This is usually the way it happens. I recognize the tree first by the smell, and then use my vision to confirm that I’m right. I am never wrong. This act is second nature to me, in my long-term memory, my unconscious. Wave a flowering branch under my nose while I sleep, and the tree will make its way into my dreams. Scrape my skin with something rough, and the pain message to my brain will read, for a fraction of a millisecond, “tree.” Confide a loss to me, and images of my similar losses will appear; sometimes that image will be the tree.
I noticed the tree once during brunch at the house of friends, a rehabbed Victorian in Somerville, Massachusetts. I’d been walking around Nina and Bill’s small fenced-in yard, mimosa in hand, and there was the aroma. It was the first time I’d come across it that June, the first time the tree’s flowering season drew my attention. It took me only a few seconds to locate it, in a neighboring yard, way in the back, wedged between a high chain-link fence and a garage. I mentioned the tree later while we ate, both couples on the tiny deck, digging into another of Bill’s brunches, his usual perfection served with nonchalance. What was it that day? Scrambled eggs maybe, with a slightly familiar but unidentifiable seasoning. Curried potatoes, Portuguese sausage from the grill, rugged slices of bread?
“That tree,” I said, pointing. “It’s such a part of my childhood in Springfield that it could be a sibling.” Don looked to where I pointed, then nodded. We’d been together off and on for 12 years, married for four. He was used to my hyperbole, and he knew about my tree. Nina smiled, recognizing the shift in my tone of voice, knowing that whatever I was talking about meant something important to me.
Only Bill spoke. “You know that’s the tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, right?” He was using what I heard as his casual voice, the one for seeming ordinary, just a regular guy who happened to know some things.
“Really?” I said, trying to mask my annoyance. “I didn’t know the sumac was so famous.”
“Oh, that’s not a sumac,” he corrected.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is,” I said, even though I was dead certain.
“Nope,” he continued. “It’s an ailanthus. Tree of Heaven. The tree that grew in Brooklyn.”
After a few seconds of silence, the topic changed. There was nothing left to say. Bill knew he was right, and I knew he was wrong. I knew the trees were sumacs because my mother had told me so. I never had reason to doubt her. The word itself – sumac – conveyed certainty, with its whispery beginning and definitive hard-k end. But later that day, at home with my field guide to trees, I discovered that Bill was right. The entry for sumacs sounded somewhat like my tree, but the facts about ailanthus altissima snapped into my memory like a LEGO brick.
A rapidly growing tree with stout hairy twigs and a flat-topped crown of stout branches, the book said.
The rapid growth sounded right. I’d go behind the neighbors’ garage to rescue a ball, and there’d be several new offshoots up to my knees that hadn’t been there weeks before.
Ailanthus thrives even in poor soils. Definitely. Even in the dark alleys – my shortcuts – even behind the apartment buildings and stores.
Bark is thin, dark gray, and somewhat roughened. Absolutely. I knew that roughness intimately, from slips during climbing attempts that left red, rash-like abrasions on my knees and calves.
Despite the comforting familiarity of these details, it was unsettling to learn that my mother had been wrong for all those years.
Maybe my mother’s certainty about the name was fed by her feelings about the tree, in a know-thy-enemy kind of way. She was at war with those trees. She hated having to saw down their offshoots when they threatened a fence or another tree in our backyard. She especially hated when they blossomed in June, and their tiny green-yellow flowers clumped together in puddles, and clung to windshields and trashcan lids, to the bristles of her outside broom. Most of all, she hated the smell of those flowers, and the field guide agreed: Staminate flowers also have an unpleasant odor.
My mother seemed to love when her work took her outdoors, to shovel snow, rake leaves, sweep the front sidewalk, or even to clean up litter blown in from the street: chip bags, candy wrappers, pages from the Morning Union. She liked trimming the lilacs, pruning her one or two rose bushes, and watering her small garden, just a few dramatic gladiolas amid unassuming petunias and marigolds; one year, a few tomato plants. But those non-sumacs and their flowers were a different story.
I, however, looked forward to the trees coming so alive in June. I loved their smell, even though I couldn’t have described it if asked to. I still can’t. A list of sensory words gives me only some help: earthy, yes; gamy, maybe; salty, sure; nutty, kind of. Who would understand, then or now, if I said the tree smelled like sun on skin? Or freedom? Or consolation?
The smell always meant that summer was just around the corner. My time would be unrestricted; my days of my own making. Mornings, I might do organized crafts or sports, led by city-paid college students, in the park behind our street. We made potholders with shiny metallic looms, their brightly colored paint increasingly chipped every year. We played softball and volleyball, and an improvised game called “Off the Screen” which used bats, baseballs, and a rusty backstop that park workers had left propped against the garage of a house abutting the park. At noon, I’d go home for lunch (maybe garden tomatoes on still-warm bread from one of the Italian bakeries), then back to the park, home again for dinner, followed by more sports outside, then peach ice cream or lemonade and chips in front of the tv after dark.
The smell of the tree meant that soon the park’s enormous pool would be filled by the huge city hoses. And when the pool first opened for swimmers, the smell of the trees would be barely distinguishable from the smell of chlorine on my skin, or on my wet towel as I lay on the concrete to dry off. The smell helped me keep my crying in check that day in the driveway when my newlywed sister and her husband drove away, moving to another state. I tried to be happy for them. It was the beginning of their Beautiful New Life Together, all their silvery wedding cards said so, but it felt like an end for me. The song When Will I See You Again was playing on their car radio as they hugged us all goodbye. I think I was the only one to notice it.
I had wanted so badly for Bill to be wrong and my mother to be right about the name of the tree. The two of them formed a classic matchup: the master’s-from-Harvard son of Midwestern academics vs. the high-school-only daughter of French-Canadian Massachusetts millworkers. In one corner: the man for whom the tree held no real meaning other than bearing facts, things to know. In the other corner: the woman who’d used a handsaw to protect the small patches of beauty she’d created, in a neighborhood with harder edges than she would have liked. There was a trace of vindication in the field guide: the ailanthus is sometimes called Chinese sumac because of its origins in China and its similarity to that tree. In fact, for part of its history it had been misclassified in the sumac family. But reading further just made matters worse.
Produces many suckers; often a weed tree. Weed tree? Ouch. How could something that grows so tall (something altissima, the highest) be considered a weed? Sometimes called stink tree. Stink tree? Isn’t that a little harsh? Sometimes called ghetto palm. Ghetto palm? Enough.
But it wasn’t enough, because within a few days, I headed to the public library’s fiction room to find A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book I’d never read. You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon, Betty Smith wrote. You saw a small one of those trees … and you knew that soon that section … would get to be a tenement district. The tree knew. . . .That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.. . .Some people called it the Tree of Heaven.”
When Francie, the book’s heroine, was 11, she spent time on her fire escape with the tree’s “umbrellas curled over, around and under” her, imagining that she lived in it. It was the only tree in her yard. When I was 11, I had three trees in my yard, just several feet between them, and I didn’t know yet that some neighborhoods, much less mine, could be called tenement districts, or slums.
I knew that my neighborhood looked different from other neighborhoods, but I didn’t think of it as deficient in any way. In fact, I thought of it as better. I felt proud having “South End” emblazoned on my softball uniform. I loved knowing that the streets immediately surrounding mine had been named the Hollywood Section decades before because single, professional people had been drawn to the brownstone apartments. We had buses, but we only needed them on rainy days because we could walk anywhere. We were closer to downtown and all the stores, and closer to the main branch of the public library, the biggest and best in the city. When I came back after summer weeks at my uncle’s Cape Cod house, the neighborhood looked funny for a couple of hours, with its rows of apartment buildings and two-family houses; the discount store on one corner, and Momo’s Variety on another. But it didn’t look run down or depressed. It just looked different, and not un-beautiful.
I wasn’t a fool. Of course I knew about differences. I knew there were people who were richer than we were, and people who were poorer. My elementary school friends and I may have been jealous of the wealthier families we knew, but we also made fun of them as uptight, out of touch, nowhere near as cool as we were. When another one of my sisters married a guy from the suburbs and then had a baby, I held court at recess with exaggerated comparisons of baby gifts from his parents and those from mine. For weeks I had them all convinced that his parents had bought the baby a huge Oldsmobile, for later when she needed it.
My school friends and I also distanced ourselves from those with less, and sometimes the person with less was one of us. Much of our teasing of one another was about money and possessions – who wore the least-fashionable clothes on no-uniform days, who had the worst house, the oldest car, the skimpiest lunches. We could be mean, no doubt, but we always knew that any insult hurled our way had a silencing retort within easy reach. You think my plaid pants on Field Day were ugly? At least you can’t hear my father’s muffler halfway across the city. You think my family has too many kids? At least my sandwiches have something between the slices of bread.
Of course we knew about differences.
But the real discoveries came later, when high school put us in daily contact with those higher up on the ladder. Our elementary school was downtown, and it drew kids from the surrounding inner-city neighborhoods, most of whom went on to the public high schools. Those of us who stayed in the parochial system took a long bus ride to the suburban edge of the city, with its wide streets and spaced-apart one-family houses. Then we learned we were downtown kids. Then we discovered – I discovered– that where we lived – where I lived– could be called a slum. Now I had no easy comebacks if I felt disrespected or insulted.
My strategy was to try and fit in, even if it meant joking that my neighborhood was a slum, ignoring the hallway waves from kids I’d grown up with, or being vague when parents of my new friends asked, “Now exactly where near downtown do you live?” One day I was walking to English with Meg, a girl for whom I would have traded two or three of my downtown friends. I pointed out a hole in my sweater that I’d just noticed. She said, not unsympathetically, “Oh, too bad. That’s the only nice sweater you have.”
What could I have responded to that? “I know”?
Later, in young adulthood, there were other experiences of this feeling of lesser-ness. They targeted things I’d been taught, tacitly, to admire or respect, maybe through a barely perceptible shift in tone of voice. The university where my brother attended law school. A good job in government, a civil service job you could inhabit for life, as my father had done. Vacation weeks on Cape Cod. Back in the neighborhood, these had been signs of moving up in the world, doing well for ourselves. But gradually I found out that, far from being prestigious, these things could be, and often were, considered lesser. My brother’s university was a degree mill for the working class. Government jobs were hack jobs. The Cape’s nickname was the Irish Riviera.
The tree that I loved was a ghetto palm, a stink tree.
I didn’t always agree with these appraisals, and I wasn’t forced to take them in. I didn’t have to take on the lesser-ness as mine. But some of these appraisals did color the way I saw the world. Sometimes, over evening drinks with work friends, or at brunch or dinner at their condos or houses, conversation would turn to how we’d grown up, where we’d come from. It wasn’t always easy to classify, to name things correctly, to use the right words to describe growing up where and how I did.
Saying I grew up in a slum was complicated. Sometimes I felt triumphant owning that word, owning the swagger of it, and the punky toughness I’d developed from living in that neighborhood. After all, not everyone had a “race riot” outside of their house one summer, really more of a street fight between guys from the longer-standing Italian families and from recently arrived Puerto Rican families. Not everyone experienced the scary thrill of hearing and seeing all those neighborhood guys that night going after each other with bats and hockey sticks. And not everyone had a neighbor shoot himself at the end of the street, closer to the projects.
However, I didn’t want to mislead people into thinking that I grew up in poverty or that I was scrounging for street cred. Nor did I want to repeat what I’d done in high school: let me say slum before you do, let me laugh and call myself lesser so you don’t get the chance. But romanticizing or glorifying life in the neighborhood, describing it as “true” or “honest,” felt as inauthentic as quoting the Springsteen lyrics I’d sing as a teen, as I walked to or from my waitressing job. When I strut down the street I could feel its heart beat. You’re born with nothing and better off that way. Them gasoline boys downtown sure talk gritty. And referring only to the weediness or the stinkiness of the place swept away all that was lovely: the predictability of the neighborhood, its reliable community, and the way the tree made it smell every June.
These conversations were difficult for me. I struggled with my descriptions. Sometimes I chose just to stay quiet. I was only in my twenties.
I didn’t know yet that sometimes things have multiple names for a reason.
I didn’t know that sometimes the things that are hardest to talk about become, over time, the things that scream to be explained.
Anne Noonan teaches Psychology at a public university north of Boston. Her creative nonfiction work has appeared, or will soon appear, in Blackbird, SNReview, Prick of the Spindle, and Soundings East (the latter under the pseudonym Evie Hartnick).