Dutch-American Elms

Last week I discovered that some of my earlier posts that had cost me effort and time have never received very many views.  I posted a poll about whether I should re-post or re-blog these posts to free up some time this month to work on my book. The re-posts won, so here is a story I first posted on November 29, 2012. It’s about the elm trees in Kalamazoo when I was a kid.

At the end I’ve added a couple of new points.

Circa 1960

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 heard 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.

Devastation of Dutch Elm Disease

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?



Apparently, Dutch Elm disease is an international tree disease, which began in Europe in or before 1910. It had spread to Detroit by 1950 and to Chicago by 1960. Kalamazoo is halfway between Detroit and Chicago, so it makes sense that around 1960 or 1961, Kalamazoo’s trees were already looking ravaged.

In the past year I have been thinking more and more about the ways of memory. When I wrote this, I thought it probable that I got pink eye the same day I first noticed the diseased trees. But now I am leaning toward the view that I only associated these events in my mind. Do you have any memories you suspect might be two separate memories which have become “glued” together?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Writing

22 responses to “Dutch-American Elms

  1. Great memories, despite the confusion.
    In 1964 when the big earthquake hit Alaska, I was almost 5. I have very few childhood memories, but I have always had a distinct memory about that day. I remember the layout of the house and a series of events. Not one person in my family knows what I’m talking about. Weird. It has always made me mad that my one solid memory is not even true.

  2. Very interesting post. I do think that memory is flawed, but in a way that is slanted towards an interpretation that works for us.

    • Luanne

      Maybe it’s like this: sometimes I see something quickly, get a glimpse, and I know what I’ve seen, but then I get closer or can look more carefully and see I mis-saw it. But my mind assembled an image for me based on a very little data and until it got more data, it stayed that way. Maybe memory is like that?

  3. Enjoyed the post. My town lost many of these trees years ago. It’s sad, especially because they grew to be elderly and symbolic of a walkway. Memories are illusive and selective. We twist and turn them, and never really can re-imagine one in the exact way that it happened. It depends on the fullness of its mark and why we recall it. Our minds do much to reinvent the old into our own present. That’s why diaries and journals are savors.

    • Luanne

      Such a good point. Also, once I write about a memory, that becomes the memory itself. So if I was going to “fix” the memory with new and correct data, it becomes more difficult because I’ve already cast it in stone by writing about it. That’s another strange trick of memory. So sad about your town, too.

  4. I think this was a special memory of a custom of walking with your parents and grandparents after a lunch or dinner. We had such a custom while visiting my Grandparents (Mattson) in Middletown, Ohio. I am saddened about the Dutch-Am. elms trees in Kalamazoo and other places, too. I liked your sweet comment about your grandmother’s usually pleasant and loving face, saddening and then sharing why such a tragic loss of beautiful trees was going on, with you, a young girl then. My parents had a lovely yard filled with trees, while we were in late middle school and high school. We had lived in neighborhoods two other times, where the trees grew up after we moved… So, we were devastated when the “Oak Blight” hit our town of Bay Village, Ohio. I have not had my memories group together but I do have more of them than either of my brothers, so they “count” on my being accurate when they ask me about something! I think this is sort of scary since I may be wrong! Smiles, Robin

    • Luanne

      Robin, that is so sad about the Oak Blight! We think of plagues and epidemics where people are concerned, even of animals, like bird flu, but I guess trees and other vegetation is susceptible, too!
      Haha, re your memory versus theirs. I too have the best memory and it’s easy to be the expert when they just don’t know!

  5. Funny how we associate things in our minds, but these are connections that help “jog” our memories.

    • Luanne

      That’s a good point that I wasn’t actually considering. It’s true that the associations are probably the active part or the glue for our personal histories.

  6. Ian

    Several years ago my wife-to-be and I went on a camping trip along the Oregon Coast. As it was June, most of the rhododendrons had already had their heyday and were starting to lose their blossoms. At one campsite, the sites were surrounded by bushes, and in the months that followed we both fused the memory of these generic bushes with the rhododendrons we’d been seeing elsewhere. We kept saying how we should go back earlier next spring so we could see the rhodos in full bloom, especially the ones that surrounded the lots in that one campsite. We did go back the next May, in prime rhododendron season, and we saw lots of them, except at the campsite. The bushes there were just a sort of salal-berry or Oregon grape and not rhodos at all! I think this is a classic example of fusing two-related but separate memories into one, even if we debunked it ourselves the next year…

    • Ian

      Just realized my comment pertained to plant-life, just like your example of fused memory. I propose we call the effect “fusionary phyto-mnesis” since it is obviously related to our relationship with plants 🙂

      • Luanne

        This cracked me up. I love it: fusionary phyto-mnesis. I’m glad to know that it’s now a documented and labelled scientific phenomenon! I love your comment about the rhododendrons–particularly because it’s an adult memory which proves the theory, rather than a childhood one. That might show it is more about memory than just about childhood memories.

  7. Great post.

    Back in the summer, I was at the Bakken Museum here in Minneapolis. The Bakken has lovely grounds. I was outside, and I looked up into a massive tree there–and realized that it was an elm. I spoke with the grounds manager, who confirmed that it is indeed an elm that has been saved from Dutch elm disease through almost heroic efforts.

    As for the confusions of memory: I was six when President Kennedy was assassinated. I have combined that memory with the sale of our family’s former car and purchase of a new one (a white-over-blue 1960 Ford).

    • Luanne

      So nice to know that somebody somewhere saved an elm tree! Amazing. It must be gorgeous.
      Did your family buy that car in 1960? Three years (or more) before the assassination? Is that what happened? Or was the car used? So odd that we fuse memories together!!!

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