Tapping My Family Tree
TEXT BY BROOKE WILLIAMS
A writer “from away” puts down roots in Thomaston — and reaps the rewards.
Of all the things I loved about the Thomaston home I started my family in, I miss the backyard the most — possibly because I didn’t have to heat that, but mostly because of the trees. Stately horse chestnuts, as old as the historic shipbuilding town, towered over our 1850s Federal on the harbor, but my favorite is a scrappy maple from Illinois, where I grew up.
I transported it as a sapling on a flight from Chicago. It was 2001, and not only did the airline let me board with my tree, all the flight attendants wanted to hear the backstory before they gently tucked the branches into a closet usually reserved for first class.
I was 32, home visiting family after living in other places, and finally old enough to view my upbringing in a small central Illinois town with objectivity and affection. Sitting on my Aunt Patti’s patio, the memory switched on in my head like a hall light to my past. Running barefoot through my grandmother’s backyard, breathing in the smell of freshly mowed grass and dirt at dusk, I was 8 years old again, far from where I actually was and what I had become.
“I can’t stop thinking of Grammy,” I said to my aunt. “Well, you are under her tree,” she replied.
Aunt Patti launched into the story of how my grandmother brought her the sapling the day my aunt and uncle closed on their first house, driving across the state with the transplanted tree in a Folgers coffee can. Gazing up at the now-sprawling canopy of leaves and branches, I recognized the relative of the maple that sheltered my grandmother’s backyard. My cousins and I grew up climbing the tree and scanning its trunk for cicada shells the bugs crawled out of when they learned to fly and shrill their melancholy song — the soundtrack of my childhood.
Before I could ask, my cousin Mindy gave me one of the saplings she had potted, passing down the third generation of the family tree for me to bring back to Maine. Seeking a simpler, small-town lifestyle, my husband, Christopher, and I had recently moved from New York City. I took a job as a reporter for the Camden Herald, and we chose our Thomaston house for its views of the St. George River, never considering the cost of heating or remodeling a 4,000-square-foot place that had once been a ship’s store and boarding house. We were excited to own a lawn mower and shovels for the first time and ready to commit to a tree.
Our son and daughter never got to meet my grandmother, nor my Aunt Patti, who died of cancer not long after my visit, but, like me, they grew up playing under the family tree. The sapling matured in tandem with them, its sturdy trunk gradually widening to support willowy limbs that seemed to sprout up overnight and drop leaves around the yard like the piles of dirty laundry I was constantly doing. Eventually, it grew higher than the lilacs behind the barn that our neighbor from the historical society told me came from cuttings Maine sailors brought back from Japan.
"Boiling the sap on the stove, sweet steam billowed from the bubbling pot, making
our whole house smell like IHOP."
Every March, the lidded tin pails appearing on maple trees to collect their sap intrigued me and gave me hope for the coming thaw. The spring my son turned 10, he asked if our maple could make syrup. I wasn’t sure, but, excited by the prospect, the whole family drove to E.L. Spear Lumber and Hardware in Rockland to buy a spile and pail. My children took turns wielding the hammer to pound the spout into the trunk and then, stepping back in case we unleashed a geyser, we waited patiently.
Nothing happened — that day or the next. Nobody I knew back home tapped their maple trees. Maybe Illinois maples were different?
Checking on the tree each morning as soon as they woke up, my children peered into the pail with visions of waffles drenched in their own maple syrup. As if sensing their enthusiasm, and sheer belief, the young Midwesterner finally mustered up a few drops of sap, and then a few cups.
Boiling the sap on the stove, sweet steam billowed from the bubbling pot, making our whole house smell like IHOP. When the steam finally cleared, we had produced a cup of syrup — not bad for our first harvest. We ate one round of waffles and then canned the rest in a mason jar with a crayoned label — Pure Maine, Illinois Bred, Maple Syrup — which I sent to my cousin Mindy.
Tapping the tree had been a great experiment, but it only happened once, which our maple probably appreciated since it had enough to do competing for light in our small yard dominated by mature trees throwing shade.
In 2015, my husband and I both accepted new jobs, and we moved to Kittery. On the April morning when we closed on the Thomaston house, I sat in the backyard under the maple and called Mindy. “There are no babies,” I told her, letting the disappointment pass between us. We had hoped to dig up more saplings to plant at our new place, and hers in Chicago.
While I was sorry to leave my maple, I couldn’t be prouder of it. Growing along the rock wall we planted it too close to, our determined transplant had flourished, rising tall and lean to find its own light, reaching almost 40 feet.
Like my tree, I’ve now lived in Maine longer than the Midwest. And yet, some locals still consider me to be “from away.” An old-timer once told me: “Cats can have kittens in the oven, but that don’t make them biscuits,” to explain why even my children wouldn’t be regarded as true Mainers.
That’s ok; I know where I’m from. But there is no denying where my family tree has roots.
Brooke Williams lives with her husband and two children in Kittery. Her essays have been published in Brain Child, the Christian Science Monitor, Down East, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and aired on NPR. For many years, she wrote a weekly column for the Camden Herald, where she was a reporter. Today, she works in communications at IDEXX in Westbrook and is writing a book of humorous essays about identity, marriage, and motherhood. You can read more of her work at brookenwilliams.com.