My Grandmother’s tree
In the Jewish tradition one plants a tree knowing that it will take many years to enjoy its shade. One plants for future generations. And so it was for my grandmother, Peshka. And her giant pine tree. We, her grandchildren, grew up protected from the elements by its enormous reach. We pulled our Adirondack chairs under the tree and spent endless summer nights with our friends, sharing each others’ lives. Peshka gave us a tree and it became part of our history; a place where we would share our youth, nary thinking about the amazing grandmother who gave us this beautiful gift. Somehow this was the spot that called out to her. This was where she planted the tree. And sitting there, in those beloved nights of brilliant stars, and a smiling moon, life held promise and we felt safe and secure. Those of us embraced by the tree knew no fear. It was an incredible gift. We shared it with our chevra, the same friends who we shared every summer with, year after year. We were family and they were like family. Now we and they are old, older than Peshka was when she died. But those nights still sparkle in our hearts.
I doubt she knew much about planting trees. She had grown up in Augustow, Poland, a picturesque village of canals, not far from Bialystok. But her family were innkeepers, not farmers. Nonetheless, she selected a place for her tree when life brought her to Parksville, New York. And it took root and was nurtured by Peshka and mother nature. It grew and grew and grew. We all took it for granted. We thought it had always been there because, for us, it had always been there. Not true. Not true at all. She planted it in celebration. It did not become a permanent monument but it reigned for at least a half century, becoming tall and mighty.
The immigrant Peshka and her beloved, our grandfather, Pop, named Yitzchak, had borrowed money to buy a small hotel in the hamlet of Parksville in New York’s Sullivan County. And in the long ago days of the 1920’s they opened for their first season. They called the place the Westin House since the down payment money was provided by a Mr. Westin who became their partner. But, not for long Mr. Westin. Not for long. Just as soon as they could, in a mere two or three years, Mr. Westin’s money was returned with interest and a new sign went up. This time the hotel was called The Bauman House. And, in celebration, and with enormous pride, Peshka planted her tree. The tree was to mark this new endeavor and to memorialize and commemorate its birth with something living. A tree. A tree for the generations to come.
If Peshka were a speech writer she would have said, “I dedicate this tree to the grandchildren I have not yet met, and to their children, and to theirs. May this tree grow tall and strong and healthy. May it endure any attacks and challenges that confront it. May it nurture those future generations and be a blessing in their lives.” She didn’t write it or say it but that is, in fact, what happened to her tree. To us kids, it was a giant. And when I wax nostalgic about the days, and especially the nights, in Parksville, I see our band of teenagers enjoying our lives under the protection of our tree.
The tree stood tall on a patch of land that certainly had trees before Peshka’s planting. But, even in that country setting, the three buildings that went up on the patch of land facing the property’s front, necessitated leveling the ground. Three buildings, and no trees. Certainly the builders of the late 1800’s told the original purchasers that leaving the trees was impossible. How could they dig foundations? And the roots would certainly impede the laying of pipes. No, the trees had to go. And so for many years there were no trees.
Until Peshka, with her innate sense of beauty and her love of nature. One tree in the center of the property would not damage the foundations. Would not impede the pipes. Would be a gift for future generations.
Our people were not farmers. They knew very little about growing things. Peshka simply felt one seed would make a giant tree, and, miraculously, she was right.
But then there was the story of the hemlocks. Maybe a funny story but a less successful one.
Peshka was long since dead and the property was being managed by my mother, her father, Pop, and my two uncles. None of them were world-class innkeepers as Peshka had been. They responded to the needs of the place. They did not innovate or think out of the box.
It became clear one summer that the front of the property was exposed to an ever busier roadway. The fence that had stood for many years was now decrepit and needed to go. Yet, something else had to protect the children, me included, from running out onto the road. So a local landscaper was called in. He suggested, for an enormous amount of money, that we plant a buffer of hemlocks. This would be decorative and protective at the same time.
And so the management, my mother, grandfather and uncles, agreed. They would hire the landscaper to plant hemlocks.
Now, my mother was always very literate. She had attended Brooklyn College. One uncle was a practicing dentist. The other ran a successful business. My grandfather counted on their American smarts but it turned out that not a one of them knew what a hemlock was. Tree? Bush? Plant? Shrub? However, they were embarrassed to seem like yokels. They would order the hemlocks on blind faith alone.
They paid for the hemlocks which were to be planted the following spring. And then it started: the endless discussions of what hemlocks were. Whenever we passed a tree or shrub or any weed growing, anywhere, my grandfather would yell out in Yiddish, Ah, dus is der hemlocks. These are the hemlocks. Over and over and over. Frenzied opinions would be roused until the next bush, plant or tree came into view. Still today, long after their deaths, my sister and I remember them and rouse a smile or laugh by pointing to something growing, and hollering, Dus is der hemlocks. I fear this family joke will not survive us!
Mainly because there is no longer a Bauman House, no longer Peshka’s giant pine tree and no hemlocks either. All have gone to the world to come and been replaced by a glitzy United States Post Office. Our treasured memories and beautiful childhoods have been paved into a parking lot.
I shed a joyful tear for those precious summer days and nights, and for Peshka’s amazing grace. Her tree lived for many decades and brought us happiness. Mission accomplished.