Hope Came Tapping at Her Window

Another long, gray Dakota winter. She didn’t know if she could survive it.

- Posted on Apr 8, 2014

An illustration of a cottonwood's pink blossom encased in ice

Winters are long and unforgiving in North Dakota. The winter of 1996 was especially brutal. It was a difficult time in my own life too. A neck injury had kept me flat in bed for nearly a year. I was finally allowed up for short periods in March. “Just in time for Easter,” my husband, Dick, said.

But I dreaded it. How could I sing “bloom in every meadow” when the snow was four feet deep? How could I summon up the joy of the season knowing I had months of excruciating physical therapy ahead?

I stood stiffly at my kitchen sink doing the dishes one day, feeling as bleak and hopeless as the frozen landscape beyond the window.

There was a tap against the glass. Without even looking, I knew it was a branch of the biggest, oldest tree in our yard, that troublesome cottonwood.

“Oh, be quiet!” I snapped.

To think I was the one who insisted on saving it when we moved here, back in the fall of 1979. It was a new subdivision then, so new that there were no trees. Unless you counted the spindly sapling lying horizontally just outside the kitchen window. Actually it was more like an eight-foot twig.

The people who’d briefly occupied the property before us had placed the hose from the sump pump next to it, hoping, I suppose, that the water would keep it alive.

The earth was so saturated that the poor thing had toppled over, most of its skimpy root system pointing skyward, blowing forlornly back and forth in our Red River Valley wind.

“I’ll yank that thing out tomorrow,” Dick said one day.

Predictably I protested. Dick complains that I have a “rescue gene.” It wasn’t our children who brought strays home, it was me. Every wounded animal had to be taken in and cared for. Even a dying tree, apparently.

“Look at how hard it’s trying!” I said, pointing to the way it tenaciously clung to the earth. “It deserves a chance.”

Dick gave one of his here-we-go-again sighs and went to borrow a shovel and wheelbarrow from the neighbors. We packed dry dirt around the tree until the ground was firm. Then Dick pounded stakes into the ground, stood the flimsy stalk upright, and without even a pretense of enthusiasm, secured it with stout cord.

That winter was surprisingly warm. “You can make it,” I urged the fragile sapling. In the spring my “rescue twig” put forth a few scrawny leaves. When another year had passed, branches poked out of what almost qualified as a trunk. The year after that, we were able to remove the stakes.

The tree spread upward and outward, its growth outpacing the subdivision’s. By the 1990s that little twig was a giant, towering over the house, easily the biggest, tallest thing in the neighborhood.

And the messiest. We discovered from someone who actually knew something about trees, that it was a cottonwood, arguably the least desirable tree in the world for a suburban lot. Every year, its long, drooping pink catkins fell all over everything–our rock garden, our yard, the neighbors’ yards.

In the fall, long after every other tree had dropped its leaves, the cottonwood held them, until the weight of the snow brought them down. Come spring, not only did we have the catkins to clean up, but a yard full of soggy leaves.

“Remember who wanted to save this thing?” Dick would mutter as he hauled away yet another heavy bag. By then I regretted my folly. “You’re nothing but a lot of work!” I’d tell the tree.

Now the tapping at the window continued, louder as the wind picked up. “Leave me alone,” I said, still focused on the dishes. “We should have ripped you out of the ground when we had the chance!”

But the knocking went on, insistent. Almost as though the tree were crying, Look up! Look at me! At last, I did.

I caught my breath. Framed in the window against the icy blue sky was something I had never seen in all my years in North Dakota. That day the temperature was minus 22 degrees, the world to all appearances locked in the death of midwinter. Yet the tree was bursting with life.

Thousands and thousands of delicate pink buds were exploding from swollen pods, swaying with joyful abandon in the wind. I stood at the window a long, long time.

Yes, the glory in front of my eyes seemed to say, there are seasons when things look as hopeless as a toppled tree, as barren as a Dakota winter. Wait a while. Something stronger is breaking through.

We had a wonderful Easter.


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