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The Elusive Forsythia

We are about to start our fourth week of staying home. I feel as if the first two weeks of this whole mess were spent in self-denial and then scurrying around looking for toilet paper and essentials. This past week, I settled in for the long haul and decided I needed a project, and that project would be spring.

Every year, as February surrenders to March and the budding trees pop out in yards across the city, I lament the fact that I’m never able to identify the trees with confidence. Cherry blossoms, redbuds, pink dogwoods: as I rush through my daily life, these beauties delight me, but I never stop to discern their often subtle differences. Next spring, I tell myself, I will learn to identify each. But the next year comes, and the next, and never do I find/take the time.

Well this spring there’s nowhere to go and no need to rush. With my iPhone set on portrait mode, I have documented the lovely nuances of each blossom. On my daily walks with Reese the blue heeler, I pause to photograph the blooming trees. Reese waits patiently, eyes carefully surveying our surroundings for the ubiquitous squirrel, his nemesis.

I can attest to a great sense of calm that comes from standing under a redbud and gazing up at the spring sky. If there’s any silver lining to the COVID-19 imposed isolation, it’s that we have endless hours to survey the spring beauty. Has it ever been more splendid than in 2020—or is this simply the first year we have had and taken the time to enjoy it?

In my new photo collection, the only flowering bush I have not been able to find is the forsythia—ironic because that’s my favorite and was my Mom’s. We had a sprawling forsythia on the west side of our childhood home. Because forsythia is one of the earliest blooming shrubs, every Easter our photographs were taken in front of that bush. I remember the Easter when my dress was yellow and blended in with the bush. That was the year I had slept in rollers, only for the humidity to mock my attempt at curls. I remember the Easter I didn’t want to smile because of my braces, and the Easter that was so cold we shivered in front of my parents’ little Kodak.

I remember, also, the summer that my dad got particularly ambitious with yardwork. He and Mom had been discussing how overgrown parts of the yard were. Armed with his weed whacker, he set about to clean up the yard. I recall Dad coming in, smelling of dirt and grass, and my mom handing him water and sweet fruit tea. I also remember the pitch of Mom’s voice when she discovered that, along with the dead shrubs, Dad had downed our beloved forsythia.

“It wasn’t blooming. I didn’t remember it,” Dad said helplessly. It was a dark day in their marriage.

The more spring flowers I documented this week, the more hell-bent I became on finding a forsythia. My sister-in-law Mary Jane lives in an older neighborhood with mature trees; together we scoured her neighborhood, but the only forsythia still blooming was a little bedraggled. I’m afraid I missed my window on the forsythia, but the power of spring is knowing it will return. Next year I’ll notice the forsythia when she first emerges from the bleakness of winter, and I’ll more adequately capture her radiance.

On our daily walks, Reese tugs any time he spies a squirrel. I guess it is in his DNA to rid the earth of any and all squirrels. Yet they are as elusive to him as my forsythia. One day this week there was a squirrel on a sidewalk, 20 paces ahead of us. Taunting Reese, the squirrel was chilling out, sunglasses on, legs crossed, munching a nut. Reese looked from the squirrel to me, beseeching me with Hannibal Lecter eyes.

“Please, Mom. Just one good kill?”

I let Reese off the leash to creep silently and then spring on the squirrel which of course darted up a tree. Foiled again! As is his custom, Reese stretched his paws up on the tree and barked his anger at the squirrel who was undoubtedly laughing at the sucker below. Then Reese raced down into the valley, energized by his freedom and the buoyant spring breeze. I lost sight of my beloved mutt for a minute and then, rounding a corner, saw him: wriggling on his back in the new green grass. Reese flipped and flopped and then lay on his side, basking in the sunlight, in the joy that can only come from a spring afternoon.

While we are living through this national crisis, we can all take lessons from Reese (not the desire to kill part). Watch for the lessons that the natural world wants to teach us. Stretch out in a meadow and feel the sun on your face. Breathe in deeply—even if the pollen chokes you. Notice the blossoms dancing overhead. Before long, the streets will again be crowded and this arduous pause will be over. Our minds consumed with task lists, we will drive down city streets and barely heed the flowers and trees that forever bear witness to our days: those God-given gifts that remind us that, after the long hard winter, spring always returns.

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