Standing at the edge of a field not too far out from town is an old, gnarled maple tree. During the Spring and Summer, the higher branches seem unable to bear leaves although there are plenty of leaf-bearing branches to provide shade and to offer a decent display of colors come Fall. There is a wound at one side where a large branch had broken off sometime in the past.
Nearby, an obviously old, but well-maintained, farmhouse sits back from the road that leads through the valley past productive farmland with the Blue Ridge Mountains off to the east. The town nearby is a busy, small town, giving the residents of the surrounding farms some community connections with schools, churches, businesses and other activities.
In the year 1900, a young farmer named Ben Caldwell built the farmhouse on his newly acquired acreage and had begun to establish a dairy farm. A year or so after completing the construction of the house, a barn and silo, and acquiring a herd of dairy cattle, Ben met and married a young woman named Maggie. Upon the celebration of their first wedding anniversary, Ben planted a young but good-size maple tree for Maggie. He set it at the edge of the yard where it could be seen from their bedroom window. The following year a son was born, and he was named Davey.
Through the passage of time the maple tree, which came to be known as Maggie’s Tree, grew tall and spread its branches wide and high, providing welcomed shade during the hot Summer days. Maggie and Davey spent many afternoons there; the mother sewing, knitting, shelling peas, or otherwise occupied, while the young lad played with toys or spent time on the swing that his father had hung from the tree’s strongest branch. The family often had picnic dinners together or with friends under the tree’s shade and the Autumn colors displayed by Maggie’s Tree were beautiful to see from the bedroom window.
One Spring day when Davey had grown to become a tall, strong teenager, Maggie fell ill. She did her best to continue her daily living but by Autumn she became bedridden and very weak. Ben had moved the bed so that his wife could see out the window to her tree and the full Autumn colors it displayed, its branches now spread high and wide. Father and son spent as much time as they could with Maggie, who watched as the leaves began to fall from the maple tree, blown across the grass by the blustery wind. As Ben and Davey sat with Maggie, she looked at her son and weakly, but clearly, said, “Davey, no matter what happens with your life, please promise to take care of the maple tree for me.” And, so he promised, as the last leaves fell off the maple tree and Maggie passed away.
The years passed and generations of the Caldwell family continued the farming operation and one or the other of the family resided in the house. Some members went to war; some died; some returned safely; some of them died from illnesses; some moved away to marry or pursue other options that came available to them. But always a Caldwell family member lived on the farm and Maggie’s Tree remained at the edge of the yard. There was an unwritten understanding within the Caldwell family (and an often-requested deathbed promise) that the tree should not only stay there, but it should be cared for by whoever was residing in the farmhouse.
The tree became a beautiful, strong maple tree, a landmark visible to anyone passing by, with a high crown and wide-spreading branches. The new leaves in the Spring seemed to shimmer in the light and during the hot summers, provided shade for the generations of the Caldwell family. Many family picnics were held beneath the tree and Autumn gatherings were enjoyed while family and friends shared the farm’s Summer bounty.
But Maggie’s Tree aged with the passage of time. One year a young child of the Caldwell family went outside to play on the swing under the tree. He was soon back in the kitchen, crying because he had found the branch holding the swing had broken off and was lying on the ground beneath the tree. He was very upset because he was concerned that Maggie’s Tree was in pain. His parents assured him that trees don’t feel pain like people do. Later that evening, the father went out to Maggie’s Tree, cleaned up the area from which the branch had broken, and took the broken branch and debris away. Several weeks later, the father gave his young son a gift – a walking stick made from a section of the broken branch. It was rather tall for the young boy at the time, but he would grow into it and would use it over the years to take long walks around the farm or to hike in the nearby mountains. He called it his “Maggie stick”.
As the young boy grew into his teens, he would often spend his free time sitting under Maggie’s Tree, reading and contemplating his future. His father was the fourth generation of Caldwells to live and work on the farm. This young boy, named Ben after his Great-Great-Great Grandfather, was not at all certain that he would want to continue on the farm. He really hoped to attend college and become a lawyer. Fortunately, Ben’s father understood and supported Ben’s wish to pursue a career other than farming. And so that is exactly what occurred. Ben left the farm to go to college and his father gradually sold off the surrounding fields and the herd of dairy cows. Years passed and Maggie’s Tree remained at the edge of the yard, still providing shade for family gatherings; the Caldwell aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and spouses, etc. coming together every Summer from far and near, to share news and food.
After completing college, Ben had joined a law firm in a town about two hours south of the farm, had married, and he and his wife had just had a new baby. Ben and his wife tried to visit his father at the old farmhouse as often as possible, since Ben’s mother had passed away several years before. The day arrived when Ben’s father became very ill and took to his bed, where he could see Maggie’s Tree from the window. Ben took some time off to care for his father, realizing the end was near. His father asked his son for the promise, requested from the same bed down through the generations, to please care for Maggie’s Tree. As Ben looked out of the window, he realized that the old maple tree was about 120 years old! Maggie’s Tree had stood there all those years and had seen four generations of Caldwell’s come and go. The now twisted, lichen-covered, gnarly trunk still held its branches high throughout the seasons; new shiny Spring green leaves; large, deeper green Summer leaves and brilliant orange and red Autumn leaves; and then the bare, leafless branches in Winter. As Ben thought about Maggie’s Tree and how he could care for it, an idea began to come to him.
“Yes, Dad,” Ben promised. “I will care for Maggie’s Tree and, even more, I will care for this house.”
Then father and son held hands and together looked out at Maggie’s Tree as another generation passed on.
Today, driving toward the small, but bustling farm town, one passes right by the old Caldwell farmhouse and, depending upon the season, there might be young children playing under or climbing in the old maple tree at the edge of the yard; a gathering of family, old and young, having come from near and far to share food and laughter in the shade; children playing after school and jumping in piles of fallen Autumn leaves; a snowman sitting in the snow beneath the bare branches and next to the starkly visible, twisted and bent trunk of the old tree. In the nearby town there is a sign outside an office building on Main Street that reads “Ben Caldwell, Attorney-at-Law”. And the young family residing in the old farmhouse is now the fifth generation of the Caldwell family to live there.
And Maggie’s Tree is lovingly cared for, as always promised.