BENEATH THE PIN OAK

On a spectacular April afternoon in 1929, a six-year-old girl eagerly followed her father to the northwest corner of their acreage. Having to take four steps to each one of his, she struggled mightily to keep up, but she wanted to be there for the big event.

Although her dad lived with impaired vision, the result of a serious childhood illness, out of the corner of his eye he still managed to notice that she was lagging behind. Realizing his daughter’s efforts to maintain the same pace was wearing her out, he slowed down so that she could comfortably walk next to him. In his right hand, he carried the reason for the little girl’s excitement; a 4-foot tall pin oak. In the other hand was a heavy shovel.

After another 30 seconds, which seemed like hours to the little girl, they reached a good spot. He stopped, looked down through his thick spectacles at his daughter, and smiled. “What do you think, Eleanor? Is this where we should plant it?”

With great drama, she answered, “Yes! Right here.”

He believed she agreed it was the right spot, but he also suspected she was too tired to walk any farther.

Carefully, he set the pin oak down and stood it up straight. “Okay, you’re going to be my helper. I need you to hold the tree while I dig the hole. Can you do that?”

“Of course.” Always delighted to get to help her dad, she sprang into action getting a good grip on the small tree that was only slightly taller than her.

Plunging the shovel into the ground, her father began to dig. Thanks to all of the spring rain, the fertile soil was soft, so it didn’t take too long until he’d dug out a hole he judged to be about the right size.

He winked at his daughter. “All right, little lady, let’s lift her up together and set her in place.”

With all four hands, they positioned the tree just so. “Hold her as still as you can, while I shovel the dirt back in.”

“Okay, Daddy.” With excitement rising in her voice, she proclaimed, “I think this is going to be the best tree ever!”

Her father nodded. “You and this tree are going to grow up together. And by the time you get married and have a family of your own, you won’t believe how tall it is.”

Naturally inquisitive, his daughter asked, “Will it be as tall as the house?”

He rubbed his chin while he thought about it. “I think it will be even taller than that. Pin oaks grow pretty fast. That’s one of the reasons I chose this kind of tree…… You’re too young to understand this right now, but planting a tree is an act of hope.”

He was right. Ellie didn’t quite understand. “What do you mean?”

Her father smiled. “We plant trees now even though we know it will take some time before we can enjoy their shade, or climb on them, or hang a swing on them. They teach us the importance of patience, but we always have hope that someday they will be big and strong.”

After a few more minutes, the hole was filled in and the dirt was packed down. They stepped back and admired their handiwork. Wiping his hands on his handkerchief, her father said, “I think it looks good here.”

Ellie checked the pin oak over carefully and agreed, “Me too.” Then, out of the blue, a thought occurred to her, and she innocently asked, “Do you think momma would like our tree?”

The reaction to her question was unavoidable as a small lump began to form in the throat of Gilbert Sawyer. His beautiful wife had died during childbirth, depriving Ellie of her mother’s love. It was a subject he believed was too intense for his young daughter, so he preferred not to dwell on it. Doing his best to keep his voice steady, he said, “I think she would be very happy with it – and she would be proud of you for helping me.”

Ellie was glad to hear that it would meet with her mother’s approval, but she was still doubtful about how much it would grow. “I don’t know if this little tree can get as big as our house.”

Her father took her tiny hand in his, and they started back – at a child’s pace. “I promise, Eleanor. Just give it time, and you will see.”

And, of course, time did go by. The years were marked by the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, multiple military conflicts, public health scares, political assassinations, and countless other moments in history – but no matter how often humanity faltered, the tree continued to thrive.

But there was one person, in particular, for whom the pin oak would mark the passing of time, and that was the little girl who helped her father plant it in the exact spot where it was meant to be. It would spend the next 90 years watching over Ellie as her long life unfolded, sometimes filled with great joy and at other times great sorrow, but always within sight of the majestic tree.

And that is where the story begins.

***

It was a happy childhood considering the circumstances. Ellie’s father did his best to fill both parental roles for his child, but as she watched her friends with their mothers, part of her always regretted not having that special connection.

As for the pin oak, it grew quickly and soon became her favorite place to play. As an only child, she learned to entertain herself, and Gilbert always knew he would find his young daughter playing with her dolls and other toys near the tree.

Not surprisingly, as Ellie grew older, the walk to the pin oak seemed to get shorter and shorter. What once seemed like quite a journey was nothing now. On a warm summer day, she would gulp down her breakfast, rush out the backdoor, and head for that enchanting spot.

Growing at more than two feet per year, the pin oak’s size increased rapidly and soon became the focal point of the yard. Perhaps no greater affection that can be shown for a tree than to have it mark the resting place of the things you care about. Over time, a shady area on the west side became an unofficial burial ground for a variety of pets. The various graves included eleven goldfish, three hamsters, two cats, a pet rabbit, and Ellie’s prized West Highland Terrier, Bonnie.

The pin oak was also home to generations of squirrels who depended on it for food and shelter. Their acrobatic exploits amazed the little girl who would watch them with fascination. A wide variety of birds also flocked there, and Ellie liked to listen to their singing and chirping. To her childlike thinking, the tree contained an entire universe of living things, and she spent every minute she could there.

As she got a little older, reading under its leafy branches became one of her passions. There was nothing Ellie enjoyed more than sitting in its bountiful shade with a good book that took her imagination away. For so many reasons, the pin oak became the most important place in the world to Ellie.

The tree also became a popular destination for the other children in the neighborhood, and it provided hours of fun as well as safety since parents always knew where their kids were. Ellie was even willing to share the pin oak with the young boys in the area, although she considered them to be thoroughly disgusting. However, that attitude began to change in her early teens – and by the time she was 15, Ellie was mature enough to appreciate many of the complexities inherent in relationships.

But there was one thing that remained a mystery and that was why her father had never remarried. Ellie was curious not because she wanted someone to fill the role of her mother, but because she believed her father needed someone in his life. So on a warm summer afternoon, as they sat under the pin oak drinking lemonade, she decided to find out why.

Working up her courage, Ellie eased into the conversation by asking cautiously, “Dad, do you ever feel lonely? I mean without having a wife?”

“What?” Gilbert was caught off guard.

Feeling awkward for prying, Ellie still pushed ahead. “I know it’s none of my business, but why haven’t you gotten remarried? I mean you don’t even go out with women or anything.” Then, because it was her worst fear, she added softly, “I hope it’s not because of me.”

Startled that she could even think such a thing, her father looked at her and said, “Of course it’s not because of you, Ellie. I’ve just never met the right person – and that’s because I haven’t been looking for them.”

“Why not? Why aren’t you looking?”

Her father sighed and said, “Some people don’t agree with what I’m about to say, but I believe it’s the truth. I think that in this life there is one perfect person for everyone, and there is no doubt that your mother was that person for me.”

His answer made Ellie’s heart melt. There was nothing she liked better than hearing about her mother, so she implored her father, “Please, tell me why she was perfect for you.”

Without hesitating, her dad answered, “There are so many reasons. I’ve never met anyone else like Pauline. She never thought about herself. She was always thinking of others, and she was so kind, thoughtful, and considerate. You may not realize it, but you look just like her. More importantly, you have all of her other qualities as well.”

Ellie was thrilled to hear that she was like her mom. “I’m so glad you fell in love with each other.”

Her dad smiled broadly. “Why she fell in love with me is a mystery! Pauline could have had anyone she wanted for a husband. I will never know why I was so blessed to be chosen by her.”

With a level of wisdom beyond her years, Ellie said, “I guess when someone is your perfect partner, it’s true for the other person as well.”

Gilbert agreed. “You must be right. When I first met your mother, I knew instantly that she was the one for me, and fortunately, it seemed that she felt the same way.”

“And you knew from the beginning that momma was the person you wanted to marry?”

“Absolutely.” Searching for the right words, Gilbert tried to explain. “Falling in love is something that happens unexpectedly. Someday you’ll meet someone, and you’ll just know that they are the right person for you.”

“I hope I’m that lucky.”

Her father reached over and patted her hand. “You are an amazing young woman, Eleanor, and there will be a man who appreciates what a special person you are – and he will not be able to imagine his life without you. That is what love really is. It’s not flowers, or candy, or cards. Love is wanting to be with someone so much that you can’t bear to think about being without them.”

There was a catch in Ellie’s voice when she said, “But that’s what happened to you. Mom died, and you had to go on without her. I just don’t like for you to be all alone.”

Gilbert looked away as he thought about his answer, and then he turned back and said. “When you lose the most important person in the world to you, they cannot be replaced. While it’s true that I might be able to find someone else, it can never be the same. We were a family. Pauline was not only my wife, she was also your mother – and oh, Ellie, it would have been glorious if she could have watched you grow up! No matter what, you would’ve always been her princess.”

Ellie closed her eyes and in little more than a whisper, said “I would give anything if she was here with us now…… That day must have been so awful.”

Wanting to spare his daughter from as many disturbing details as he could, Gilbert just said, “I was so utterly shocked when the doctor told me that Pauline had died, I just couldn’t believe it – but the one thing I asked him was if she got to hold you.”

Ellie asked almost prayerfully, “Did she? Did she get to hold me?”

When her father pulled out his handkerchief, she knew the answer. Trying unsuccessfully to hold back the tears, he said, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but no. She was even denied that privilege.”

Ellie leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder.

Taking off his spectacles, Gilbert dried his eyes. “Life can be so hard, Ellie that it breaks your heart – but it can also be so beautiful that it takes your breath away. Losing your mother was the worst thing that has happened to me – but at the same time, you being born was the most wonderful thing that will ever happen to me.”

Ellie put her arms around her dad and hugged him. It was the end of countless conversations that would take place with her father beneath the pin oak, but this was one that Ellie would always remember.

***

Growing up without her mother made Ellie feel different from other kids, and it left her with a vague sense of guilt because she had died giving birth. Over the years, the sheer cruelty of her mom’s death was something the young woman could never fathom, but as she grew older, she learned that we can’t possibly begin to grasp all of the mysteries of life, and that included the mystery of love. 

Just as her father predicted, Ellie eventually had several different boyfriends, but they were foolish and immature, certainly not the kind of person you could be serious about. She knew they would eventually settle down with someone, but it sure wasn’t going to be her. Ellie was nothing if not patient, and she was prepared to wait for as long as it took until just the right man came along. But, as it turned out, the person who would magically sweep her off her feet appeared sooner rather than later.

Ellie met the man of her dreams at a community dance in early November of 1940. She noticed Spencer Robinson from across the room, and she blushed in surprise when she realized he was watching her. In a large hall filled with more than 100 people, they had both managed to single each other out. Coincidence? Maybe. But Ellie always preferred to think of it as a certain kind of destiny. She would always believe that it was their fate to be together.

She was immediately attracted by the fact that Spencer was tall and strong just like her father, but it was his character, warmth, and humor that convinced Ellie that they could be perfect partners – and she was delighted to find that he felt the same way. Because neither of them wanted to wait, after only six months of dating, Spencer asked Gilbert for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and with his permission granted, plans immediately began to be made for the big day.

Because Ellie’s father wanted to make the couple’s transition to married life as smooth as possible, he decided to give them an amazing wedding gift. Gilbert had secretly bought a small home across the street from the acreage. When he explained he was moving there and giving the young couple the house and the property, they couldn’t believe it.

At first, Ellie protested vehemently, “Dad you can’t do that! This is your home.”

Gilbert smiled. “No, this was our home, and now it’s going to be yours.”

Astounded by his incredible generosity, Ellie didn’t think she should accept it. “It’s a wonderful gesture, but we can’t take it. This is your house. This is your land.”

Gilbert had anticipated her reaction. “Ellie, just think about how much you enjoyed growing up here. Someday you’ll have children of your own, and I want them to have the same experience. I believe you want that too.” Grinning, he added, “Besides, I’ve already bought the other house! And it’s not like you’re getting rid of me. I’ll be right across the street to keep an eye on you.”

Ellie realized that her father was not going to back down, so after enough coaxing, cajoling, and persuasion, she and Spencer reluctantly, but gratefully, accepted the gift.

Six weeks later, on a beautiful summer afternoon, a large group of family and friends gathered beneath the now 30-foot tall pin oak for the outdoor wedding.

After walking arm in arm with his daughter, Gilbert gave her to the man she would spend the rest of her life with. As the beautiful ceremony unfolded, the proud father thought back to the afternoon when the two of them had walked out to this spot and planted the small tree. Just as he’d promised, they had both grown up together.

But the day was also bittersweet. He could only imagine how proud Pauline would be to see what a wonderful woman their little girl had become, and there was no doubt she’d be thrilled to watch her embark on this new journey. Gilbert was confident that if the young couple would love each other as deeply and completely as he and Pauline had, they would always be happy.

Upon returning from their honeymoon, the newlyweds set up housekeeping and began talking about the possibility of having children. Ellie and Spencer were thrilled to be starting their lives together, and they were certain their future was bright.

But there is nothing about the future that is certain, and that hard fact was about to be proven true in the harshest of ways.

***

On a chilly Sunday afternoon, Ellie and Spencer had just finished a late lunch and were relaxing in their living room reading and listening to music on the radio when the program was suddenly interrupted by a breathless announcer. The date was December 7th, 1941.

In a place called Pearl Harbor, thousands of miles away, America had been attacked and thrust into a devastating world war that would affect the lives of tens of millions of people all over the globe. From that day forward, nothing would ever be the same.

Less than three months later, Spencer joined the United States Marine Corps choosing, without reservation, to serve his country during its time of greatest need. As he and Ellie held each other on their last night together, his young wife had never been so scared. Having her husband go off to fight on the other side of the world was the most terrifying thing she could imagine.

She wondered how their lives could’ve been upended in such a short time, but then she remembered what happened to her father the day she was born, and she began to understand that there were no guarantees in life.

After Spencer shipped out for the Pacific theater, Ellie was lost. She was proud of her husband for joining the marines, but she was filled with unrelenting dread over what the future might hold. She became obsessed with trying to learn any news she could from overseas, and it was both frustrating and frightening when there would be weeks without any correspondence from him.

Because he also wanted to serve, Gilbert tried to enlist, first in the army and then the navy, but he was rejected by both because of the issues with his vision. Ellie knew her father was disappointed, but, secretly, she was glad he would be staying at home instead of putting his life in jeopardy. She wanted him to be safe, and just the thought of having him nearby was comforting.

To do her part in the war effort, Ellie went to work at a munitions factory some 20 miles away. Each morning at 5:30, she boarded a bus with three dozen other women that took them to their jobs and then returned them home each evening at 6:30. It was a small sacrifice compared to the brave men like her husband who were risking their lives for the nation.

As the fighting escalated, fraying the nerves of those on the home front, Ellie struggled to control her anxiety and loneliness. She missed Spencer desperately, and when she tried to sleep at night, her imagination ran wild thinking about the extreme danger he was facing.

By early 1945, she and her husband, who had only spent eight months together as a married couple, had not seen each other in three years. Many of the women that Ellie worked alongside had lost their fathers, brothers, and, most often, their husbands. It was horrifying each time the news spread through the large munitions factory that another co-worker had received a death notification from the military.

But for Ellie, the war took a grim turn for the worse on Easter, April 1, 1945. That was the day the United States military attacked the island of Okinawa with a force that included 88,000 marines. Hearing about the invasion sent Ellie into a panic because she knew that her husband’s unit was among those fighting to take the island.

Spencer had been in combat numerous times during the previous 36 months, but nothing compared to this. The fighting was savage and brutal, and the intense battle raged for weeks and weeks as reporting of the struggle filtered back to the states. At no point since Spencer enlisted had Ellie been so scared – and with good reason.

At night the radio was her life-line as she waited for scraps of information about a tiny faraway island that she didn’t even know existed before the war. But what little news she could get only fueled Ellie’s worst nightmares causing her to worry herself sick about Spencer. For weeks she could hardly eat or sleep, consumed with fear over what might happen to him. Compounding her anxiety was the lack of communication. Ellie had written to him constantly, but she had not received a letter from her husband in several months.

But then, without warning, on a sun-drenched morning in June, the waiting abruptly came to an end. Ellie was on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when there was a loud knock at the front door. When she saw it was a currier from Western Union with a telegram which most likely contained information that would change the rest of her life, she came close to fainting.

When the messenger left, Ellie staggered to the couch and collapsed in a disheveled heap. Trying to catch her breath, she stared for a few seconds at the envelope in her shaking hands. Then with her heart pounding so hard it felt like it was going to shatter her rib cage, she tore it open and began to read the brief message.

The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your husband, First Sergeant Spencer W. Robinson USMC was seriously wounded in the battle for Okinawa on June 9, 1945. Further information will follow.

It took a split-second for the words to sink into her consciousness and then Ellie’s body was racked with heavy sobs as waves of conflicting emotions swept over her. Spencer was alive – but how badly was he hurt? Her mind reeled with uncertainty because she had no way of knowing the severity of her husband’s condition. Would he come home to her alive or in a flag-draped casket? After more than 36 months of waiting, Ellie’s darkest fears had now come true.

Instinctively, she knew there was only one person she could turn to for comfort. Stumbling back into the kitchen, she grabbed the phone, called her dad, and within minutes, he was sitting beside her under the pin oak, holding her while she cried. As Gilbert gently rocked her back and forth, he felt helpless to stop the pain his daughter was being forced to endure.

They spent more than an hour together as he helped Ellie absorb the heartbreaking news and encouraged her to cling to the hope that Spencer would survive – even as she steeled herself against the possibility that he might not.

For weeks, her husband’s life hung in the balance before doctors could be certain he would pull through. He had been wounded by a grenade as his unit attempted to clear a network of caves where Japanese soldiers were lying in wait. The marine alongside him took the full brunt of the blast and was killed instantly. Spencer barely survived, losing his left arm and coming perilously close to bleeding to death.

But despite that physical trauma and multiple other serious shrapnel wounds, two months later, after exchanging letter after letter and even sharing an overseas phone call that allowed his wife to hear his voice, he was coming home to his bride.

Ellie and Gilbert waited nervously on the front porch as the tension mounted by the hour until at last a car pulled into the driveway, and her husband of four years stepped out. Bursting into tears, Ellie bolted off the porch, ran to him, and began kissing him all over his face. They embraced, turning in small circles as Gilbert looked on with relief that his daughter had been spared the agony of losing her mate.

During his recovery, Spencer had worried endlessly that maybe the physical challenges he now faced would somehow affect his wife’s love for him, but he soon realized how wrong it had been to even consider such a thing.

As they held each other tightly, Ellie didn’t care that her husband had just one arm wrapped around her. To Eleanor Robinson, a hug had never meant so much. Spencer had come home – and that was all that mattered to her.

***

Gradually, the couple, who had barely had the chance to experience marriage, adjusted to their post-war life. They still faced difficulties as Spencer underwent several additional surgeries, but with patience and perseverance, they adapted to their new situation.

Once his overall health improved, Spencer began to search for a job – but finding work proved to be a difficult task. Because of his disability, employers refused to give him the opportunity to prove he could do a job.

As she watched her husband become discouraged, Ellie grew angrier and angrier. Spencer was being unfairly judged, and that wasn’t right. She could not understand why people focused solely on her husband’s physical challenges and refused to see the honest hard working man in front of them.

After months of searching, Spencer filled out yet another job application without much hope that anything would come of it. But the next day he got a call for an interview. An older gentleman named Joe Chandler owned the largest manufacturing plant in three counties, and he had read about Spencer’s military service on the application. Without hesitation, he gave Spencer the chance he deserved.

Ellie later learned that Mr. Chandler had lost his only son in the opening days of the battle for Okinawa, and, therefore, felt a personal connection with anyone who fought there. His warm relationship with Spencer was based on mutual respect, and Ellie’s husband ended up being employed at the plant for the next 40 years, working his way up to Vice President of Operations before he retired.

Most of all, Ellie and Spencer realized that during his absence their devotion had grown even stronger and deeper. They soon decided they were ready to have children, and in 1947 their family grew by 7 pounds 3 ounces with the birth of their daughter Marcia. When the nurse placed the baby in her arms, Ellie experienced the purest form of joy – but it was tempered by the knowledge that her mom had been denied that same feeling.           

Once she had a child of her own, Ellie began to fully appreciate the power of the maternal bond. Rocking the tiny infant in her arms, with the proud father by her side, gave her a profound sense of fulfillment she had not dared to dream of during the war.

To describe Gilbert as being thrilled to be a grandfather did not begin to capture his excitement. Every time she watched her dad hold Marcia, it was all Ellie could do to keep from crying. Within a month, Spencer and Gilbert had hung a large swing in the pin oak even though it would be several years before it could be used.

When she confronted the men about their over-eagerness, her husband explained, “It’s not good to put things off.”

Her father added quickly, “You should never wait until the last minute.”

How Ellie adored those two men – and soon there would be one more of them because less than 18 months later, in 1949, her son Harry was born.

It was a difficult birth, and for a brief time both mother and child were at risk, but, thankfully, they each came through unscathed. However, it was unnerving enough to make the couple decide that being blessed with two children made their family complete.

Harry was a healthy baby, and Marcia was over the moon to be a big sister, so after such a difficult start to their marriage, life for Ellie and Spencer now settled into a loving but chaotic routine familiar to all parents of young children.

By the time Marcia was six and Harry was four they had adopted the now enormous pin oak as their own. They would play for hours in its abundant shade, trying to soak up every bit of summer they could. The swing that their father and grandfather had hung up years before was now being put to good use, and, near the base of the tree, Spencer built a sandbox and a playhouse that served as both a tea room for the neighborhood girls and an army fort for the boys.

The couple could not have been more delighted with their family, and having her father just across the street, gave them a built-in baby sitter who was always ready at a moment’s notice. For Ellie, life was everything she dreamed it could be, and she wondered if she deserved to be so happy.

***

But how often it seems that our happiness is only fleeting, soon to be chased away by our worst nightmares. Sadly, such was the case for the Robinson family.

During the summer of the following year, Harry woke up one morning with a sore throat and a fever. At first, Ellie wasn’t too alarmed, and when she talked to the doctor on the phone, he assured her that it was probably nothing to worry about. But by the afternoon, her young son was so tired he could barely take a few steps. Growing increasingly concerned, she called Spencer at work, and he immediately came home. They quickly bundled Harry up and rushed him to the hospital.

The eventual diagnosis of their five-year-old son’s illness would alter their family forever.

In the early 1950s, there wasn’t a household in America that didn’t fear the scourge of polio. Because it predominately preyed on young children, it terrified parents across the nation. The insidious disease sometimes killed its victims or left them with significant physical challenges.

In Harry’s case, he remained critically ill for months, but he did survive his ordeal. However, there was extensive damage to his lungs, and he was left with partial paralysis in his legs. Although he was able to walk short distances with the aid of heavy leg braces, fatigue often required him to use a wheelchair.

It didn’t take long for Spencer and Gilbert to spring into action and construct gently sloping wooden ramps at both the front and back doors to accommodate Harry. While the disease took a dangerous toll on his body, it did nothing to diminish the young boy’s spirit and attitude. Even as he faced uncertainty and discomfort, he remained a bright, precocious child.

Ellie, on the other hand, suffered as only a mother can. She worried continually about Harry and was frantic every time he came down with a simple cold or any of the other ailments typical of childhood. But even though her heart ached as she watched Harry endure the ravages of the disease – she was thankful that at least he was alive. Many victims of polio were not so lucky, and families all across America were planning funerals for individuals who had done nothing to deserve their fate.

Because the effects of the disease had a profound effect on Harry’s daily life, Ellie became his advocate as she dedicated her life to fighting for his fair and equal treatment. Remembering how Spencer was treated with pity instead of dignity when he returned from the war, she began to see that same attitude directed toward her boy. People automatically assumed that the muscle weakness in his legs somehow made him less of a person, and that kind of narrow-minded thinking infuriated her.

Gilbert soon discovered that the intensity of a mother’s anger was a force to behold. He watched with tremendous pride as Ellie fought fiercely on behalf of his grandson, and he supported her in every way he could.

But Harry wasn’t her only concern. She often worried that the amount of attention that was, out of necessity, devoted to her son’s health might make her daughter feel neglected – but that wasn’t the case. Marcia loved her brother unconditionally, and as they grew up, she was more than willing to help care for him and to assist him. The bond between them could not have been closer, and as a result, Marcia grew up feeling blessed to be part of such a family.

As their parents watched with amazement, their children grew up before their eyes. Soon – too soon for Ellie’s liking – Harry and Marcia became young adults, ready to face the world on their own.

Proof of that occurred in the spring of 1968, when Marcia, at the age of 21, married her high school sweetheart. Just like her mother, she chose to have her wedding beneath the welcoming pin oak.

Harry was thrilled when he was chosen to be the groom’s best man, and Spencer could not have been more proud to give his daughter away in matrimony. That afternoon in the shade of the 40-year-old tree, surrounded by family and friends, was a memory that Ellie would treasure for the rest of her life.

With the addition of a son-in-law, her family had now grown once again, and Ellie felt more contented than ever. She and Spencer settled into mid-life with what she hoped was a bright future ahead of them.

And for a short time, that hope rang true. But as they entered the last year of the 1960s, Ellie’s world fell apart.

Now 20-years-old, Harry was home from college during Christmas break, when he suddenly became ill with a severe respiratory infection. Within a matter of days, it developed into double pneumonia, and because of the extensive damage to his lungs inflicted by the poliovirus, his condition was critical. The doctors had no choice but to be brutally honest with Ellie and Spencer in their assessment regarding their son’s chances for survival. Tragically, in early February of 1969, their grim prediction came true.

With his family surrounding his hospital bed, Harry bravely fought as long as he could – but, ultimately, his long struggle came to an end. As Ellie was forced to watch her child die, she became distraught to the point of losing her ability to think rationally. She had done everything she could to help Harry lead the life he deserved, but she mistakenly believed she had failed him. As his mother, Ellie thought it was her responsibility to ensure his safety and well-being, no matter what.

Harry’s funeral was beyond any kind of pain she could’ve imagined. Her baby boy was gone, and there was nothing anyone could do or say that could assuage her debilitating sense of despair. At the completion of the graveside service, Spencer held Ellie as she leaned down and gently kissed her son’s flower-covered casket. At that moment, the agony was so intense, she thought she might die.

Because it is against the laws of nature for a parent to outlive their child, when Harry died, a part of Ellie died too, and no matter how long she lived, she knew she would never be whole again. Crushed by her heart-wrenching grief, she was inconsolable. Spencer, who was so proud of the way Harry had faced his physical challenges, was equally devastated, but he knew he had to be strong for his wife. In their later years, they would readily agree that these were the darkest days of their marriage.

The next six months torturously crept by, and, finally, Spencer thought that perhaps the time had come to remove the wooden ramps. He had just begun the depressing task when Ellie heard the noise. Realizing what he was doing, she ran out of the house and confronted her husband, pleading through hysterical sobs, “NO! NO! You can’t. Please, Spencer, I’m begging you. We can’t let him be erased from our lives.”

Spencer turned, saw the torment on her face, and stopped. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was hurt Ellie. He went to his wife, hugged her as tightly as he could, and whispered, “I’m sorry. Please don’t think I was trying to take away his memory.”

Without another word ever being said on the subject, he willingly honored his wife’s request. More than 50 years have passed since that sad day, and the ramps remain in place.

But, fortunately, there is a delicate balance in life that keeps the bad from outweighing the good. One crucial aspect of that balance is that when one person leaves this world, another arrives. In December of 1969, 10 months after Harry’s death, Marcia made Ellie and Spencer the grandparents of a baby girl.

If there was ever a woman put on this earth to be a grandmother, it was Eleanor Robinson. Having a little one to cuddle, reminded her that no matter how excruciating the loss of her child might be, she had to go on. And to Ellie’s eternal joy, the babies kept coming. Marcia had two more girls. One in 1971 and another in 1973. Of course, they could never replace her son, but Ellie had more than enough love to lavish on them. Spencer also devoted himself to their grandchildren, and gradually life without Harry began to regain some sense of purpose.

Before too long, the mighty pin oak was once again delighting small children. Three little girls gleefully giggled, played, and took turns swinging in the tree’s cool shade as their adoring grandmother lovingly watched over them.

***

The years that followed were filled with happiness for Ellie. Marcia and her family lived just a short distance away, and as Gilbert got older, she was glad to have her dad living so close.

Her family meant everything to her, and there was nothing that pleased Ellie more than having them all get together in her home. Always a good cook, she was in her element fixing a huge meal to share with everyone who meant so much to her.

However, just as the decade was winding down, her contentment began to fade. Ellie started to notice a slight mental decline in her father. Gilbert had recently turned 81, and he was experiencing some occasional confusion and memory lapses. At first, she refused to think it was anything more than the typical effects of age, but before long, it became evident that it was much more than that.

Early in the summer of 1980, Gilbert was diagnosed with dementia. Because the disease affects each individual differently, the doctors told Ellie it was impossible to accurately predict how fast it would progress. Sadly, to complicate matters, his already compromised eyesight had begun to deteriorate dramatically.

For all of those reasons, Ellie knew she couldn’t allow her father to continue living on his own. However, because she could not bear the thought of placing him in a nursing home, that possibility was out of the question. Instead, she decided to have her father move across the street and spend the rest of his life in her home so that she and Spencer could care for him.

Over the next two years, the disease progressed steadily. There were good days mixed in with the difficult ones, but no matter how challenging the situation became, Ellie tried to make her dad as comfortable as possible. One of the things that still brought Gilbert pleasure was spending time with his great-grandchildren. Even when his confusion became more pronounced, the girls had a way of cheering him up even though they were not old enough to fully appreciate what was happening to him.

Despite the best efforts of his doctors, there was no way to slow his dementia, and it was only a matter of time before Gilbert no longer recognized his family – including his only child. The fact that she was now a stranger to her father broke Ellie’s heart, and despite knowing it was futile, she would, on occasion, try to gently remind him of an important moment or event, but the memory would not come back. 

Inevitably, his condition grew worse, and Ellie was told that the end was near. Less than two weeks before his death, she took her father outside, and they sat together under the pin oak for what would be the last time. He had grown increasingly quiet over the last couple of months, so that sat without speaking as the wind gently rustled the leaves above them. Of course, Ellie knew that sitting together was more for her benefit than his, but this had always been such a special place for the two of them that she just wanted to spend a few more minutes here with her dad while she still could.

Tenderly, she reached over and took hold of her father’s hand. As she stroked it, she thought back to the tall, strong man who planted the tree. Her dad had once walked so fast she couldn’t keep up, but now he was stooped and bent from age and left with a shuffling gait. Perhaps worst of all was his reluctance to communicate. Throughout her life, Ellie had cherished their warm and thoughtful conversations, but now he had been largely rendered silent by his cruel disease, rarely speaking more than a few words.

She studied his 83-year-old face, etched with the deep wrinkles and creases that revealed a lifetime of love and loss, and she wished with all her being that he could have shared his life with her mother. The two of them should have been together, but despite his own sorrow, he had done everything in his power to give his only child the life he knew Pauline would’ve wanted for their daughter.

For Ellie, her father had always been the person she could turn to, that she could depend on, and who was always there for her. To think he would no longer be present filled her with such sadness that she didn’t want the moment to end. But as a light breeze picked up, Ellie knew it was time to take him back inside. She took one final look around her and said, “You know something, Dad, you and I planted this pin oak together many years ago.”

He slowly turned, stared at her, and in a weak voice responded, “We did?”

“Yes. This giant tree was barely taller than me.”

Her father lifted his head, looked up into the branches with nearly sightless eyes, and said, “We must have done a good job.”

Ellie smiled. “I would say so. Over the years a lot of people have enjoyed this pin oak, so I guess we did something right.”

There was a brief pause and then Gilbert shocked her when he said softly, “You were so little, you couldn’t keep up. I had to slow down for you.”

Ellie was stunned that he remembered. With her voice shaking, she said, “That’s right. You said I was your helper, and you told me that someday this tree would grow taller than our house.”

Her father nodded in agreement. “You are still my helper.”

For a moment, his words took her back to a time when she was a six-year-old girl, and she had to pause while she fought back tears. Then, hoping to rekindle a deeper connection, she patted his hand and said, “I love you, Dad.” Ellie waited for a response but was not surprised when there was none. Leaning over, she gently kissed his forehead and said, “We better go back inside before it gets chilly.” Ellie helped him get to his feet, and they began to walk slowly, hand in hand, back to the house, retracing their steps from so many decades before.

Nine days later, Ellie buried her father.

For several weeks afterward, she avoided going out to the pin oak. There were just too many memories associated with it. But, at last, early one morning, she decided it was time to reclaim her favorite place. Sitting down under its leafy canopy, she thought it strange that in some ways it seemed like only yesterday that the tree was planted – but in other ways, it seemed like a lifetime ago. However, Ellie knew what truly made time remarkable was that it was always slipping away from us, and just like it had taken her mother and son, it had now taken her father.

For someone whose family was the most important thing to them, the pain was indescribable.

***

As Ellie and Spencer reached their mid-sixties, they began to think about the rest of their lives. Spencer retired from the manufacturing plant, and they finally had the time and the financial freedom to do many of the things they had always dreamed of. At the top of the list was their desire to travel. Ellie had always felt a strong obligation to stay close to home, but she knew there was a world out there for the two of them to explore, and they believed they were ready to have some adventures, so off they went.

Some of their journeys were just quick getaways while others took them clear across the nation. On several occasions, they even ventured overseas. Although Ellie was not particularly fond of flying, she managed to endure it because for the first time in their lives, traveling allowed them to be together without any responsibilities or demands. For two people who had been in love since the moment they met, it was heaven on earth, and Ellie relished the feeling.

Eventually, however, age began to slow them down, and even though their traveling tapered off, they were still engaged in many other activities. Ellie tended her large flowerbeds growing a wide variety of plants, and Spencer relaxed by taking an occasional fishing trip. But for the most part, they preferred to spend as much time together as possible and that always included relaxing side by side beneath the pin oak. Having almost lost her husband during the war, it was a simple pleasure that Ellie never took for granted.

Beautiful memories continued to be made for the couple as their grandchildren got married, started families of their own, and another generation of babies arrived. It was a wonderful time, and Marcia watched over her parents and made sure they were safe and comfortable.

But, of course, what makes life so precious is knowing that someday it is going to come to an end. Ellie could not possibly imagine living without her husband, but soon enough, it became her reality.

In the middle of September 2005, Spencer left for a long-planned three-day fishing trip with friends. When they said goodbye, Ellie never dreamed they were sharing their last kiss.

Late in the afternoon of the second day, Spencer began to experience severe chest pains. Being in such an isolated area, it took time to get him to a hospital, and by then the massive heart attack had done its damage, destroying vital muscle and tissue. He was immediately rushed into surgery, but despite the best efforts of a highly skilled cardiovascular surgical team, the decorated World War II veteran died on the operating table.

Back at home, more than 100 miles away, Ellie was adding decorative stitching to a baby quilt she was making for a friend when she got the phone call telling her that Spencer had been taken to the hospital, and on the way, he had been asking for his wife. As fast as they could, she and Marcia rushed to be by his side – but they were too late.

The shock of his passing hit so hard that at first it was almost impossible for her to believe the horror was real. Her husband had defied death before, so how could he really be gone? But, of course, it was true.

Devastating grief quickly consumed her, and because she was deprived of the opportunity to tell Spencer one last time how much she loved him, her anguish was intensified a hundredfold. Being denied the chance to say a final goodbye, would haunt Ellie for the rest of her life.

After more than six decades of marriage, she had become a widow at the age of 82. Feeling lost, as her world became isolated and closed off, Ellie had no desire to do anything or go anywhere. She refused to even leave the house because nothing seemed to have meaning without her husband by her side. She was suddenly alone without the one person in the world with whom she had shared her heart, mind, and soul. Ellie felt more than incomplete –  she felt broken.

Her relentless sense of loss was ever-present. When she opened her eyes in the morning and when she closed them at night, the pain was there. Everything about her life, in one way or another, had involved Spencer, so it was not surprising that wherever she turned in their home there was some kind of reminder that brought back the memory of her husband.

It took months and months for Ellie to learn how to live without her partner, and she was only able to recover because of the support of her family. Although it was incredibly difficult, slowly, over time, she forced herself to stop living in the past and return to the present. But in her mind, she never for a second stopped being the wife of Marine Sergeant Spencer W. Robinson. And for the rest of her life, she proudly wore her wedding ring because she fully understood what her father meant when he said there is just one perfect person for each of us. Ellie had been incredibly fortunate to find hers, but he’d been stolen away, and no one could ever replace him.

***

For the next 15 years, Ellie led a quiet, simple existence, slowly adjusting to being a widow. She made her peace with the world, and she took time to reflect on her long life. It had been an amazing journey, and she believed that in the most important ways, she had been richly blessed.

Gradually, several health issues began to take a toll, but she was able to remain independent. On occasion, she even made her way out to sit under the giant pin oak. It was comforting to her that, just like her dad had promised, she and the stately tree had grown old together.

After losing her husband, Ellie had no more interest in traveling, preferring to stay at home where she was comfortable. Marcia approached her about getting out and maybe taking some short trips, but Ellie refused, explaining, “It wouldn’t be the same without Spencer. The destination was never important, it was being with my traveling companion that brought me joy.”

Marcia understood, but she was concerned that her mother was alone most of the time, and, if nothing else, it was becoming a safety issue. In her later years, Ellie had several bad falls, and Marcia felt compelled to convince her mom to either move in with her or into an assisted living facility where she could be cared for. But Ellie wouldn’t hear of it.

One afternoon as they sat in the shade of her mother’s favorite tree, Marcia attempted to reason with Ellie. Trying not to be confrontational, she approached the subject gingerly. “Mom, I don’t want to upset you, but I wish you would please consider moving out of the house. I just don’t think it’s safe for you to be by yourself anymore.”

Even though her voice was now strained by age, Ellie was defiant. “Absolutely not. I’m not trying to be obstinate, but this is my home. I’ve lived here all my life. This is not just an old house on a small piece of land, it’s part of who I am, and I wouldn’t be the same without it. I’m sorry, but I’m staying.”

Marcia took a breath and countered, “But, Mom, home is wherever you are. People today move all the time. They’re always on the go. No one stays anywhere for too long.”

Ellie was still adamant. “That is their loss. Just because they can’t appreciate putting down roots doesn’t mean I have to make the same mistake.”

Realizing she was losing the argument, Marcia shook her head. “You are so stubborn.”

Agreeing, Ellie said, “And you are just like me!”

Marcia laughed and said, “I just worry about you.”

“I know, Sweetheart. But the whole point of being alive is to be happy, and staying in my home that I shared with my family is where I’m the happiest.”

Against her better judgment, Marcia reluctantly gave up – for the time being. “Okay, Mom. That’s all I want is for you to be happy.”

Ellie smiled at her and without a trace of regret said, “I’ve had a good life – but I know the end is growing near.”

Her daughter visibly cringed. “Please don’t talk like that.”

“But we both know it’s true.” Ellie paused before adding, “I never expected my life to go by so fast – but the passage of time has left me tired. Mostly, I’m tired of losing the people I love.”

The conversation ended there because Ellie was tired. The cost of longevity was exacting a heavy price that was being paid by her body and mind. That was the reason this was the last time she would talk with her daughter. Marcia would not see her mother alive again.

The next day, at the end of a long afternoon, Ellie sat down in her favorite chair to take a quick nap. Leaning back, she glanced at all the photos hanging on the walls of the people who meant so much to her. Scattered throughout the living room on every available table and shelf were the personal keepsakes and mementos that had defined her life. Knowing how fortunate she was to have been loved by so many, she closed her eyes to rest.

It only took a few minutes before sleep found her. Always a person who experienced vivid dreams, today was no different. In this particular one, she was sitting beneath the pin oak enjoying the shade as dazzling sunlight radiated through a cloudless sky. Suddenly off in the distance, she noticed three individuals walking toward her. At first, they were unrecognizable because there seemed to be some kind of strange haziness surrounding them, but as they got closer, the haze slowly evaporated away revealing her father, husband, and son, each appearing as they were more than 50 years before.

As she stared in disbelief at her loved ones, it suddenly dawned on her that she had also changed. Looking down at her smooth, soft hands, Ellie saw that she too was young again, and her spirit soared. She stood up as the three men came to her, and with tears of joy streaming down her face, Ellie held out her arms to embrace them – but in a blinding flash of brilliant light, the beautiful dream disappeared into nothingness.

The end had come.

Ellie’s weary heart beat one last time, as she took her final breath and quietly slipped away, ending her 97 years on earth.

Eleanor Francis Robinson, daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother was laid to rest three days later in the same cemetery where generations of her family had been buried over the last two hundred years. She would now spend eternity next to her devoted husband, alongside the graves of her loving parents and cherished son.

Although some people mistakenly thought, based solely on outward appearances, that Ellie’s accomplishments were not particularly noteworthy, that was only because they didn’t understand what truly matters. Ellie’s years were full and rich and included both tremendous joy and wrenching despair – but through it all, she never lost sight of the importance of being true to herself and her family.

Most of all, she had remembered to treasure each day as a wonderful gift because she knew that every sunrise came at the price of her mother’s life.

That evening, as Ellie’s modest home sat cold and empty in the gathering darkness, an early summer storm began to build in the west. It was a common enough occurrence in the plains states, but the national weather service had been warning all day that this situation was serious. Just after sundown, the gust front blew through with 60 mph winds that tore leaves from the pin oak as its large branches swayed heavily in the howling wind. That was immediately followed by sheets of torrential rain that pounded down for more than 90 minutes flooding many low-lying areas.

But most dramatic of all was the crashing thunder and jagged lightning that streaked across the stormy sky. The electrical show continued to grow in ferocity until the night was alive with electrical impulses. Suddenly in a microsecond, a wicked bolt of lightning tore through the darkness traveling at more than 250,000 mph hurtling downward until it found its mark striking the aging pin oak with incredible power causing a cracking explosion that could be heard for more than a mile. Instantly the 50,000-degree heat vaporized the water inside the trunk creating steam that splintered the towering tree hurling fragments through a massive cloud of fire and sparks.

A moment later, what was left of the lightning’s target fell to the rain-soaked ground, smoke spiraling upward signaling its death as a strangely peaceful silence settled over the property.

The next morning it seemed to those who came across the charred remains that nature must have realized the old pin oak had accomplished its mission. It had spent nine long decades watching over a little girl named Eleanor, and now with its task faithfully completed, it had been recycled and returned to the earth where it would help to provide the necessary nutrients to sustain the next generation of plants, both big and small.

Because in its infinite wisdom, nature knew that one day someone else would plant a tree, and the cycle of growth would begin again. It was a renewal as old as time, and it was an intricate part of what made life possible – and certainly what made life worth living.

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