I won’t presume to know what the tree was thinking.
But for myself, I still regard the “Old Girl” quite highly.
I discovered her as I do with most of my Stargazing — purely by accident.
There are certain back alleys in my old St. Paul neighborhood I liked to walk, particularly during my “Period of Major Underemployment.” So I must’ve discovered her before all that, after I moved to the neighborhood in 2006.
Two years later, on a lovely May evening in 2008, I introduced her to my new girlfriend. AJ and I were on probably our second or third date, having just come from dinner out and a stop-off dessert of chocolate truffles at Grand Avenue’s Café Latte. I steered AJ toward the back alley on our way home. The lilacs were blooming, scenting the breeze and making our walk feel even lighter. We stopped by an abandoned sofa outside a garage, sat down, and made out. Right there in the back alley.
It was, to say the least, an interesting night. And it felt like that old cottonwood tree was spying on us!
So, before we continued on home, I introduced her to AJ.
“Pleased to meet you!” AJ said as she grinned broadly at the Old Girl.
Then another year passed.
Around the first anniversary of our lilac alley date, AJ and I broke up.
I went to talk to the Old Girl about it.
I told her about the pain I felt when Mom and Dad died the same year I was in love with AJ, and then sensing the distance growing between AJ and I and feeling the anxiety of losing yet another person I loved after all that.
She listened politely, but I could sense some consternation couched behind her silence.
Being much older than me, she’d seen a lot of things over the years: retirees leaving or dying, young families moving in and out, and yeah, even new lovers like me and AJ just walking by.
Old Girl knew about the fate of other trees like her, ones that hadn’t been as lucky as she had been, to have lived so long and seen so much.
The Old Girl knew, deep down in her pith and marrow, that things change in an instant. There never was an eternal promise that she would live so long, or be around to bless whatever became of the human beings who passed through her back alley, whether they were sorrowful, indifferent, or madly in love. The world is complex and there were always too many factors in play.
So, I returned to see the Old Girl every spring after the breakup.
I’d approach her massive trunk, ribbed with aged bark, each time in reverence and awe. I’d give her a gentle pat, lay my hands on her and listen for how she was feeling. Sometimes I’d hear a groan from above as the wind roared through her branches.
I’d look up as she spread her arm-like branches in a soaring salute to the heavens, almost as if the Old Girl were singing, “Greetings, O blessed Sky God, to whom I owe much for feeding me with sunlight and rain.”
At a time like now, in the late days of winter, I await another spring walk down that back alley — of course, when the lilacs are in bloom — to check in on my Old Girl.
She invites me to slow down and listen, to her and to my own thoughts, knowing the world is another year older, and even more complex and uncertain. After all those years of back alley walks, stopping by to catch up with the Old Girl, I just wanted to let her know I’d never become a “Former tree, now on LinkedIn as ‘Pole 35 working at Northern States Power Company.’”
She would politely listen to my story, about the years of loss and regret, longing and pain, looking for a home — but still with that sense of consternation she had on other occasions. It’s as if I could feel her needing to interject…
“Oh, my young friend,” the Old Girl might say, “Just look around you. See how we’re all interconnected, web-like, delicate and yet strong.
“You, too, will bloom and grow. You will be happy again.”