Once Upon a Time

My next-door neighbor has a small weeping willow tree in her backyard. A neighbor across the housing edition’s common space has sunflowers. That’s what inspired this post.


Willow Tree












When I was a kid, my mother’s parents had a house in Chittenango, New York. I remember a lot of things about the house, but some of my favorite memories have to do with the yard. For one thing, I remember that my grandfather had a small garden. I don’t remember what he grew, other than tomatoes and sunflowers. He was the only person I knew who specifically grew sunflowers, and I absolutely loved them. I don’t know that I ever actually touched them, or even wanted to go too close to them. I wasn’t specifically avoiding them, of course, because I thought they were fantastic… but I think somehow, even as a kid, I knew that I just might like the idea of them more than the reality of them. I still don’t know anything about growing them; I don’t know how their stems feel against the palms of my hands, or if they have a noticeable smell, or what sort of work you have to do in order to keep them alive. I just loved that my grandfather had flowers that were so much bigger and more intense than any flowers in the yards of anyone else that I knew. They were flowers out of fairy tales, as far as I was concerned.

They also had a weeping willow tree, with a homemade swing hanging from it. The swing was great — of course, all swings are pretty great — but I loved the tree. Just like with the sunflowers, I didn’t know anyone else who had a weeping willow. I remember being heartbroken when they cut it down, and by then I think I might have been a teenager already. But when it was around, I loved playing by it, swinging from it, even just looking out the small window by the table in the kitchen and seeing it there, branches flowing with the breeze like it was underwater.

In my memories from childhood, the sunflowers and the willow tree were so incredibly huge. I know, obviously, that some of that is just perspective. I’ve seen plenty of sunflowers and I know that they don’t grow as big as I remember Grandpa’s sunflowers growing. The willow tree — well, that I don’t know. Some of those get pretty gigantic. But to me, as a kid, it was the biggest tree that ever grew outside a forest. There was something about it that was almost magical. Like the sunflowers, it felt as if it were from a fairy tale.

After my grandmother had passed away, when it became clear that my grandfather was no longer going to be able to live on his own in that house, I visited one last time to “claim” some things that he wasn’t going to need. The emotions of that day were powerful; I think I grieved for my grandmother in a way that I hadn’t even done at her funeral. Some of the items I claimed were ones that I had fond, specific memories of — such as the board game “Careers” that I remembered playing with my cousins and siblings time and time again. Others were items I had never actually played with or held before, but that I had secretly built stories around — such as a hand-sized Model T that seemed to be made out of scrap hardware pieces like washers and nuts. I couldn’t even really remember the stories I had dreamed up about it, but in the shadows of my memory it had meaning and importance.

I remember going to the window that looked out at the yard. I remembered how I occasionally used to sit there, forcing myself to eat the slices of banana Grandma had put into my cereal because if I could just get through the banana, there would be a molasses cookie after breakfast. I remembered how it was seated at that small table that I had first seen a junebug, and how it had scared me with its size — a giant bug that was, like so many other things at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, from a fairy tale. I remember Grandpa flicking the screen and the junebug arcing away from the window, only starting to fly when it was halfway to the ground. Grandpa was a minor hero that day.

I looked out at the yard. There was no garden, of course, although sometimes in my memories of that day I see heat-tired, somewhat scraggly remnants of sunflowers that just couldn’t make it without Grandpa’s attention. I have no idea if this memory is real or something symbolic my mind has created. And the willow was long gone. And the hill that led up to the neighbor’s yard seemed so small compared to my memories from childhood.

Grandma was gone. Grandpa was clearly going. And the fairy tales were over.

Grandpa suffered from a long, lingering dementia — almost definitely Alzheimer’s, although if I understand correctly they can’t technically diagnose that with 100% certainty until an autopsy, and I doubt there was any point in doing that for Grandpa when he passed away. At various times, he would answer questions about what he had done that day with brief explanations of how he had milked the cows (something he probably hadn’t done since the forties or even the thirties). He didn’t remember that his siblings and friends and his wife had already passed on; instead, he remembered (or imagined) conversations they had “just had.” It was terribly confusing and sometimes terrifying for him, although I am certain that it was more painful for us. Sometimes, I think that what he was remembering was something that really happened; sometimes, I think he was reinterpreting his own secret fairy tales.

It would be unrealistic to say that I “grew up” that day, feeling that the fairy tales were gone. I was old enough by that point that I’d experienced plenty of disappointments and realistic setbacks in my life. But it still felt like a loss. The memories were so big and wide, and the reality was so small and faded.

…But I have a daughter now. A daughter who is going to grow up with a small weeping willow tree in the neighbor’s yard, and sunflowers across the way. I don’t know if those are necessarily going to be part of her fairy tales; maybe she’ll latch on to something else entirely that makes her happy simply for the reason that they’re bigger, or prettier, or more something than everything else she knows.

She has the wonder — already, at seven and a half months old — that all children should be blessed to have. And as I’m starting to see things through her eyes (that dog is so exciting! that plum looks amazing! Daddy, look at your hands! Have you seen them? Look at them!)… or maybe as I start to imagine how she sees things… I’m discovering the fairy tales aren’t gone. I just stopped reading them.

This entry was posted in Family, Fatherhood, Personal History, Thinky Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

116 Responses to Once Upon a Time

  1. Really beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kellie says:

    just made me cry..

  3. Elise M says:

    This was so awesome. My parents had two weeping willows, they had to cut one down, but the other is still there. And so is the tree swing.

    At almost 30, I still go home and down the yard to the lake, where the weeping willow lives, welcoming the sunrise and wishing the sunset a goodnight, and swing on that swing. I know that when I have my own house, I will most definitely have a weeping willow for myself… Or, for my kids.

    Thanks for the read. ❀

  4. It’s memories like these that make us whole as a person. Weeping willow trees also played a nice role in my childhood. I used to skate underneath them. I’d look up to it and marvel at the magical canopy above me. You’re most right, it is magic. =>

  5. This was wonderful! πŸ™‚ I demand another! *smashes cup*

    • strangedavid says:

      Thank you! I can’t promise every post will have anywhere near this depth, but I hope I can be this honest with my writing as much as possible. Also, clean up that mess. There are glass shards everywhere.

  6. kagaminelin says:

    What beautiful post! :’)
    …but, when I was young, I never have that feel… err, about your ‘fairy tale’

  7. Sunflowers are beautiful, and the ones we have grown are taller by far than I. Ah, the weeping willow. My fondest memory of that treeβ€”going out and choosing the switch to be used on my bottom when I was bad.
    P.S. Don’t ever choose the short switch. Did not learn that early enough!

    • strangedavid says:

      I was fortunate enough to never get switched. Although the grandmother who had that tree always used to like to point out that I was the only one of her grandchildren she ever had to spank with a wooden spoon.

      So… what’s the problem with choosing the short switch?

  8. Jon Wilson says:

    Reminds me of my great Aunt and Uncle. There memory is … much like your post.

  9. skinnyjenn says:

    I too have beautiful memories of my grandparent’s home. Both are still living but have retired their garden which also had giant magical sunflowers. Thanks for reminding me how special my childhood was and how lucky I am to still have them around.

    • strangedavid says:

      You’re so welcome! I miss my grandparents; I never realized how much I took them for granted until my grandmother started to fade into dementia. She has been gone for almost twelve years now. I think she would have liked this post too.

  10. dellasman says:

    You really struck a chord here. Memories of grandparents are so, so special, & even if we’re not sure about the accuracy of the memory, what does it matter? Wonderful post.

  11. Jnana Hodson says:

    It’s surprising how many of these associations we carry through life, and how many we pick up along the way.
    The aroma of hay will send me to the barn lofts on Uncle Arlie’s farm in Ohio, where we played as children. The smell of lamp oil likewise triggers memories of Grandma and Grandpa’s attic, where we kids imagined our own space rocket, which we somehow drove using the window cranks.
    Even the sound of that magical place name Chittenango recalls my first few years after college, not far to the south of your story, along with thoughts of older colleagues and mentors who have long passed from the scene.
    Sounds like your daughter’s well on her way to having a rich legacy in the vivid images department. Keep up the good work.

    • strangedavid says:

      Thank you so much! And I love your response; while I didn’t have much to do with hay or lamp oil, scents do amazing things for memory. I can’t smell cedar without thinking of the bedroom I used to stay in when visiting those grandparents.

  12. A beautiful post, with vivid memories. It ill cause all who read to reflect back on their own memories.

  13. Sarah says:

    Lovely post, glad I got to see it Freshly Pressed.

  14. read.robin says:

    This was incredibly touching, with lovely imagery. Thank you so much for sharing; the message is universal.

  15. GG says:

    Growing up takes long time. I just take me also forever.
    Only at the very end then we have done growing up.

    I love your post.

  16. dragonhuaw says:

    Letting go loved ones is difficult. Fortunately there are always new loved ones coming in our lives.

  17. groovylove says:

    I LOVE your post! You captured the very emotion from your heart, and put it into such descriptive, and beautiful words. I love how you speak so lovingly of your grandparents. I miss mine so much more now than I did when they passed over a decade ago, there is so much I’d love to talk with them about; if only I still could. You have a real talent for writing, and I’ll be coming back for more! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!!

  18. datadiary123 says:

    In dis time dis green tree not possible…….

    • strangedavid says:

      I’m not sure what you mean. There’s a lot of urban dystopia, sure, but there are still lots of places in the world where nature gets to thrive…

      • datadiary123 says:

        Sorry for bad writing… my point of view in this time more tree grow are not possible…….

      • strangedavid says:

        I don’t think we’ve reached quite that point of downward slide into urban takeover. And even if we have — even if we’re fighting a losing battle and we eventually lose all of the green space — it’s worth it to me to keep fighting. If we want more trees, let’s plant more trees.

  19. What a beautiful post. It took me right back to my grandma’s back garden. She used to grow all kinds of things. I remember the little red berries she grew and she’d have to have a green net over them to stop the dreaded birds getting at them. They were like little rubies.

    Thank you so much for making me remember things I’ve not thought about in a long time.

    • strangedavid says:

      You’re quite welcome; any idea what kind of berries they were? I had forgotten all about the berries that used to grow on the bushes at the edge of the cemetery that was behind my first childhood home, but “little rubies” is a great way to describe them!

  20. blushingsea says:

    This was fantastic to read. Thank you for sharing. Weeping willows were always a fantasy tree for me as well. I remember the day I saw my first weeping willow, not ever realizing that the neighbour down the road also had one (is was a small one compared to the one I remember, and the branches were always trimmed really short). I played for hours around that weeping willow – we were camping, so it keps us kids busy. πŸ™‚

    Imagination is important to have. I hope that your daughter maintains her worldly wonderment well into her years. Never take anything for granted, because you never know when it might all disappear.

    • strangedavid says:

      Thank you so much! That’s one of the biggest things I wish for, for my daughter — that even as she grows and the wondrous becomes mundane, that she continues to find new things that will dazzle her.

  21. As the saying goes, “Do not underestimate the wisdom of the old.”
    You’re very good in storytelling. Keep it up. And keep us posted.

    • strangedavid says:

      Thank you! I hope I’m not that old yet, and I doubt that I’m that wise… but you’ve made me think that perhaps the wisdom was that of my grandparents in providing us with such things to wonder about. Now I wonder WHY my grandfather grew sunflowers. He always seemed so practical about everything but the Yankees.

  22. AdzPapa says:

    I just don’t know what to say. I feel like I’ve been standing next to you, seeing what you see as you look out upon your grandparent’s yard. I’ll I know for sure is that I was having a bad day and now it’s better. Well written.


  23. A tiny house on top of a large hill, a pot belly stove, an outhouse in the summer and buckets in the overhang in the winter. Washing machine in the kitchen, no dryer, clothes hung outside all year. It didn’t last long, they both passed very young. But I do remember love and grandma’s Lily of the Valley under the bushes. Life was not the same after they were gone.
    Thank you for such a moving and touching post. It allowed me to remember what has long been forgotten. I grow Sunflowers every year because I love them so. Weeping Willow is my all time favorite tree. Just seeing one gives me a flood of imagination.

    • strangedavid says:

      Until relatively recently, I never understood when people became nostalgic for things like that. I always focused on the future, on modernity, on the urban. And while I’ll never be a country boy at heart, there is a special place in my soul that I discovered was reserved for those moments of the past. Keep growing the sunflowers!!!

  24. Emily says:

    I absolutely loved reading this post and I cried too! Thanks for sharing this story with such grace. My grandparents’ house was also a magic place and I remember sitting by the kitchen window looking outside at the sunflowers growing tall in Grandpa’s garden just beside the carrots Grandma would let me pick to feed the horses…that was 18 years ago, I was only four but the image is still so clear in my mind. Grandma was the sweetest and most loving person I have ever known, now just thinking of her and remembering her beautiful smile is as magic as a fairy tale to me! I hope you can still build your own special fairy tales enjoying the wonder and excitement in your daughter’s discoveries:)

  25. Really beautiful strangedavid, truly touching. Thankyou for sharing that cherised memory with the world and your right, I think we all stop reading fairytales at one point – learning how to believe again? That’s something that should never be forgotten. Thankyou

  26. I love the last line, the fairy tales haven’t gone, I just stopped reading them. Beautifully written.

  27. deckshoes says:

    I don’t remember seeing weeping willow trees in the country where I grew up. When my mother first flew over to visit me four years ago, we went out on the river and she spotted a weeping willow. She asked me what it was and asked to have a picture taken with it. I knew it was her new favourite tree.

    My daughter is almost 22 months. When she was much smaller, I would show her the flowers and fruit in the garden and I’d pick cherries and eat them – the look of both wonder and disbelief on her face was priceless (I’m obviously more careful now that she can easily copy and might just pluck and eat any fruit).

    Thank you for a beautiful, thoughtful post, I really love it!

    • strangedavid says:

      Thank you! The image in my head of your daughter and the cherries — I’m sure it’s wildly inaccurate as I have no idea what you look like — but it’s a wonderful visual. Thank you so much!

  28. What a beautiful piece of writing! Thank you for sharing it.

  29. vandysnape says:

    Wonderfully written that I read the entire post twice πŸ™‚ Your post put a smile on my face πŸ™‚

  30. Floyda Foley says:

    Great reads! I really enjoyed reading…

  31. Marco says:

    Thank you for sharing this.

  32. Beautiful – the tears are still rolling down my cheeks.

  33. Whalebomb says:

    Beautiful post. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • strangedavid says:

      You’re welcome, and thank you! Also, thank you for introducing me to the phrases “tornadoes in your melon” and “whalebomb.” I have no idea what context you have for them, but it gives me lovely Douglas Adams imagery.

      • Whalebomb says:

        Wow, that’s an amazing compliment and I’m sure the real explanations would bore you. Tornadoes in Your Melon is kind of explained in the “About” page on my blog…and within my attempts at writing on there as well. Simply, its my fancy way of saying “brainstorming” (but feel free to browse my blog if you’d like- shameful plug). Whalebomb would relate to me how sunflowers and weeping willows did to you. From my childhood, it’s the name of a dollar store toy that my friend and I had a wonderful time laughing about. Never knew what it was or did, we didn’t buy it. We just thought the name was histerical. I sort of regret not buying it. But like your blog post, it’s probably best Whalebomb lives on in fairytale land. Had we bought it, it probably would have broke within minutes and the appeal of its name may have wore off by now.

      • strangedavid says:

        Probably true — so often buying the things we think we want leads to disappointment, especially when we’re kids.

        And I do intend to check out your blog as soon as I have the chance!

  34. Chris says:

    Great post David. Thank you.

    It instantly had me reminiscing of how we used to play badminton at my Grandparents and I had to climb up on their roof to retrieve a wayward birdie. Or when my grandfather would take us to the beach to look at the moon through his 4.5″ refractory telescope. Everything was so big and full of wonder then.

    I too have small children (2.5 and < 1) and I can see the joy and amazement they fell in the most mundane daily objects. Who can resist smiling at a squealing baby energetically ripping up grass in the backyard or a toddler that smiles like you made his day when you say, "Let's go down to the shed."

    Wonder, amazement and joy, these are the fountain of youth.

    Thanks again!

  35. Mg says:

    My twin sister and I used to share a secret playhouse space in the area hidden by a weeping willow’s branches that hung all the way to the ground. To this day, I take the side of the trees against being cut down for something so picayune and workaday as a road or an office building.

    (And, BTW, I have seen six foot tall sunflowers in recent years. Your memory may be quite accurate.)

    • strangedavid says:

      I have also seen sunflowers six feet tall. I have not seen them ten feet tall and thick as telephone poles. Pretty sure that was just a matter of perspective from a short kid. πŸ™‚

      • Mg says:

        OK, then! I suspect that sunflowers do not get as thick as telephone poles! Great memory though. I’d keep that one just as is. Literal truth can go hang.

  36. What a beautiful memory,it’s funny how reading about someones memories can flood your very own. The weeping willow brings so many wonderful memories of my late wife it was her favorite tree and it was always my desire to give her very own but because of HOA regulations that wasn’t possible. The sunflowers bring back memories of awe that my 3 children had of them in their younger years. I truly thank you for bringing back such precious memories in a sometimes not so great time in my life.

  37. Life & Sunshine says:

    Favorite Tree! & Favorite Firework! The weeping willow is sure to bring out the kid in all of us πŸ™‚ It’s beautiful you are able to make new memories with your daughter built on the nostalgia that is already there πŸ™‚

  38. Thank you so much for posting this – really poignant and well-written.

  39. Moniba says:

    Lovely lovely post…. I’ve never seen a weeping willow…but it looks…”poetic”!

  40. Deva Sudha says:

    What a wonderful post!! Took me back to my childhood days in my grandparents’ house. I miss them so much and this post made me miss them still more… Thanks for such a wonderful post.

  41. magpye says:

    This is a beautifully written post, and took me back to times with my grandparents, decades gone now, and the little things I’ve not thought about in so long. My grandfather was a stoic and stony man, but he had a special place in his heart and pride in his Irises, reminding me of your grandfather’s Sunflowers. Thank you for sharing!

  42. Beautiful and evocative. Here is a post worthy of being FPd!
    Enjoy the ride πŸ™‚

  43. sarahnsh says:

    This is really a beautiful post and I know I loved all of the stories my grandparents would tell me especially as a little kid. My husband’s grandma is going through dementia and she is having problems remembering people and has some good days where she’s better, and bad days when she forgets names and where’s she’s at.

    • strangedavid says:

      I’m so sorry to hear that; it’s the only disease I know that is harder on the survivors than the affected. I wish my grandparents had told me more stories; it’s one thing I hope to pass on to future generations in my family.

  44. Carol M. Chase says:

    You have great literary talent! I throughly enjoyed your story and could visualize your Grandparents house and yard though I’ve never seen it. Alzheimer’s is one of the saddest diseases- mostly to those who see their loved one slipping away. Your great Uncle Frank still knows who I am but can’t understand what is happening to him. It is called “The Long Good-bye”. Blessings to you and your family.
    Aunt Carol

    • strangedavid says:

      Hi, Aunt Carol; thank you so much. It’s definitely the saddest disease I know of; I only hope that the people going through it get to have beautiful dreams to make up for the confusion when they’re awake.

  45. Beautifully written. As I have gotten older, I have seen many things within and around me change, yet somehow, I still believe in the same magic I did when I was a child. You’re right. Fairy tales do exist, we just need to keep looking.

  46. Just love this post. Simply perfect. How I wish I could write as good as you do. I envy those people, like you, who has the ability to capture and inspire readers and leave a lingering effect that could really penetrate deep down to our souls. And yes, I do believe too that fairytales aren’t gone.

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