Loveliest of Trees

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

By A.E. Housman

(http://www.bartleby.com/103/33.html)

Like many of you, no doubt, I first encountered this poem in high school. I’ve always liked it, but guess I wasn’t as far-sighted as the twenty-year-old speaker because fifty springs seemed pretty long to me then. Now that I have used up more than forty of my allotment and my parents are in their mid-sixties, it doesn’t seem long at all. My mother recently told me that as she approaches her sixty-fifth birthday, death seems a lot closer, a lot more real. She’s already a few years older than her mother was when she died.

Of course, the poem is as much about life as about death, about enjoying life and savoring its fleeting beauty. There’s a word in Japanese for this, “hanami,” which refers to the act of viewing cherry blossoms and appreciating the “ephermeral nature of life,” (unless the staff writers at The Washington Post are putting us on.). For me, the cherry trees will always be a reminder of June’s birth, because they were just starting to bloom when she surprised us by entering the world six weeks early two springs ago.

Beth and I first started going to see the cherry trees in bloom along the Tidal Basin in 1991, the very first spring we lived in the Washington area. I still remember the magic of that first visit, the delicate beauty of the blossoms, their extravagant profusion, and the holiday atmosphere as people picnicked and strolled around the water. We’ve been back every year since, except one. Having a premature baby in the hospital undergoing phototherapy re-arranges your schedule and your priorities. Even that year, though, we did try, but we missed the hard-to-predict peak and couldn’t get back in time to see it. We have been to the blossoms as a couple, as parents and with extended family on the rare occasion that relatives were lucky enough to time their visits in sync with the fickle blooms.

We made our yearly pilgrimage this morning. The idea was to arrive early, before the crowds and we did make it out of the house by our 8:30 target, despite a meltdown on June’s part and foot-dragging from Noah who had no idea why we would want to go, since blossoms are “not special.” Nevertheless, when we arrived at 9:15, the crowds were already there. Cars were circling around; parking was scarce. This year for the first time, the Park Service is running a free shuttle to remote parking, but it didn’t start running until 10:00, so we parked in remote lot at Hains Point and walked to the Tidal Basin. It was cold, probably around 40 degrees, and there was a stiff wind blowing off the Washington channel. March is apparently not going out like a lamb this year. I sipped my take-out caramel macchiato to keep warm.

“I’m cold! I want to go home!” Noah complained. I wondered if it was really worth the hassle to drag the kids down here every year. It was a lot easier when we lived in the city and we could walk to the blossoms from our apartment. Parking wasn’t an issue and no one whined or complained during the outing. Some years we would go more than once. I remember going alone one year after Beth and I had already gone and camping out under a tree to read or maybe grade papers. I stayed for hours, working, listening to the radio on my Walkman, and taking in the beauty of an early spring day.

Then in less time than I thought it would take, we were there. We hit the peak perfectly this year. Almost every tree was in full bloom, their branches laden with puffs of white and the palest pink. They look like popcorn trees or cotton-candy trees or something out of Dr. Seuss, a more fragile cousin of the Truffula tree perhaps (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lorax).

We ate a breakfast picnic on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. After the bran muffin, lemon pound cake, coffee cake and orange juice were devoured, Beth bought Noah a cherry blossom festival magnet in the gift shop and soon he was running around happily, shaking hands with trees, hiding behind them and snapping pictures of them. He ended up taking more photographs than anyone else, including two of those featured here.

We didn’t stay long because it was cold and June got cranky. “Aww…Do we have to go?” Noah asked. I would have liked to walk the whole perimeter of the Tidal Basin, as we used to do, and will again someday, but it wasn’t in the cards for us this year.

To look at things in bloom, less than an hour was little room, but it had to be enough.

A Death in the Family: A Memorial

Beth’s uncle Gerry died early Monday morning, at home, surrounded by family. He was a well-traveled man, with a hungry mind, a crusty exterior and a dry wit. He had a Ph.D in math. He could fly planes and speak Polish. While bed-ridden with the cancer that killed him, he was teaching himself ancient Greek. Gerry is survived by his wife Carole (Andrea’s oldest sister), his sister Patricia, his children Meghan and Sean, his daughter-in-law Aine, and six grandchildren: Micheal, Tristan, Holly, Kawika, Rebecca, and Eanna.

Gerry was sixty-nine years old, so he didn’t quite have his three score and ten, but even if he had, it would still seem like too little room, much too little.

R.I.P. Gerry Ryder.

http://www.news-register.net/page/content.detail/id/507538.html?nav=516

  • Chris

    Blossoms aren’t special, and yet they are marvelous!  A lovely piece, and my condolences on the loss of Beth’s father.  You’ve inspired me to try the Cherry Blossoms again – I’ve only attempted them once since I’ve moved here (also in 1991) and I’m sad to say my only memory of that trip is of the insane traffic.   (4/11/08)

  • Chris

    My condolences, that is, on the loss of Beth’s Uncle.  He sounds like a great uncle to have had.  I like the idea of taking up a new language even as death becomes imminent. (4/11/08)

  • Steph

    Chris, you should definitely try to go again, not this year, since they’ve over, but sometime.  When you really hit the peak, it’s magic.Thanks for you kind words about Gerry.

  • Carole

    thank you steph (4/25/08)