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Betsy Scott Sunshine at The Hill After a week of rain, the sunshine came out last Saturday, everyone declaring it to be the prettiest day of the year, June 15, 2013. The big sweeping lawn was particularly green. The leaves of the trees glistened in the sun. The Kousa Dogwoods were showing their white flowers in their best dress. There was even a slight breeze. It was Chris and Alison’s wedding day at The Hill, our country property in the Hudson Valley. They had chosen The Hill as their wedding venue and we had given our site to them as a wedding present. Chris is Kate John’s son and Kate is a renowned classical architect in the Hudson Valley and a friend. My husband and I hired her to renovate and expand our house on the property so there would be room for our now huge family: each of two children had married and between them presented us with eight grandchildren. Kate did a masterful job, creating an enlarged and beautiful home. As we worked together on the project over the course of two years, we talked about her son Chris, when we weren’t talking about the house. Chris graduated from Cornell University where he had met a wonderful girl Alison and had taken ROTC. Upon graduation he entered the Army for officers training and chose to become a helicopter pilot. With the completion of his training, he was sent off to Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot and scout. He had two year long tours of duty in the dangerous northern parts of Afghanistan where many of his peers had not come home again. ‘I just want him to come home in one piece, physically and mentally,” said Kate over and over to me. I cried with her. I was scared for her son as well. I kind of lived through her his leaves, like the time he was flying home to the base in North Carolina. Kate described how she stood and waited with all these other families as one by one the planes flew in. Finally, out stepped Chris from one of those big military transport planes….those tears flowed again. During Chris’s tours, every night he could, he skyped with Alison, never telling her all the dangerous things he was doing or what he saw but rather just about things in general. On breaks, Alison would fly to Germany or France or wherever Chris was located to have a reunion. Thus these two kept their relationship going for seven long years and finally Chris’s tours were complete and they felt free to marry. Chris went out into his family’s woods with an ax and cut down seven iron wood trees so he could make a huppah for his bride. Iron wood is the strongest and most lasting of woods. It was perfect for their huppah a symbol of the home they would build together. When I walked over to our barn the day before the wedding, I found Chris with his light brown hair still in military cut and smiling blue eye working with his iron wood trunks and light tan twine tying the iron wood together. The hoopa was placed out in the middle of our large sweeping lawn, actually a former horse paddock of which we had just taken down the fence the month before—and it looked so homey and welcoming. White padded chairs were placed in neat rows before the huppa, leaving a center aisle. Bunches of white and green roses, tulips and trailing ivy were tied at each corner. Chris came down the aisle escorted by both his parents, holding tight. Alison with her long straight black hair and sparkling dark brown eyes looked beautiful in her white strapless lace dress with a flowered rhinestone belt at her waist. She was escorted by both her parents. The rabbi told the assembled crowd that through the trials these two had endured, love and devotion had grown. Still no dry eyes. These two promised to cherish each other forever. At the reception at our great Palladian barn, taking place on the second floor that used to be the hay mow, the band played for the first dance and then the groom went to get his mother Kate and the bride her father. There was the accomplished lovely and loving mother in a long navy blue lace dress with a satin sash looking with great gratitude at her brave, dedicated, and happy son who had survived to see this day with his faithful Alison. It reminded one of Penelope. Still the tears, poured down with happiness from the whole assemblage. I thought about The Hill and how it has been purchased by Al and me to be the project maybe the cement of our new marriage after many trials and tragedies we had endured almost twenty two years previously. Once married, we had weathered our own storms of step family pulls and in the process had put together our sturdy huppah, home. It shone brightly up on The Hill all redone in shining white siding and on this, the wedding night of Chris and Alison, we had also given them our one bedroom apartment we had built in on one wing as a part of the new house, a place for one of our visiting sons or for a future caretaker in our old age, but at this the first night of its use, it was blessed by the presence of Chris and Alison.

The Wedding Tree

I sat in a cedar rocking chair on the front veranda of our home in the Hudson Valley and surveyed the wedding tree, a great White Pine, and thought about my marriage to Al, a union of two families, with two histories of sunshine and darkness.

I sat in a cedar rocking chair on the front veranda of our home in the Hudson Valley and surveyed the wedding tree, a great White Pine, and thought about my marriage to Al, a union of two families, with two histories of sunshine and darkness. The tree is majestic with a trunk twelve feet around and three main branches reaching to the sky. It is over one hundred and fifty years old with thick grey wrinkly chunky bark. The ever so tall trunks have many waving limbs filled out with cascades of pine needles. The upper branches, the newer one, grow up towards the sky. The lower ones go gracefully downwards forming arched canapés of shade and protection.

Twenty seven years earlier, I had been married to Bob, the father of my two children. There had been many green branches until an icy road in Vermont and a car accident. Then it was terrible, terrifying and finally empty. Our family as we had known it was decimated. Bob was no more and deep dark silence remained.

Nearly eight long years later, I married Al, a widower whose first wife had been brought down by illness. However, with the storms of the winter’s dying and losses behind us, the marriage was a renewal of the spring, like the great white pine in the sunshine with its waving tender new branches. To celebrate, we had bought ‘The Hill’ together with all the children, the concrete symbol of our new marriage.

Ours was a great partnership, really like the great tree, but blending together all those pasts into one family proved challenging. There were indeed different trunks with spaces in between that did not grow together. Al and I grew together but the children sometimes pulled us apart. Al’s children missed their mother. My children longed for their father. They all remembered the darkness or longed for the old kind of sunshine. Sometimes we were bent over with the ice. Al and I dug deep down into our roots and reached towards the heavens to find understanding and strength to hold together the great blended tree.
Then my daughter’s turn came for love. She chose the White Pine with its majesty and protecting branches as her wedding tree. At four o’clock on an early September afternoon, in the year 2000, the branches provided shade for the guests and the arch of the lower branches formed a chapel for the holy blessing of marriage.

On the great day of the wedding in the millennium year, the skies were doubtful. Was it going to clear or was it going to rain? We decided it was going to clear and set up the white chairs in neat rows before the great pine tree as well as placing a row of chairs for the string quartet from the Julliard to play the wedding music.

At quarter to four some grey clouds appeared and a few sprinkles fell. The musicians covered their delicate instruments and headed for the cover of our house up on the hill. The guests pulled out umbrellas and we moved the wedding to the barn with a crowd of 175 people and asked the ushers to bring down the chairs from the reception area on the second floor for the wedding guests to be seated. The wedding, to our relief, even with the rain, turned out to be lovely. The young couple had left our protection and gone out on their own.

Word got around and a number of engaged couples came to see our hill. They also loved the wedding tree as their place to get married. The brides, grooms, their families and friends brought bursts of joy and beauty to ‘The Hill ‘ with their weddings of flowers, radiance and love, quivers of energy, light and hope.

There were three or four weddings a year in the good weather, but during the periods when there were no weddings, the great white pine stood alone out on the front lawn. It was still majestic, until one winter there was a great ice storm and the build up of ice on the lovely wispy limbs was too much and parts of the tree broke off, breaking off more and more as it came cascading down to the ground. There were so many limbs on the ground that it covered the ground. The great tree had lost its filled out full growth and became thinner and broken.

When I looked up into the limbs of the formerly great white pine, it had many branches broken but clinging to branches further down. It had many limbs that had lost their bark, dried out and turned a light grey. Many of the thicker limbs stuck out like forbidding daggers.

In the spring came two tree men with a bucket truck. They carefully drove down to the pine and said it had been badly hit but they would clean it up. I sat down on the cedar rocking chair farther up on the hill to observe and direct the operation like a wise old owl. They went as high as they could in their bucket but that didn’t do the trick so they decided to climb the tree. They swung up their ropes on the highest limbs and made a seat for themselves where they could hold the long pruning clippers and slowly and carefully knock the hangers out of the tree and saw off the dead wood. I had become a grandmother, rocking away in the cedar chair, thinking back on my long life. Despite and because of the long winding, turning, breaking, mending the tree and my second union were not just standing but alive with the promise of growing mellowed love.

We decided to leave the broken limbs of the pine that had a graceful curve and trim off those that went straight out like daggers. Soon the ground was littered again with all the dead branches from the great tree.

The tree was again handsome. I sat and contemplated the shorn wedding tree. It was thinner, grayer, with more spaces to see the sky. The tree men had managed to create another chapel like arching branch at the bottom.

Surveying the tree once more from the rocking chair, I observed the old white pine, broken and reshaped. Its great height still provided shade for future wedding guests coming to witness the binding of young love under the arching branches. It was still a great tree like our family with its multiple trunks and branches.

Author: Elizabeth Jacks Scott, author of Widowhood: Doorway to Calling and Conversion and a family therapist in New York City.