Tracing Roots

My mom chose a house in Berea, Ohio, to raise her family. She had had her eye on it since she was a little girl. It was on Fair Street because a long time ago that’s where the county fair was held. It intersected Race Street because that’s where the horse races were held at the fair. My dad remembered signing the mortgage papers on the hood of the realtor’s car. “Two pages stapled together,” he recalled as he sat with me when I bought my first home, and watched me sign at least 50 papers. Their lot was one full acre loaded with trees for a big family to enjoy.

Three trees stood out: a cherry in the back, a buckeye in the middle of the yard and a towering maple in the front. The previous owner was a farmer who had owned the land covering the entire block. He sectioned it off and sold it in lots. If you stand in the backyard and look across into the neighbors’ yards, you can see the remnants of the former orchard, where lines of apple, pear, plum and cherry trees still remain. Central to the back yard, the cherry tree was probably 6 feet in diameter. It was cleverly named “the big, fat cherry tree.” It was first base when we played kickball. By keeping one hand on it, you could get a big jump on the pitcher to steal second. Its boughs hung low enough that even my older sister could climb the tree (and she couldn’t climb anything). Its cherries were the deepest maroon and the sweetest of all. That tree made the backyard. In the summer it provided awesome shade; in the winter, its mighty branches held tons of snow. And in the fall, its colors were magnificent.

Late one summer evening in the 1970s while I was away at college, my mom called me. “Lightning split the big, fat cherry tree in half. We’ll need to have it removed. I thought you should know.” Hanging up, I thought about the fall colors on that tree, its generous shade as I munched a peanut-butter sandwich, and how I climbed it higher and higher with neighborhood friends to pick the hardest-to-find cherries. I swallowed the lump in my throat and returned to my studies. After all, it was just a tree. But I recall feeling an enormous void when I returned home for Christmas that year as I gazed into the sparse backyard. A piece of family lore was but a memory, a big, fat memory.

Raining Buckeyes

Years passed and life went on. I was now on a steady career path, and my sisters were married--balancing kids, mates and careers of their own. I, too, was married and building a family when a sudden storm took the buckeye tree in the middle of the yard. The largest branch had barely missed the house, but took down several power lines. The significance of the buckeye tree coming down was not lost on any of us for we had lost our dad to a sudden heart attack a few years before, and he had been a steadfast, strong presence in our lives. No one else in Berea had a tree like that one, let alone one so productive. Hundreds of buckeyes rained down every year, and Dad often complained when gathering the fall leaves that included loads of heavy buckeyes. Yet that “Ohio State” tree was dear to him and to all of us. Many a school project had buckeyes glued to construction paper, and many a snowman in the yard had buckeyes for eyes, a mouth and buttons. An old-fashioned, two-seat glider swing parked permanently beneath it had also fallen victim in the crash. Many decisions had been made on that swing in the shade of the buckeye. More photos than I can count show my sisters and me on that old swing--before prom, before boarding for a family vacation, before my sister’s wedding--more fabric of the blanket of memories a family sews. I recall that we as children even fed buckeyes to squirrels by hand. We weren’t as smart (boring) as we are today about having a wild animal approach us and trust it to take something from our hands, but experiencing that was cool. The tree’s absence left the yard barren on one side, much like my father’s absence affected our hearts--we, too, seemed empty on one side.

My dad passed in 1995, and my mother has stayed in the house alone for almost 15 years. It was the house she chose 48 years ago, the one that came with all those trees. I go over as often as I can to do extra jobs--pruning, painting, stocking logs, spot repairs--but I have my own home and yard to maintain, and she understands that. The old family yard and its significance in our youth have faded over the years; it’s even been seen as a burden, with so many leaves, sticks and branches, such a mess. But the story goes on.

Hail To The Maple

The late-June storms of this past summer delivered a wicked wind that swept into the enormous maple tree in the front yard, sending towering maple “pillars” crashing across the yard and into the street. I was reading the paper at my house when the phone rang. Mom’s voice was a bit shaky. She said the maple had come down. “You know--the one in the background of all the Halloween pictures of you and your sisters. The last big one,” she added. I said I’d be right over. She objected, but I insisted and headed out the door. “What’s wrong?” asked my 13-year-old son. “It’s just a tree.” I wheeled on him with tight lips, and he shrugged and said no more. He and Cindy and I hustled out to Berea.

This wasn’t about the tree. It was about being 75 years old. It was about being alone in that big house for the last 15 years. It was about children who have lives of their own and grandchildren who visit for a while but always have somewhere else they need to be. It was about the many friends who have passed on and the parents she hasn’t seen in more than 20 years. It was about peanut butter and jelly, potato chips and baloney sandwich lunches, collecting fall leaves, and sending kids off to elementary school, junior high, high school and then college. It was about Scruffy the family dog, lying contentedly in that backyard and gnawing on a giant stick. It was about the ancient, homemade picnic table and grilled burgers and steaks that tasted like charcoal. It was about another living thing passing on and leaving her behind. It is about knowing the days ahead are nowhere near as plentiful as the days behind. And more than anything, it is the lament of those of us who appreciated the life we experienced and don’t want to let go. It’s a voice that cries out, “Enough change! Can’t some things just stay the same?”

As we drove, I reminded my wife after her father had retired as a carpenter that he did not take the tools out of his trade van for two years. It was too permanent to inventory the elements of his life and sell the truck that had no further use. By the time he willingly let go, the truck had to be towed away. He still says to this day he “should have kept the van.” He’s 80. And my wife mentioned the threadbare dishcloths in our drawers at home that she has kept because they had come over on the boat from Italy with Grandma. “I’ll never get rid of those,” she whispered.

Falling Victim

As we approached the familiar driveway, the yard was filled with people gawking. The fall had been fortuitous, with no wires down, no damage to the house; in fact, the light post in the front corner of the lot had been completely spared and stood erect between a pair of fallen limbs. In the mass of people and debris stood all 4 feet 9 inches of my mom. She hugged my son and wife and, always the gracious hostess, introduced them to the many neighbors assembled in the yard.

I’ve written many times about the relationship between a father and son, but rarely have touched upon the mother/only-son relationship. I have no brothers and was raised to be a “responsible” son, but the shift from “Mom’s kid” to “Mom’s trusted advisor” was a gradual and stealthy process. After my dad passed on, she first took my words of advice reluctantly, and often went another way; but as time passed, I think we both realized I knew how to “handle” her. My father took good care of her, and I am my father’s son. I learned how to treat my wife by watching the way he treated his--not the same, but with the same grace and generosity. He never rushed her opinions, and he understood her need for independent judgment. Of all the things I knew when I heard her voice on the phone, the one above all was that I needed to be there to assure her, “You’re right, Mom, it is okay; in fact it’s better.” Before I arrived, she had already been dealing with the sense of loss, the fading away of another icon. Later, inside the house, she released a gasp, sob and tear all at the same time. “Just so many memories,” she sighed. I gave her a hug and said, “I know.” Ever the strong one, she began to list the blessings. “It didn’t hit the house, didn’t hurt anyone, and didn’t take down any power lines.” I called the insurance company and made an appointment for the next morning. Like our family “brand,” things were handled promptly and efficiently. And then we moved on.

Mom decided to leave the stump in place, about 6 feet of the huge tree jutting out of the ground like a wide timber tombstone. I’ve painted the house address on it--a little “rural” for the now “so-proper” neighborhood, but as the sleepy little town of Berea marches on, what a fitting landmark. One evening, while drinking iced tea on the front porch, we were looking at the stump. “I suppose one day long after we’re gone someone will cut the rest down,” I said. “Maybe,” she said wistfully, “or it may be the thing that makes someone want the place the most.” I smiled at the woman who taught me how to think “out of the box.” I took in the last of the day’s summer breeze as it passed through the mammoth pines of the big lot, and listened to the sounds of my youth as dusk came. The distant rattling of the train passing through the neighboring town, the birds finishing their last calls as they nestled in for the night, a parent down the street “hollering for” the children as darkness approached. Soon enough, the leaves would turn and the snow would mark the end of another year, and the beginning of a new one.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at