On the first full day that I was at college, I went on a walk with one of my friends through the Arboretum. I was feeling uneasy. The transition from home to school had not been as smooth as I had hoped. Even though my home was only thirty minutes’ drive away, it might as well have been on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. I felt completely disconnected from my family, the people who I knew loved me unconditionally. I was trying to find anything that reminded me of home. So off me and my friend went into the Arboretum, with me hoping to find something familiar to cling onto. I found it in the shape of a wooden bench and the tree behind it.
The bench was completely unextraordinary in every way. It was just a plain wooden bench with a fairly fresh coat of rust-colored paint. My attention was drawn more to the tree. By the color of its bark and leaves, I knew immediately that it was a copper beech. My grandparents had a massive copper beech in the backyard of their old house. It had a gray trunk and leaves the color of, well, copper. When I was younger, I could almost not comprehend how massive this tree was. The word tree was almost too small for the copper beech; it was a colossus.
My family would always gather at my grandparents’ pale blue house for any holiday, whether it was Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. I loved the holidays so much partially because of these family gatherings. In particular, I loved to play with my cousins in my grandparents’ backyard. In the fall it was leaf-pile hide and seek, where the seeker is buried in a pile of leaves so that they couldn’t peek while the rest of us hid. Once they were done counting, they would burst from the pile, scattering leaves everywhere, which would have to be gathered up again for the next pile. In the winter, it was of course snowball fights, sometimes with the addition of makeshift snow forts built hastily. The spring meant tag, either normal or freeze, and plain old hide-and-seek, which was never as fun as the leaf pile version. The one constant through all these activities was that they were done under the shade of the copper beech tree.
I developed a fondness for the copper beech over the years. Its leaves were like an umbrella that enveloped our family gatherings. It created our own little bubble, a happy and serene place separate from the rest of the world.
When I was thirteen my grandparents moved out of that house and into a retirement community. At the time, it was like losing the last great bastion of my childhood, the last place I had felt the carelessness of childhood. I grew to love their new home, but there was never any replacement for the copper beech. The warm feeling was still there at family gatherings, but our bubble had been punctured. Last summer, my grandmother passed away after fighting various forms of cancer for 20 years. The bubble had been well and truly popped.
I’ve driven by my grandparents’ old house with my mom recently. A new family moved in and made the place their own. They have a trampoline and a basketball hoop as well as a treehouse built behind the copper beech. Up until that point, I had always felt a strong sense of nostalgia and sadness when I thought about the copper beech. There were times when I wished I could return to that bubble. But when I saw that another family had made their mark at my grandparents’ old house, I realized that the bubble belonged to them now and that I didn’t need it anymore.
All of this came back to me gradually as I walked through the Arboretum. I realized that just being in a different place didn’t mean that I had left my family behind. They don’t just exist in a bubble; they’re anywhere I am. I couldn’t escape them if I tried.
Patrick Ruehle is an English major currently attending SUNY Geneseo. His inspiration for this piece came from his grandparents, Joe and Patricia Hammele. He currently lives in Rochester, New York with his family.