Columbus, Ohio USA
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Kids and Trees
By Betty Garrett Deeds
November 2010 Issue

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In 1946, my mother and stepfather pushed me and my kid brothers, Jim and Doug, into an old Chevy, turned north on Route 23 and headed to Columbus. I cried every mile of the way, because I had spent most of my life with my grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, in New Boston.

Back from the war, my stepfather – and everyone else Down Home – found there was simply no work. The Detroit Steel Mill in New Boston was a rusty dinosaur that rarely operated. The alternative: move to Columbus, a big, clean city that had plenty of work and homes, a tall building with so many layers it looked like King Kong could climb it, and street car trolleys that moved people back and forth when cars couldn’t.

Our old car collapsed just as we turned west on Greenlawn Avenue, marked on the south by acres of abandoned barracks converted to civilian rental homes. Arranged in quadrangles, these houses were already overflowing with families whose children would later be called Baby Boomers. Actually, it was more like an explosion on Deckebach Road, where we settled.

Outside our “quarters” was a vast sea of mud, devoid of foliage but blanketed with kids – babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers and a few grade school students. Each morning and afternoon, we kids had to walk across the Greenlawn Bridge, buffeted by wind off the river, to Stewart Avenue School. Nearby was Schiller Park, blessed with big trees, a stream with a bridge, and impressive statues of people with German names.

The Mecca where we’d moved was barren. Any ground with room for two or more kids was the site of playing and fighting, not trees, streams and statues.

The most memorable occasion of my early years there was an event the teachers at Stewart called Arbor Day. They explained the reference to trees. Every kid received a little sapling of a tree, about a foot long, species unknown, with instruc-tions to take them home and plant them.

Immediately, I picked a pot just outside our bathroom window and planted My Tree. That was the first time. On day two, I found it ripped out and lying on the ground. I replanted it. And still again, that came to pass. Within two weeks, the ritual of planting/replanting that battered tree made me more and more determined that it would grow to look like the trees Down Home and in Schiller Park. I put sticks into the ground and tied the sapling to it with rag strips. Those were knocked down. I persisted, building a stick fence around it, checking it at least once an hour when I was home. Down they came, but the tree remained miraculously alive.

One day, I’m wasn’t sure why, I came home to find my tree still standing (well, leaning) right where I’d left it. Triumph! Mom didn’t confess to me until years later that she had gone to every parent in the neighborhood and threatened to rip apart any kid who knocked it down again. Mom was not a bluffer and everyone knew it.

Over the next two or three years, my tree grew almost as high as the bathroom window. Unfortunately, I neglected to allot sufficient space for more than one side of it to grow without meeting the building. So the tree was lopsided, but by George, it was alive.

Over the years, I was shuttled back and forth from Columbus to New Boston where I stayed with Mamaw and Papaw. I eventually returned to Columbus permanently, graduating from Central High School in 1953 at the age of 16. I attended Capital University and later married the son of my beloved English professor, George Dell. We had three young children before we divorced in 1962.

I began working as an advertising copywriter near Broad and High, and on November 22, 1963, I was having lunch with a client when I heard about President Kennedy’s assassination. I remember walking back to the office, wandering down the sidewalk in a haze, as did others, disbelieving and weeping.

That Thanksgiving weekend was the end of a kind of innocence in this country, as well as my own. I got up at 5 a.m. to roast a small turkey before the kids left with their dad, starting a long tradition of Turkeys #1 and 2 and Hams #1 and 2 in our respective households.

Alone, I sat glued to the television watching the nightmarish re-runs of the bullet or bullets turning Kennedy’s body into a brainless puppet, while Jackie scrambled onto the back of the car to retrieve and hold his body together. The Dallas jail: Oswald’s arrest; Ruby’s executing him. Kennedy’s body lying on a catafalque. The heartbreaking funeral procession led by a riderless horse while his wife held their children’s hands.

I couldn’t stop weeping.

Mom called. She asked if I intended to just hide in the house and cry. I did. I told her I didn’t feel thankful about anything.

A short time later, she opened my front door and demanded I get into the car with her. I sensed how those neighbors must have felt when she visited them about the tree all those years before. I obeyed.

We drove in silence along streets that I wasn’t really noticing when I asked, “Where are we going?”

“Never mind. We’re taking a ride.”

It wasn’t until she turned onto Greenlawn and crossed the bridge that I realized she was turning onto Deckebach Road, now empty, barracks/houses long demolished. But she pulled her car surely over to the side of the road where our address had been.

We didn’t even get out of the car. She just waited to see if I would notice. I was in a haze, so she finally turned my body to the right with her hands and asked, “Betty, what do you see?”

I couldn’t believe it. There, a few dozen feet away, stood a tall, very one-sided tree. There were a few other trees scattered around what is now Lou Berliner Park, but I don’t know when they arrived. All I saw was my Arbor Day tree from 1946. Asymmetrical or not, it had survived and matured.

“Now,” Mom said, revving up the engine and the firmness of her voice, “don’t you ever tell me you have nothing to be thankful for. Your tree lived because you persisted in replanting and caring for it. Now you have three kids to raise, and you can’t give up on taking care of them. You still have a lot of things to do with your own life. This is no time to give up.”

She was right. Nurturing kids and trees is not for the faint of heart, nor the ungrateful. As the years spin past, and the grandchildren grow up too, it doesn’t take Thanksgiving to remind me of that.

© 2010 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

First published in the December 2002 Short North Gazette.

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