My Life in Maple Trees

Reflecting on faithful companions and deep-rooted connections.

Illustration by Dola Sun

Last summer, I learned that the beloved maple tree in our front yard had brittle cinder fungus and was rotting from the bottom up. Nearly the entire base had turned black, and, worse, the bark disintegrated to ash when you poked it.

My husband and I knew our tree was in trouble. We got a quote from the tree removal company where a friend worked, and decided to take it down in the fall. I dreaded the thought, so I did the most logical thing: Pretended it wasn’t happening and went about my summer. Maybe fall wouldn’t come. Maybe the fungus would disappear. I used all the magical thinking I could muster, including simply not scheduling its removal.

But the guy from the tree removal company texted me one October evening, asking if the following day would be good for the crew to come by and take our maple down. I was sitting at my cousin’s kitchen table in Corpus Christi, Texas, when I got the message. One clear emotion surfaced: Panic.

“Sorry, I’m out of town. Maybe next week?” I texted back. “OK, I’ll touch base then,” he replied. “Don’t,” I wanted to say, but instead sent a thumbs up emoji.

I thought of my tree back home and tried to picture my yard without it. For the last 17 years, it had been part of my house’s character. Daffodils sprouted under its shade in April, and in the summer I hung overflowing baskets of impatiens from its sturdy lower limbs. It provided a golden fall show before shedding its leaves and inviting snow to cake its branches.

My maple could be lush or it could be stark—but it was always there, an ever-changing piece of permanence. And the life it drew in! Not just birds and squirrels, but my own children, who delighted in being able to climb it, my always-eager son helping himself up a little by dragging a plastic patio chair up the driveway for a boost to its lowest branch.

Soon, like so many maple trees in my life, it would be gone.

We measure our lives in all kinds of ways. By the places we’ve lived. The people we’ve dated. The pets we’ve had. The jobs we’ve worked. Why do I measure mine in maple trees?

Growing up, we had five big maple trees in our backyard. One was a silver maple—I remember the silvery underside of its leaves—and the rest, I think, were sugar maples. The story we’ve heard is that our dad went across the street to the woods, dug up a bunch of saplings, dragged them back to our yard, and planted them. My mom, who still lives in the house, thinks that’s accurate, but she also seems to remember a neighbor giving them one of the trees. The point is, there were no maples on the lot in 1958, when my parents built in this budding new Ft. Wright suburb. And then there were. And they grew and grew, as maples do.

There’s a photo I love from 1964 of my parents and three oldest siblings standing in the driveway by our Volkswagen bug. Several of the tiny maples are visible in the background. By the time I came along in 1974—the seventh and final child—the maples were mature. Grand. Gorgeous. In the fall, their yellow and orange leaves cut against a blue sky in dizzying beauty. I remember my mom saying, “I think this might be what heaven is like,” as she took in the riot of gold. And once the leaves fell, they became our crunchy playground.

Maples have incredible root systems, and I still remember how the knobby tentacles felt under my bare feet as I walked through our patchy grass. There was so much shade that the grass had trouble growing. Twigs constantly littered the yard, which were perfect for impromptu wands, microphones, or swords. I didn’t understand that the helicopters raining down each May were our trees’ way of ensuring the survival of their species. I just knew it meant school was almost out. To this day, I pick one up and I’m in fifth grade again.

Undoubtedly, my favorite maple was the one at the outermost edge of the backyard that we called “the climbing tree.” It had the perfect low branch for practicing gymnastics, like pullovers and hip circles. And the spacing of its branches was just right, easy to grab and pull to wind up high above the yard, where I could safely perch under its generous canopy. I think if that tree were still alive today and I stood at the lowest branch, muscle memory would kick in and I’d know exactly where to reach.

But the climbing tree is gone. Every single one of those maples is gone. The first one to go was the silver maple, sometime in the late 1980s. It was close to the house and in the way of the deck my dad had long dreamed of building. Next was the climbing tree. You’d think I would have been sad, but I was a teenager by then, eager to distance myself from little kid activities like tree climbing. And then the final three went, one by one. They each had their issues, I suppose. My mom doesn’t quite remember. My dad— the keeper of family data—likely would, but he’s been gone nearly 10 years.

My mom has since planted a few ornamental trees, but shade is scant now. It’s full sun and open space in the backyard. The grass is so thick, you can’t believe it. And when we gather on the deck on Mother’s Day, there are no helicopters in sight. I guess the maples didn’t carry their genetic material forward after all, despite those thousands and thousands of seeds over the decades.

Before the tree removal crew got to my house on that warm October morning, I stood in my front yard, staring up at my maple’s just-turning leaves, unable to stop my tide of tears. It was the maple, and it wasn’t the maple.

Two days before, I had watched my mom say goodbye to her 89-year-old brother, my Uncle Jim. That’s why we had been in Texas. My sisters and I had taken her there to see him one last time. He was declining. And though she wasn’t exactly declining herself, she was 87, with tired bones. This would likely be her final trip to Corpus Christi, a spot far away and hard to get to from Cincinnati.

That last afternoon in Texas, she walked out of his room at the nursing home in tears, which is not a common sight. My mom is warm, but not sentimental or prone to emotional spectacles. But this was it—her last time seeing a sibling, and possibly also a sister-in-law and the many nieces and nephews she’d sometimes looked after until her brother moved his family to this south Texas beach town in the late 1970s. He left town at the height of our maple trees. Decades of visits followed, but this was the final moment. A Frank Sinatra song playing out before us.

My own final moment with my maple felt like practice for future goodbyes. I pressed my hand into its dying bark. “I’m so sorry,” I told my tree. “You have been a good tree. You’ve shaded my house and garden. You’ve let my children climb you. You’ve done all the things a maple should do. You will be remembered.”

I asked my husband to deal with logistics when the crew arrived and left to go running. I just couldn’t watch.

Our maple was gone within an hour, and my uncle was gone within a month. My mom and siblings and I told funny stories about him and looked at old pictures. Because I was writing this piece, I also asked everyone what they remembered about our maples. Those stories came, too, raining down all around me. It turns out the helicopters had done their job after all.

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