It was a Norman Rockwell tree. Each spring the crabapple, on schedule, would unsheathe its buds and break into a great song of white blossoms. Always the first week in April.
The crabapple is blooming, we would say (as if we had to remind each other to look) and we would gape at the sheer splendor of it, as though we had never seen it before.
The spectacle lasted one short week. Then petals began slipping away. Taken by spring breezes, a sudden squall, or because it was their time, they would drift earthward until the path was white.
We loved that spring snow. We didn’t sweep or shovel. Scuff the soles of our shoes on the door mat? We invariably left tracks in the house.
It didn’t matter. Time enough to clear the petals after they turned to dry crumbs.
Flounces gone, the tree veiled itself in green and opened its branches for tenants.
Robins nested, or cardinals, or sometimes mourning doves. Crowded leaves and tangled branches gave them a sense of snug privacy, but we watched anyway from a bedroom window.
Later, noisy visitors, not the original nesters who’d gone off as soon as they dared, teetered on branches and fluttered their wings while they squawked for food.
Squirrels romped. Playing tag? Or checking green berries for ripeness.
Once we saw a snake sunning on a south-facing branch.
It was a tree that kids could climb. The thick trunk divided itself about four feet from the ground, and branches followed from there out to a twenty-foot crown.
If you were nimble, you could get almost to the top.
It was a tree that retired gracefully into the background after its triumphant flash.
It was content to play a supporting role in the garden for the rest of the year.
In winter, its dark, trunk played off lesser but more elegant snow-draped plants.
In summer it anchored less permanent plants, hosta and epimedium that would look dowdy come fall and gaudy New Guinea impatiens whose turn had come to shine.
Squirrels seemed to be the first to find ripe berries in the fall. Tiny berries, the kind birds prize because they are an easy mouthful, appeared with stunning abundance.
They were efficient, these squirrels, tackling the tree in stages, lowest story first, then spiraling around to upper stories.
Birds were less efficient, and by the end of the season berries still crowned the top of the tree, along with stragglers here and there.
Some of these fell and were crunched on the path and some germinated in the garden. We swept the path and pulled the seedlings.
But we took no grand pictures of the berrying tree.
Thousands of small berries could not compare to the extravaganza of spring when forsythia, quince and daffodils, and sometimes the redbud depending on seasonal events, came into bloom.
Did I mention that the crabapple saved our house? During Hurricane Isabel a cluster of pine trees gave way in saturated ground.
In retrospect, we should have removed them years before when they were young, but we did not think them a threat.
Storm winds grabbed them and whipped them up against the house. The crabapple stayed fast between the house and the pines.
We knew nothing until we tried to open the front door next morning.
The tree was fifteen years old then. We had purchased it as a three-foot whip from Kmart for $10 (or maybe only $8, we can’t remember) in 1988 and planted it in a raised bed of muck and imported farmer’s soil and hoped it would survive where two other trees had failed.
It was so spindly it never crossed our minds that it would be too close to the house when it grew up.
As in all things, there was a price, and it came to be a dear one.
The crabapple was left battered by the pines. Limbs crushed and contorted had to be removed before healing could begin. Limbs encroaching on the house needed to be cut back.
That was in 2003. Wounds healed and scarred.
Limbs thickened. New branches sprouted.
Blooms still astonished each spring and the crabapple became a centerpiece in a garden of low-growing, newly planted, fall-blooming camellias that we massed behind a dwarf yaupon holly hedge.
But the crabapple never truly recovered.
Branches that should have arched gracefully to the sky stood up straight and stiff as toy soldiers, almost leafless, barren of side shoots.
Water sprouts we called them, an ugly reaction to the shock of losing so much of its crown in so short a time.
The drastic pruning disfigured the tree, destroyed its symmetry, but for just one week in spring each year that magnificent bloom erased the insults.
Each year that passed the tree failed a little. After a while it could no longer hold its leaves through the summer.
Berries dulled and dropped, failing to whet appetites of squirrels or birds.
The mess of it all overcame us.
It took us five years for us to decide that the crabapple had to come down.
It took an hour and a half for a team of four to take it down.
We didn’t know how much the tree was hurting until we saw the cut limbs.
Normal crabapple heartwood is reddish brown. This tree’s heartwood was shot through with black stigma, a sure sign of rot within. Somewhere in the trunk there was a tiny cavern where two slugs were spotted, probably enjoying a cool dark moist hangout.
The wasting began a long time ago. The arborist pointed out a tiny hole in a scar where a limb had been cut.. Inconsequential portal for a scrap of a spore that would grow a fungus that would begin the outsized task of breaking down a tree.
By the time they were finished, the crabapple with that magnificent bloom was reduced to an assortment of limbs and branches, a pile of wood chips, some crusty leaves, and a few berries scattered among the washed river run that defines our driveway.
We can see sky from the bedroom window.
We can see the house from the road, and it seems so spacious.
We aren’t sweeping berries from the path this fall. There’s sunlight in the living room. The garden seems empty.