On a Sunday afternoon, my parents and I visited my grandparents who lived in the same house where my mother grew up. We ate our dinner at 2PM and then, predictably, all the women and my dad wanted to go for a walk. Grandpa was determined to watch the game on TV, so I’m fairly sure that Dad felt a responsibility to stay with Grandpa and missed the exercise.
We walked all the way uptown, as my grandmother called it, through neighborhood after neighborhood of modest two-story homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A parade of old trees shadowed the sidewalks, which were blanketed by their colored, speckled, and spotted leaves.The garlands of branches overhead, the twinkling of sunlight in patches through those branches, and the crunchy path under our feet promised to launch me into a magical world.
Then I noticed that some of the trees, the ones with the symmetrical leaves, not the knobby turkeys of the oaks and maples, wilted drastically. The leaves were pale, odd-looking, not merely turning their customary autumn yellow.
I asked why the trees were so thirsty. Grandma looked sad. I’d never seen her sad before. Her Mrs. Claus face always beamed at me. Mom and Aunt Alice mirrored her unhappy expression. Grandma said that the trees had gotten the new plague, Dutch Elm Disease.
In the weeks to follow, I remember hearing a lot of talk about the devastation of the elm trees in Kalamazoo from this disease. I thought the disease local to our city because the city’s main ethnic population was Dutch–like much of my family. Reasoning that the trees were Dutch, too, I figured that’s why they were susceptible to this illness.
I believe that the afternoon of that family walk I came down with pink eye. I remember my eyes were sore and tired. As soon as we got back to Grandma’s, I fell asleep and Dad carried me to the car. The next morning my eyes wouldn’t open and I couldn’t go to my first grade class. Instead, my mother had to bathe my eyes with a solution several times a day for a week.
Over the years, we took walks after many dinners, and considering the strange ways of memory, I can’t be certain that my pink eye occurred on the same day I saw the trees dying, but it feels that way to me.
Did my eyes really suffer after seeing so many trees in distress? Or did I only associate the two events later?
8 responses to “Dutch-American Elms”
Thanks for sharing these poignant reflections. I too recall the death of elm trees, and it was a sad time. Regarding memory….who knows? As a good memoirist, you act in good faith. What more can the reader ask?
So tragic to see all those beautiful trees go. I have such an affinity for elms because of it.
Did you think that, perhaps, your eyes got sick from looking at the sick trees?
That’s exactly what I thought as I remembered these events together. I don’t know at what time I started to remember it that way or if it was always that way because they happened together.
What I love about this is the fact that it is as how you remembered it. Your family could remember it differently but I feel it is your truth. There must be a very spiritual side to you to remember your eyes burning after seeing those sick trees. I am fascinated with the behind the scenes stuff – why we remember things the way we do.
You are a great story teller:)
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