I thought I’d never walk down that block again. Why would I? Everything I’d ever deemed worthwhile was gone, including my childhood home and both of my parents. This was the block I’d grown up on and where I continued to live for almost two decades of my first marriage. I’d convinced myself that there was only sadness, loss and pain on Penn Street—until I saw the towering maple tree in front of my old house.
It took me right back to two decades ago, when the young sapling was planted by the city in an effort to beautify this otherwise concrete Brooklyn jungle called Williamsburg. The skinny, immature sapling was all of seven feet tall and provided no shade, but it was a tree and it was ours. Instructions for its care were included on the attached tag, and there was definitely potential.
My baby brother Yoely, who was around nine years old at the time and the youngest in our family of ten, immediately adopted this new member of the clan and assumed the responsibility for its well-being. Watering the tree became part of his daily routine as he waited for the bus in the morning, and its gradual growth brought him much joy. His love of plant life and foliage had previously convinced my parents to put in a vegetable garden, a dogwood tree, some rose bushes and other shrubs in the backyard, which were faithfully maintained by the gardener. But the maple tree became known as “Yoely’s tree.”
As we all grew up and moved on, the tree continued to grow and mark the changing seasons. By then the tree was as tall as the four-story brownstone, and almost as tall as the old oak tree next door. The tree was now part of my mother’s morning routine. An early riser, she would look out the window each morning as the sun came up, and the stately maple became a symbol of her growing family and a reminder of Yoely, who was now a young father living overseas.
Five years ago, in preparation for our third family Shabbaton, we compiled a newsletter by and for the family. With Tu B’Shvat just around the corner, my mother reminisced about her special connection to Yoely’s tree, and how watching its transformation over the course of the seasons was a reminder of the cycle of life.
None of us imagined that this would be her last Shabbaton, and that her words would become a lasting legacy. Less than a year later, my 65-year-old mother died tragically after being hit by a bus as she crossed the street. Reeling from our shock and loss, the tree became a symbol of strength and hope. There wasn’t a dry eye at her freshly dug grave when her youngest child, Yoely, spoke about it as a metaphor for the beautiful branches on the tree that had been planted and nurtured by our mother: her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
With my mother’s fourth yahrtzeit coming up, the feelings of grief hit me anew. They seem to come automatically with the changing of the seasons, even as I attempt to alleviate them by enjoying the fall foliage as my mother did. But this time I needed something more, which led me to visit one of our elderly cousins who’d lived on the block forever and knew my mother and her extended family intimately. Spending time with her was priceless as she reminisced about people and places that were now gone. Walking me out the door and down the front steps with hugs and kisses, I suddenly came face to face with the tree.