Becca lived with her dad, Jo, and her younger sibling, Jacob, near the city park. From her bedroom window in their attic, some of the remaining trees of an ancient forest seemed to spill into their garden. Everyday her dad would put Jacob in a toddler carrier on his back and they’d welcome the day in with a walk, saying hello to the trees as they went, as Jacob tried his legs out in the park. They apologised when their dog, Syd went to the toilet on their trunks. They admired green shoots and blossom in the springtime and bright colours in the autumn as they picked up conkers and hunted for blackberries in the hedge. They sat under the trees’ shade in summer, and piled old leaves around their roots in winter to help make them feel cosy. But today was Becca’s favourite time of year. Today was the birthday of all trees in the whole world!
She went to the window as soon as she woke up, flinging it open. A robin sounded his alarm as a flurry of last night’s snow landed on his feathers.
“Sorry, Mr. Robin, sir.” Becca said to the grumpy bird, who flew off in reply. Then she looked up at the beautiful old rowan tree dressed in sequins of winter frost at the corner of their little lawn.
“Happy birthday!” called Becca, and the tree nodded and swayed in greeting, reaching out frosted branches to Becca as she quickly got herself ready for the day. Grabbing her gift to the tree from her bedside draw she went downstairs.
Gurgles, spluttering and giggles could be heard from the kitchen before she entered it. Jacob was wearing half his breakfast and a big smile. Her dad had a slightly smaller smile on his face as he wiped Jacob down with a tea towel.
“Hello bright eyes” he said as Becca rushed in. “waffles, berries and maple syrup for breakfast today” he went on, eyes sparkling. “But I can see you’ll be off to see Mother Mezuzah first.”
“Morning daddy”, Becca said, planting a kiss on his cheek and one on Jacob’s squirming head. “Yes, but I won’t be long, promise, and waffles sound yum.”
“Our tradition” he said, with that mix of sadness and joy only those with happy memories of people no longer with them know.
“Our tradition” Becca answered, then, after a heartbeat had passed, she added brightly, “Come on Syd” and the little staffie jumped to attention, barrelling after Becca into the cold, clear air of the garden.
“Morning Honi Hedgepig” she said to the little hedgehog they’d rescued from a bonfire last autumn, who now seemed to regard their garden as home. Syd wasn’t quite so happy to see his prickly neighbour, skirting around them and straight towards the old rowan tree in all her winter splendour.
“Morning, Mother Mezuzah” Becca said to the tree, who brushed the top of her head in reply. “I bought you a gift for your birthday,” Becca continued. And she drew out a white and red yarn garland from her pocket, wrapping it around the trunk of the tree, before leaning in to hug it. She could hear her mother’s voice saying “She is a Tree of Life to all who embrace her, and all of her ways are branches of blessing.”
“I made smaller yarn garlands in green and lemon for the trees in the park” Becca added, looking up through misted eyes. The tree seemed to reach out for her, the fingers of her branches dropping a fat shiny stick into her hand. “Thank-you”, said Becca, laughing now.
After her delicious breakfast, Becca made messy handprint trees with Jacob and repotted some aloe vera and rosemary plants, while their dad caught up work on emails. Jacob seemed more interested in eating the soil, so Becca got out some scarves for him to play with, because that always made Jacob happy. He grabbed at the pink one, his favourite, and they played tents and peekaboo. When their dad was ready, they went for their morning walk. Becca knew that Syd could sniff out the first signs of spring, and sure enough, as the humans decorated a beautiful oak tree with coloured yarn, Syd’s keen nose uncovered the first brave snowdrop they’d seen that year.
“Well done, Syd” said Jo, patting the now circling, excited dog and giving him a treat.
“Syd, Syd, Syd” said Jacob. And they all clapped.
After zoom school and her dad’s broken morning of work in the study, they had an indoor picnic lunch, with nut burgers and homemade chutney and potato salad, then peach jam roll for pudding. The jam had come from the tree in Becca’s aunt’s garden in North Carolina, and it tasted of sunshine. Their dad told the story of when they’d first come to the house, near Tu B’ Shevat years before, and how the rowan tree had seemed to welcome them. It was their mum, Charlotte, who had first seen the outline of the letter Shin in the tree’s curves, and Jacob had fashioned a mezuzah cover from a small branch the tree had dropped into Charlotte’s arms. Becca fingered the fat stick in her own pocket, wondering what it would like to become.
When evening came, they took Syd for another walk, seeing people stop to notice the trees glowing in their crochet greens and yellows in the fading light. It was nice when people noticed trees, Becca thought. Jacob was sleepy, lulled into his own dreamworld by the rocking of their dad’s walk and chortling his own niggun; a wordless song, as they went. Their dad told them how the trees give us more oxygen in the air, which we need for life, and how when we breathe out we give them something called carbon dioxide, which they need to make their food. His voice was soothing as he spoke and it felt like even the trees were listening, bending towards Becca’s dad’s words and his breath.
“ The Book of Legends; Sefer Aggadah says, all trees talk with one another and communicate with mortals” said Becca’s dad. “All trees were created for friendship with mortals, the book says,” he added.
“And that means us” said Becca, proudly.
“And the birds, and badgers, and hedgehogs; everyone,” her dad answered. “Even Syd” he laughed, as they watched the dog raise his leg and relieve himself under a majestic beech tree.
They ate vegetable crumble for dinner, snuggled together on the sofa with Syd on top of them. But first, they had lit candles as the last of the sunset left the sky. They’d put money aside to go to a charity that planted and protected trees. Then they’d enjoyed a special meal called a seder, with four types of fruit and nuts, and white grape juice slowly mixed with red to symbolise the creation of The Tree of Life. They ate nuts popped from their shells, then plums, carefully setting aside the stones for future planting. Then they ate seedless grapes, then a watermelon they bought at the corner shop, whose shell and inner seeds they could not eat but whose middle tasted of holidays and hope. Becca knew these fruits came from all over the world.
As Jo tucked his daughter into bed he told her the story of Honi, the prophet who had thought an old man silly for planting a tree he would never see grow, even when his granddaughter would. But then Honi had gone to sleep and woken under a fully grown carob tree where a young sapling had stood before. Honi was now an old man, and an old woman stood over him. She told him she was the child whose grandfather had planted the tree he rested under, and now she was doing so with her own grandchildren. Now Honi saw and heard, and he rushed off to plant his own trees. Jo always finished this favourite story with this simple line:
“We are descended from that wise woman, and from Honi.”
That night, Becca tucked the fat little rowan stick under her pillow. “Show me what you want to become in my dreams.” She whispered, kissing it. Then she blew a kiss to Mother Mezuzah, who sung her to sleep with the wind rushing through her branches. In that wind Becca was certain she could hear the voices of her ancestors, and the voice of her mum and grandma Edith were there among them. By morning she knew what the fat little stick wanted to be. She would ask her dad to help her make it into a Torah pointer for her cousin’s bat mitzvah in the spring.