President Gerald Ford died December 26, 2006. One of the things my dad and I agreed on in the realm of presidential politics was that we both had great respect for this man. I wasn’t old enough to vote for him in the 1976 election because I didn’t turn 18 until December that year. And at that time I would have doubled my dad’s vote by voting for Gerald Ford. (For the sake of honesty and self-reflection, four years later I voted for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter and have always regretted it. I beg forgiveness to this day from my liberal friends. What did I know? My dad thought Reagan was the guy and that was good enough for me.)
But I digress. I remember that date because my dad and I reminisced about his presidency in those days after Christmas and the way he served humbly in that office after the resignation of Nixon and the scandal of Watergate. He was a good man, born in Omaha, a veteran, and just a quiet servant. He and my dad shared that same story. We both wanted to watch the funeral services that were carried on the national media in the days after his death.
I also remember those last days of 2006 because of the tree. We had a large double- or split-trunk pine tree that grew right outside of our family room on Happy Hollow. It must have been 75 feet tall. It was majestic. It shaded that portion of our patio and house. It used to have a twin right next to it that split in two during a summer storm in 2003, which we had to take down after that. But this magnificent tree stood in that spot until December 31, 2006.
It had been a very wet end of the year, mostly rain, and I’m sure the ground was not frozen. Sometime during the night or early morning as the calendar page turned to a new year, there was a large crashing noise outside. Due to the darkness, we couldn’t see a thing so we went back to bed. The rain had turned to snow overnight and in the morning, the pine tree was stretched out its full length to the south. It must have had enough extra weight in its boughs and branches – so many drenched needles! – that gravity just said, “You can’t stand here anymore.” Gravity being a law and all, the tree obeyed. Uprooted. The path of its fall was toward another pine in the corner of the yard, and the two trunks of the large tree lined up on either side of the smaller tree and took off all its branches…and also took out part of the neighbor’s fence.
A fence can be fixed, and we did repair it. The trees are another story. I weep at the thought of a tree that large that had probably seen years back to the administration of Warren G. Harding. It had stood through storms that had lashed it and pulled off branches, distributing pine needles and pinecones all around. But that night of continued rain-turned-to snow and small winds had finished it.
Jana and I watched Gerald Ford’s funeral services on January 2, 2007, as a local contractor cut up the tree and hauled it away. Such sadness on two counts, I called my dad and we shared our sorrow.
On April 23, 2007, my dad George passed away, with six of his children by his side. We sat with him for his final thirty hours on this earth, listening to every breath until there was only one more and then it was done. He passed quietly in the early morning hours. There was no crashing sound like the tree had made. Just no more breathing and he was gone.
We had a wonderful memorial service for him three days later and I had the privilege of sharing about his life. I had great notes in front of me, but I improvised the beginning a bit to stop myself from crying too hard. I told a joke we had shared with him over and over during those thirty hours. “Where do you find a turtle with no legs?” And I shared about our mutual respect for Gerald Ford who had died just those three and a half months previously. It was a wonderful farewell for the best dad ever.
And then we planted a tree, a maple, in that spot where the pine had stood. In seven short years it has grown into a majestic forty-foot tall giant that provides that same shade to the patio and family room. It seems impossible that it could have grown so big and tall in seven short years, but it has.
Two years ago, another summer storm came barreling through. The rain poured, thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and the winds blew cruelly. A huge crash in the early evening took us to the window. Oh, the horror! A huge limb had cleft from the trunk of this memorial maple and was draped across the fence. I just cried. “My dad’s tree!”
Now, two years later, it seems that we have to take the tree down. It’s too close to an addition we are adding on for Jana. Where that branch came off – even though it appears to be healing itself – there is a hole where insects and rot have started to kill it from the inside. At some point in time, gravity will call it down from the weight of its beautiful, full top. I know I will weep again at such a loss and remember my dad and how we remembered Gerald Ford together.
But I know both of those men are in a better place, telling stories of their younger years together. Mr. Ford is probably saying to my dad, “Couldn’t you have kept that girl as a registered ‘R’? Why did you let her drift so far to the left? Tree hugger…” My dad will probably just smile and say, “That’s the irony. We raise them to make their own choices…and they do. But she did like you!”
And then I will think, “Where do you find a turtle with no legs?” And I will answer, “Right where you left him.” Tell the joke. FInd the laugh. Memories bring smiles. Life goes on. Storms will continue to rage, literally and metaphorically.
And we will plant another tree.