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Memorable mistake takes root from free tree episode

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Ellis County Press
WAXAHACHIE - The Navajo people of Northern Arizona have a tradition about mistakes that appeals to me.

It says every work of art must contain an error somewhere to let the evil spirits out.

I have a similar philosophy, slightly less mystic: Mistakes make things more memorable. As a natural corollary, the bigger the flub, the stronger the memory.

I thought about this last week when the news release from the National Arbor Day Foundation came across my desk.

The notice announces their annual membership drive. 'To become a member of the Foundation and to receive ten free trees,' it stated, 'Send a $10 contribution to TEN FREE FLOWERING TREES, National Arbor Day Foundation, 100 Arbor Avenue, Nebraska City, NE 68410, by January 31, 2001.'

Right away I started thinking about three scrawny bare-root saplings we planted in the first year of our marriage.

I'd heard a radio spot about the trees. You had to pick them up in person, on a certain Thursday evening, at a certain city hall somewhere in the Metroplex. I don't recall just where, but I do recall it was more than an hour's drive from our little brown brick cookie-cutter house in Rowlett.

Our first house. Bay window. Breakfast nook (and I do mean nook in every sense of the word). All-the-rage wallpapers, still-fragrant paint.

And a privacy fence around our own piece of black clay.

We planted grass. Seed. I watched in utter amazement as it sprouted up, a hazy, filmy sort of green at first. Growing grass from seed was unheard-of in my native Arizona.

And then I heard about the trees. 'We have to go,' I said, enchanted with the idea of owning trees.

'It's a long way,' my husband said. But we went anyway.

It was the adventure as much as the trees. We packed a picnic dinner and left right after work, in my Plymouth Scamp, munching bologna sandwiches and potato chips in rush-hour traffic, washing it down with Sam's Club's cheapest canned soda, holding hands, and listening to a Don Williams cassette.

We got the trees. They looked like switches your grandmother might have cut to put the fear of God into you. Three skinny saplings with not even a clump of dirt clinging to their hair-like roots.

By the time we got back to our cozy suburban subdivision, it was fully dark.

'We have to plant the trees,' I said.

I was like a mother hen; I'd held the silly things in my lap all the way home.

'We can plant them tomorrow,' my husband said. But we planted them anyway.

He planted two, I planted one. I was so proud of myself. It was the first tree I had ever planted with my own pointy trowel.

I could hardly wait to go out in the morning to survey my handiwork. We stood together on the six-by-six concrete patio and gazed across the tender new grassland toward the trees, three in a row along the fence.

'The one I planted looks different,' I said. 'Is it a different kind of tree?'

He hesitated. 'No, they're all the same,' he said.

I squinted at it a while longer. 'It's definitely different,' I insisted.

There was another pause. 'It's upside down,' my husband said.

We turned it over, but having waved its tiny roots in the air overnight was apparently too much for it, and it didn't survive.

Still, we've never forgotten it. How could we? Planting a tree upside down is not the sort of thing that slips your mind.

Recently, we made a pilgrimage into our past, driving slowly up the crowded Rowlett alleyway, counting the houses.

'There it is,' I said. And we paused for a moment to marvel at the two surviving saplings, now casting their shade broadly, even beyond the fence.

We've planted many an Arbor Day tree since then. All in the light of day. All right side up. All fertilized with love and a little laughter about the one that got away.

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