When we were house-hunting in Wheaton eight years ago, Mike and I had several items on our wish list: a location in the north end close to our church and Wheaton College to make it easy for church family and students to drop by, and rooms large enough to hold a crowd. To be affordable, it would need to be a fixer-upper on a busy street. 320 West Harrison met all our criteria, and the moment we saw it – peeling siding, sagging porch and curling wallpaper notwithstanding – we knew it was home.
Amber had only one criterion, though: trees. Although she was entering college when we moved here, she urged Jordan to “Make sure Mom and Dad don’t buy a house in one of those awful new developments without trees.” She got her wish. Our century-old lot has mature maple, linden and black walnut trees that rise some 50-60 feet into the Midwestern sky.
But the finger-willow tree wasn’t here when we moved in. It was just a skinny sapling when Mike dug it up from our friends’ yard prior to their move to California in ’04. On their way out of town, Nick and Rose stopped by to admire its new location next to the brick patio out back. Mike hoped it would soon provide shade for al fresco meals, but I didn’t share his faith. The three-foot stick came home in a bucket in our trunk; I was sure a tree that tiny would take at least a generation to produce significant shade.
Six years later, however, the Leonovichs’ gift literally towers over our house, its leafy fingers brushing the window next to my desk on the second floor. I have to crane my neck to even see the top of its branches. The Swiss family Robinson have nothing on me; my home office seems suspended in a treetop, my view of the world an Illinois sky overlaid with green lace.
But when I rise from my computer screen to stretch and gaze out at our backyard, I catch sight of a tiny variegated maple deep in the back corner of our lot. When we moved in, our neighbors cautioned us to do everything in our power to keep that little maple alive. It had been planted, they said, in memory of a little boy named William – the son of a former owner, a boy who left this world too soon.
Mike, ever the avid gardener, has taken special care of the “memory maple” in the past eight years: careful pruning, judicious watering, and even consultation with a professional arborist. While healthy and green, the little maple has remained…little. It was a mere seven feet tall when we moved in; photos of our yard provide the proof. It has remained seven feet tall.
So what caused our fragile-looking willow to grow to ten times its size while the sturdy maple looks exactly as it did when we moved in? Is it the angle of the sun or the components of the soil? Could it be as the arborist suggested: that the maple’s proximity to its neighboring black walnut is incompatible with growth? I prefer another explanation: that the maple’s diminutive stature stands in silent tribute to the little boy whose physical growth, too, simply stopped.
Children grow at different rates; so do churches and organizations. A parent, pastor, or president can provide the best oversight possible, and yet things will grow according to their unique design. Can a change of location spur growth? Possibly. We’ve thought of moving the Memory Maple to a new spot in the yard well away from the predatory black walnut.
But why does it need to suffer comparison with Nick and Rose’s fast-growing willow? William’s tree is healthy and green, though small. Let the willow draw the admiration of the summer guests who picnic on our patio. Few will notice the modest little maple, but it’s fulfilling the purpose for which it was planted.
There is a lesson there, I think, for me.