unwatered flower, refusing to breathe in the sunshine and bloom again, leaving me with all of the fiscal responsibilities of our life together.
At eighteen-years old and with no college education, there weren’t many high-paying jobs available to me. Thankfully, my family had made friends in the community, and with my father’s passing, some of them extended their help however they could. Mrs. Westwood paid me $10/hour to rake her leaves and help with other miscellaneous chores around the house; she’d bring us vegetables from her garden and homemade meals and canned goods when she could. But most of my earnings came from washing tractors for the Densleys, friends of my father’s.
“I’m sorry, Elma. I can only pay you under the table up to $300 a week. The Mrs. and I just can’t afford to give ya more than that,” Mr. Densley had said, and I was grateful to the moon for it.
But not even the Densleys’ and Mrs. Westwood’s kindness and income could fill the financial void we found ourselves in without my father. By summertime, the bank was breathing a foreclosure down our necks.
“Mother, they’re going to take our house,” I’d pleaded with her, trying to snap her out of her paralysis so she would understand. “Be like my tree, Mom; be strong, please,” I’d begged. Her only response was a dead stare towards the yard. We both knew the house was not what we worried about losing. The tree held more than just memories; now, it was holding my father, too.
But my father had been my mother’s roots. And without him, she didn’t have the strength to be moved, not even by fear.
That August, I tried to bid on our house at the auction, having asked the Densleys and Mrs. Westwood for as much in advance as they could spare, which wasn’t much. And when the winners came forward, an excited middle-aged couple with three children, I, with my near-catatonic mother by my side, implored for their mercy.
“Please, my father is buried beneath that tree.” I’d said.
Though the couple had shared an sympathetic exchange, their decision was clear before they voiced it.
My mother had made it one week after we lost our house before her heart broke into two unbeatable pieces. The morning I’d found her cold in her bed was the first day in my life that I’d found myself entirely alone: without my father, without my mother, and without my tree.
It was in that moment that my life severed in two. In an instant, there became a definitive Before, and a definitive After. Grief-stricken, I decided to leave my hometown, using every last penny I’d had left to hop on the first train away from there, without even a wave goodbye to my old elm. I thought it’d be easier for me to move forward from trauma without constant reminders of it everywhere. And for awhile, I’d been right.
The train had taken me to a city thirty miles away, where there was not even one elm tree to salt my open wounds. I’d found a job, working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, where I was offered boarding and free meals if I agreed to work extra for them. My mentor, John Porter, was a kind man, but he knew no other way than hard work, and that is what he demanded of me. With nothing else in my life, I had no problem giving it to him.
After four years of melting metal, I’d learned that metal is not the only thing that can be reshaped into something new entirely. The day Mr. Porter had officially declared me a master of metal, relinquishing me of my apprenticeship, his son, William, had asked for my hand in marriage. When I'd said yes, it felt like my heart had fused itself into something I hadn’t felt in years, taking on the resemblance of one that had never been broken.
It took years for William and I to conceive our first child, but when I was twenty-six years old, he, thirty-two, we received the news of my pregnancy. William was the happiest I’d ever seen him, and I’d done my best to match his enthusiasm – I was truly happy – but something within me began to ache, like the nagging pain of a phantom limb. I had only his family to share my happiness with, and none of mine. I began having dreams; dreams of a tree burning; dreams of the sun setting over its ashes; dreams of my parents, not planting a seed, but burying a corpse; dreams calling me home.
“I need to go back,” I’d told William.
The good man he was, William didn’t hesitate or even bother to ask me why. He’d been given pieces of my past over the years, and I could sense he was hungry for the whole picture. Moving back to my hometown would grant him that, even if I was unsure of what it might grant me.
During the train ride, I felt my baby, though still small, kicking and writhing restlessly, and it wasn’t until we’d arrived that the movements ceased. Grabbing my hand and squeezing it gently, William had asked, “You ready?”
Despite my uncertainty, I led him there anyways.
The place that used to be my home was almost unrecognizable without the majestic presence of my elm tree in the yard. Its absence was louder than the sunrise at dawn, removing all air from my lungs. I could see myself running to the large bare patch of grass that my tree’s massive crown had made forever lighter than the rest, my legs giving in, and my eyes releasing the last seven years directly into the soil; but before my legs could move, before my dam could break, a voice drove me out of my somber reverie.
“Elma? Is that you?”
IWilliam’s arm slid protectively around my waist. In front of us stood a young man, younger than William and I, whom I had no name for. The look on my face must have given him my answer.
“It is you,” he spoke again. “My father said you would be back. You probably don’t remember me. I’m his son, Jacob.”
And just like that, the younger face of the man before me resurfaced in my mind, standing idly behind his mother and father who’d just purchased my home.
“He left something for you,” Jacob said, tossing his thumb over his shoulder towards the front door.
Like a child searching for approval, I'd looked to William. His arm still wrapped around me, he nodded his head forward as if to say, It’s okay, I’m here.
Walking through the house I grew up in was like walking back in time. I trembled at the unfamiliar scent of the home, no longer the cinnamon and orange aroma of my mother or the ethereal, pine of my father; but the floors were scratched in all the right places, reminding me of the times I’d dragged my wagon through the house in an attempt to bring all of my toys out to the yard in one trip. I could still here my mother shrieking, “You’re scratching the floors, Elma!” I squeezed William’s hand tighter.
Jacob led us into what used to be my room, and seeing it, being in it, brought all of the tears I’d managed to hold onto up to the surface, their silent and powerful stream sliding down my face.
The room was empty, except for a single piece of furniture: a rocking chair.
“My father was a carpenter. He said he’d never seen such a beautiful tree in his life than that old elm tree that was out there; it was one of the reasons he went after this house in the first place,” Jacob chuckled softly, trying to lighten the clearly dim mood. “This is the first thing he ever made with it,” he pointed to the chair. “But he’d refused to sell it. Somehow, he knew: it belonged to you.”
My hand flew to my mouth; William squeezed me tighter.
“That’s not all he left you,” Jacob added, leaving the two of us alone in the room for a moment. When he returned, he was holding a cloth bag. “These are for you, too.”
Somewhere thirty miles away from the city where I met your father, the sun was dipping into the horizon, bleeding red into the evening sky. You were still in my belly, kicking and flailing your arms as I bent down to meet your father’s gaze.
“You ready?” Your father asked me. Déjà vu crept up my spine, sending goosebumps down my skin. Though my eyes were wet, I was certain when I nodded.
We both dropped a hearty handful of soil onto the seed. Your father patted the dirt flat with a shovel we’d made together, and I gave it its first water using a brand-new iron watering can I’d made myself. It was not a perfect day, but it had felt like a perfect ending. We hadn’t even moved any of our belongings into our house yet.
Except for your old rocking chair that we sat out on the porch, where it had the most wonderful view.
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Hi Anne, You write such beautiful stories of love. I loved the way this story felt so full circle. My heart wanted to hug this family so tightly. The way you portrayed pregnancy as this magical journey alongside the tree was incredible. I also loved the way you gave these characters a happy ending. I think my favorite part of this story was the way you described the impact of the father and the way he held the family in place. Nice job!
Amanda, your comments always make me smile 😊 I struggled to write this so it means a lot to me that you like it. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!!
Anne Marie, A beautiful story told by an equally beautiful voice. A really nice piece of writing!
Thank you, Anna! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
Great story! this was my fav line. ‘But my father had been my mother’s roots. And without him, she didn’t have the strength to be moved, not even by fear.’ - I planted a fruit tree for each baby. One tree almost died -I was very worried- but we brought it back around. I don’t know if I could leave these three trees, they are as you say - integral to the family.
Thanks for reading, Marty! That was one of my favorite lines, too. We all plant our roots in someone. I hadn't thought of planting a tree for a child, until now, but I'm wishing I had. I've always been in awe of trees, especially here in California surrounded by redwoods. Though I would be very worried, too, if one almost died 😧 Thanks for your comments and taking the time with this!
This story builds at such a nice pace. From the idyllic childhood with her parents to when everything comes crashing down (rather unexpectedly) to Elma forging her own life with her husband and child. I love the detail of the rocking chair. When I was pregnant, it was the only thing I really wanted. To have a piece of furniture where I would bond with my baby. The chair was reserved for nursing and storytelling so in my mind this is what happened with Elma and her baby. The story reminds us that while we may be mourning, life continues and ...
Hi Wally, thank you for your kind words, and for mentioning the pacing. I really struggled with the pacing; Did you ever get a rocking chair? I was gifted one when I was pregnant, and it was exactly as your described: a bonding space while I nursed my daughter. "Life continues" is the exact message I wanted to send; so glad you received it. Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment!
I always look forward to reading your stories. They are so expertly crafted. BTW, Elma in Turkish means apple, so since this is an origin story, of sorts, it was really the perfect name for the MC on so many levels
You are so kind, Wally, thank you. I had no idea about the name, but it felt special and suiting from the start.
This works on so many levels. Its timelessness, our bond with nature, with birth, death and everything in between, our connections to each other. I enjoyed reading this so much, I felt myself loving Elma's tree and the journey. And when she was gifted with the rocking chair, I actually gasped. Beautiful.
Hi Susan, thank you so much for your kind words. I'm so happy this worked for you, and gave you such a genuine reaction! I really felt like I was listening and waiting for Elma to reveal her story to me. It was a unique writing experience since it is not the kind of story I usually write. Thank you again for taking the time to read and comment!
I liked some of the themes/imagery in this one! It was interesting how she went from trees, grass and dirt to metal and blacksmithing, and then transitioned to a kind of fusion of the two. A touching story and enjoyable read!
Hey Edward, yeah the blacksmithing was inspired by my dad who is a goldsmith. I've always found the trade interesting and it seemed like something a good fit for a story where relationships with nature are prominent. I also felt it was a suiting metaphor, the way you can take metal and reshape it into something new. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!
Ahhh. It got me in the end, the full circle when she and her new husband plant the seed, and before that, the rocking chair. I honestly thought it was going in a more generic direction (like, they'd return and find the home for sale and purchase it or whatever) so this was a sweet and warm twist to that. (And, probably more realistic.) Honestly, one of the little details that got me was when she watered the seedling with the new iron watering can she made herself. Just a really great example of how life can go on and change, without losing t...
Hey Lindsay, yay, I'm glad the ending wasn't generic and was somewhat unexpected. I have a bad habit of being cliche, so that was a lovely thing to hear! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!
This was so emotional! I really like that Elma managed to keep a little bit of the tree with her, but still, how heartless was that carpenter to cut it down after hearing how much it meant to them!? You definitely pulled on my heartstrings with that. But I guess at least Elma had someone with her to support her, and the idea of the cycle starting again is really nice. Great job!
Thanks for reading, Daniel! I did consider the carpenter's decision to cut down the tree even after learning about Elma's father. Considering his own passion for carpentry and how much he coveted the tree for its wood, it seemed like the most realistic choice. I didn't think the carpenter was heartless, that's why he left the chair for her, but he also had his own story and his own life wherein which his choices were driven by his desires and his work. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment! Good luck this week!
That's a good point. Perhaps I was a little too harsh on the carpenter. Although that would suggest you did a fantastic job making me feel emotionally invested in Elma's story. Good luck!
Very enjoyable :) What really works here is the repetition: both generations planting a seed, though it's different parents; both times an iron watering can is used, though it's a different can; both times a child's birth coincides with a tree planting; etc. This reinforces cycles and patterns, which fits well with the theme of life and death. The personification of the first elm is sweet, and relatable, like binding with a pet. It's a symbiotic relationship between human and plant. The death of the mother - sad. Also a little frightening...
Whew! Such a relief that you, and a few other readers, have found any of this enjoyable! Thank you for pointing out what works - I was really looking for some helpful feedback, because I felt a little lost in this one. I was definitely going for patterns and generational cycles. But with only 3,000 words, and a story that covers several generations, occurring over several years, I was really struggling with how to pace this, hence why details were scarce and the story jumped around a bit quickly. That is also why Elma's reaction to the rock...
Great story, Anne Marie! I'm also glad you decided to try something new this week. How to say which parts I liked best without summarizing the whole story? Great first paragraphs; I loved the imagery of them planting the tree and how it is repeated at the end. Also, it was quite moving when she returned to the house, with the bare patch of grass where the tree used to be and also the part with the "floors were scratched in all the right places". I felt these tied her back to the past nicely. I like the "your old rocking chair", implying tha...
Hi Francois - thank you! It is challenging and a little scary to try something new. By the end of it, I wasn't even sure if I had anything worth sharing. But I'm happy to say I've had a pleasant experience with this community, so I felt safe leaving it here in hopes of some helpful feedback. Your comment validates this, and makes me so happy that any of this "came alive" for you. :) What a wonderful compliment! This was a longer piece than I usually write, as well, so it means a lot to me that you took the time to read it and leave such a th...
Hello there my lady of letters. So glad you were chartering your little boat out into waters new this week. I love the imagery and symbolism of this; I think the most moving section is that patch of lighter grass to connote loss. Sometimes saying less is so much more impactful and you've definitely got that here: the impact of the loss of the elm and all it stood for is just so huge here. And then, in a way that is so beautiful and not cloying at all, you bring us to that moving symbol: the rocking chair. This story is so moving as without...
Hello again sister scribbler! This comment means so much to me! I agonized over this - those were some rough unknown waters!! After going over it for days, I honestly couldn't tell if even a piece of it was salvageable and almost trashed it 1900 words in, so if any of it was moving and beautiful and all the things you said, then I am content! What was tough about this week was I loved ALL of the prompts, especially the library one you responded to, and I had ideas for them all. I'd thought I'd get maybe 3 submissions in! (I'm about to have a...
I've written on the your reply to mine too but just to say I think it was a great call to just focus on this one story; it delivers like 4!😍Holiday greay by the way; even I got a Nikolaus sack from my girls so that was unexpectedly lovely.( I've a new candle to light my stories on their way.)
This is such a wonderful and moving story! I love the narrator’s voice throughout this story, and you really managed to convey the grief that Elma feels. Using the tree as not only a parent, but a best friend and a resting place for the father made her loss and pain have such a monument effect on me. Your writing style really makes the characters come to life. Overall amazing story, great work!
Thank you so much for reading and your kind comments, Fiona. I stressed over this story, because this voice was so new for me, I didn't quite know what I was doing. I'm really glad it worked for you and you enjoyed it! Thanks again for your time!
I'm trying something completely new with this; it was very much out of my comfort zone, which was both exhausting and exciting. Open to hearing what worked and what didn't :)