Monday, March 26, 2012

The Apology Tree

It’s only the last week in March and the hedgerow in the front has leaves. Do you have any idea how strange that is? The lilies are emerging, my beloved hostas are poking up, and that bleepin’ Japanese lilac tree has already started the sucker assault on my front garden.

Let me tell you about that Japanese lilac tree. 23 years later,  I still hate that tree. Granted it’s beautiful and it smells good, but it’s got a bad history and though I dream of ripping it out, I cannot.

We moved into the house…the biggest tar paper and chicken wire shack one could ever imagine…in the middle of winter knowing stucco, sod, and landscaping would come with the spring. Our builder introduced us to a young landscaper who was establishing himself in the area as a competent, skilled, and reasonable fellow with whom to do business. We hit it off right away. He drew his vision, I drew my vision, and somehow, we found a common ground. When our next door neighbor nicked our boulders while they were stacked in the yard, he kept Steve from doing something rash…and came up with an alternate plan for the retaining walls. We liked this guy even more when the junior son started “working” for him by carrying “stuff.” He was very patient with a very determined 4 year old, and "paid" him in shiny, new quarters. And we liked him well enough to recommend him to a number of our friends as well as to the synagogue where he was hired for a very large landscape and sod contract.

Anyway, after our initial landscaping was done, I still had to decide on some additional plantings in the front. We went back and forth. We finally settled on an idea, and I asked for an estimate. When he stopped by with the paperwork, I commented that it was more than we had agreed upon and, quite frankly, it was more than I had budgeted.

Then he said it. He used “Jew” as a verb.

I told him to get off my land and never set foot on it again. I turned and went into the house. He came up the stoop and rang the doorbell. I ignored it. He knocked. I ignored that too. 

When Steve came home from work, I told him what happened. He explained that in Minnesota “Jew” was sometimes used as a pejorative verb and I would occasionally hear it. I told him I’d heard it before, but thought this guy, doing work for so many Jews, not to mention the shul, should know better. Steve agreed. He called the landscaper and fired him.

The next day when I came home from work, there was a Japanese lilac tree in my front garden, and the landscaper standing, hat in hand (literally) waiting to apologize. I told him to remove the tree. He refused. I told him he’d better pick it up from the curb in the morning where would find it lying on at the end of the driveway.

When Steve arrived, he found me in the front garden with a shovel. He went inside and called the landscaper. I never asked what was said; I never wanted to know. But when Steve came out, he gently told me "the apology tree" would stay. 

Oddly, the landscaper moved into our neighborhood. He always greeted me, and I was always polite but cold to him. He always asked after the junior son, and at one point actually asked if he would be interested in a real summer job (he was doing marching band and had to decline) but it wasn’t until Steve died that I actually had a conversation with him.  He saw me driving by and flagged me down. He said he’d heard and how sorry he was. And then he asked me if I knew what Steve had said to him that day. I admitted I did not.

The landscaper sighed when he said, “He told me that he stopped you from pulling the tree out. And then he told me that he wanted the tree to stay there so that every time I drove  by and saw it, I would remember what I said cost me more than just a few jobs. It cost me his respect and that was much worse. He was right,  y’know. It was.”

The damn tree is still there, it’s still beautiful, and it still smells good in the spring. And I still hate it.

But most of all, I hate those damn suckers. They are the bane of my existence; an insidious plot to drive me nuts. For the record, that is a short and less than happy journey.

Wifely Person's Tip O'the Week
Time for you to give me one. 
If anyone knows how to put a stop to those damn things, I'm all ears. 


  1. This story got to me and brought tears to my eyes. It made me so sad to think of the anti-Semitism,what happen in Toulouse,bigotry and what happened in Florida, and I say to myself not such a wonderful world.

  2. Your Steve was very wise (at least in this instance!), and my vote is that you think of him when you look at your tree, and let that landscaper go. He "got his" long ago.

    Now, when I tell you this, I need you to remember that I grew up in ex-urban Michigan.

    I never met anyone who was Jewish until I arrived at Skidmore!

    Anyway, my senior year I was signed up to live with three other people in the new Scribner apartments. Well, a lot went on that summer and people dropped in and out of our apartment. I got a call from Jeri Held, who I had met during winter term in Greece. She had heard that we had an opening in our apartment, and wanted in. I'd liked her during our trip, so this was great with me. The other two roommates took my recommendation, though neither of them knew Jeri.

    You may or may not remember that the apartments were not ready when we got back to school. The four of us were put in a one bedroom "apartment" in some motel.

    And it was late at night, in the dark, in our crowded, bunk-bedded room, that I heard, for the first and only time in my life, "Jew" used as a verb in that pejorative way. As you can tell, I've never forgotten.

    And I've never forgotten how Jeri handled it. She didn't explode. In fact, she said nothing at all that night. I brought it up with her the next day, and asked if she wanted me to say something. Obviously, this was going to be awkward no matter what, but I naively thought that it might somehow be easier if I inserted myself into it. Go figure. Anyway, Jeri did the talking, and it was in private and I've never known what she said. I do know that she and the other roommate lived together for three months in an agreeable, if not exactly chummy manner.

    The other roommate graduated in December, and I've never spoken to her since. Jeri, on the other hand, became one of my dearest friends. We lived together for a year after college, and she was in my wedding. She's been gone for almost 9 years now, and I miss her every day.

    As I was to discover, there was much to admire about Jeri and much to learn from her, and the incident of which I have written was the very first indication of that!

    1. Jeri was a kind and elegant woman. Her memory is a blessing for all of us who had the privilege to know her.


  3. Wow. This story was wonderful (and sad all in one). I don't know you but I read a comment of yours on a New York Times article recently and you had a link to your blog there. Your comment on the article was so well-written that I had to see if your blog was just as good. I am happy I clicked the link. Consider yourself up a subscriber. Your husband sounds like he was a stand up guy.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. He was very much a stand up kinda guy....and very much missed.

  4. Interesting story... and an interesting life. Have any plans to forgive the landscaper?

    1. Truthfully, he was forgiven long ago...but the relationship was irreparably damaged, and it doesn't change the fact I really hate that tree and its suckers.

  5. This is such a sad story. What the young man said to you was unthinkable. However, it’s very possible that he grew up hearing the term used by his parents and others and did not realize how offensive and hurtful it was. Yes, he should have, but if he was not taught properly, if no one pulled him aside and told him that it was never under any circumstance okay to use “Jew” as a verb, he honestly might not have known.

    From your story, it is clear that the young man was a nice person; he was very patient with and kind to your son. And he clearly felt bad about what he said, trying multiple times to apologize. You and your husband had every right to be hurt and angry. But to refuse an apology? To ‘condemn’ him to seeing the tree every time he went by to remind him of the respect he lost? Don’t you think that even without your husband’s harsh words, the young man would have - all on his own - reminded himself of the mistake he made every time he saw it?

    For 23 years you have carried the hurt and hate, reminding yourself every time you look at that tree that at one time a young man said the unthinkable. And you’ll be darned if you’re going to forgive him and make peace.

    Polite but cold.

    Your story cost you my respect.

    1. I am truly sorry to hear you feel that way.

      For the record, I did not carry any hurt, or certainly any hate toward him; I was and remain ambivalent....which may be worse. I just never felt the need to be his friend again after that.

      For the record, landscaper didn't understand _why_ what he said was a slur. My husband had to explain that to him. If he learned from the experience, great. Did he? I hope so.

      Funny thing was, I had never planned for a tree there; I had something else in mind.

      But the tree, its leaves clogging the gutters, and most especially its suckers, however, are ongoing pains in the neck. And as much as I threaten to chop it down, I cannot. It's the apology tree, not the angry tree or the nasty tree; we never lose sight of how it came to be there.

  6. This story cost no one my respect. Hate is a very, very powerful force that is very hard to overcome. I do suggest that using the word "hate" to describe a feeling one has for anything over a 23-year period indicates that there are unresolved issues. I've made the mistake of holding hate in my heart, and I know what a burden it is, no matter how "justified" one believes it to be. "Justified" hate is what starts wars, why people murder each other. Ultimately hate in any form is a destructive force, no matter what form it takes. I hope that everyone involved can one day let go of the last vestige of hate and truly come to peace with themselves and the world.

    1. I hate the _tree_ because it's not what I wanted in that spot and the suckers send me into spasms every spring. I never intended for a tree to be there. I was not my choice. It blocks the light and turned what was supposed to be my iris and lily patch into a hosta shade garden.

      I think it's okay to hate the thing even though it's lovely and smells just doesn't belong in front of the dining room window!

      I don't hate the landscape guy; that would be silly.

  7. To put it simply: Your story of the tree shocked me with how hateful and vengeful you are and your husband apparently was. The landscaper intended no malice, he was and is innocent. Leaving the tree there to remind him, to punish him, is as spiteful and cruel as anything I have recently heard of.

    Words are only words. It is what is in the heart that is evil.