(Orange, Texas)

June 12, 2013

Old friends come and go in life's odyssey

Emily Popek
The Orange Leader

ORANGE — I saw an old love the other day, and it just about broke my heart.

Where once his frame had been slight and slender, almost fragile in appearance, he was now big and strong. Where once he had been easy to overlook, he now stood out in a crowd. He had become a star.

And seeing him there, looking amazing, gave me the most peculiar feeling of sadness and joy; longing and satisfaction. I was, of course, happy to see him doing well. But it was hard to be that close to him and not be able to reach out and touch his leaves.

My love’s name is Don Egolf. He’s a tree.

I saw him while passing by my old house the other day. It was in this small  yard where my husband and I cut our teeth as gardeners. Don Egolf, a dwarf variety of Chinese redbud, is one of more than 100 specimens packed into that half-acre, and I miss them all terribly.

It is bittersweet to pass by that property today and see what it has become. The once-small trees and shrubs we put into the ground years ago are now mature plants. As proud as I am to be able to say I had some hand in their creation, it absolutely kills me that I’m not there to see them up close, and witness every glorious stage of their maturation.

This is one of the things about gardening, though. Like child-rearing, it is a strange combination of the ephemeral and the eternal. It is a meditation on letting go, and on the impermanence of things.

When you plant a tree, or have a child, you are making a contribution to the world, however small, that has the potential to send ripples outward for generations beyond its lifespan. On the other hand, the individual moments you share with it are so precious and fleeting, and its existence so fragile, that as much as we may want to fix them in time forever, they remind us that change is the only true constant.

As a child, I spent many a happy summer afternoon alongside my mother as she gardened, taking full advantage of her as a captive audience. She was a frequent “customer” at my imaginary “restaurant,” which had, I think, an angry cat named Max for a chef. Although I’m sure the repetition of “Mommy, order something else!” got mind-numbing, she never showed it, and always seemed happy to play along.

As my daughter enters her toddler years, I’ve been enjoying watching her explore the great outdoors of our yard (much bigger than the old  one). Right now, she’s still a little uncertain, sticking close to us as we point out dandelions, birds, ants and other wonders. But I plopped her down next to me the other day as I kneeled to do some weeding. And for a few minutes, as we sat peacefully together in the mild spring sunshine, I caught a little glimpse of a future summer’s day, with my daughter playing happily in the yard and me tending to our garden.

Just as my heart opens with great joy to see my daughter forming the shapes of new words, taking more confident steps on her little legs, or reaching for my husband with a look of pure love, I find a small taste of that same sweetness in the opening of leaf buds on a tree that we’ve planted, or the first bloom from a flower never before glimpsed.

Don Egolf and his friends are gone from my life, and I have to accept that their fate is no longer under my control. But how much do we ever truly control these things? I can nurture and love my daughter, and my plants, with all of my heart, but I can’t protect any of them from harm. And I have to accept that the wonderful intimacy and total access to them I enjoy today will not last forever.

My daughter will grow up and leave my home; my plants will live out their life cycles, or not, but will certainly not last forever. That ache I felt when I caught a glimpse of Don Egolf the other day feels like a faint premonition of the poignancy of parenting — the knowledge that each step forward my child takes is, in a sense, a step away from me. The challenge, then, is to be sustained by those fleeting moments of sweetness, so that when change does inevitably come, I can meet it with a smile.

Emily Popek is a columnist for The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y. She can be reached at