Walter reached up and pulled a branch of the blooming dogwood tree closer; he used his pocketknife to cut off about 12 inches of it. Most men of his time carried such knives – certainly a young man who was working-class and a jack-of-all-trades, especially if he had just a bit of the “bad boy” about him, all of which Walter was and did. He handed the cutting down to the beautiful young woman seated at his feet beneath the tree on his outspread jacket; then he joined her on the ground, leaning next to her against the trunk of the tree.
The girl’s name was Charlotte, and Walter’s heart beat just a little faster every time he was near her – every time he saw her, really – but especially now, as he watched if she would keep the stick of fresh dogwood blossoms or return it to him.
The year was in the early 1900s and, as anyone who had been born into the Victorian era would have known, by presenting the flowering dogwood to Charlotte, Walter was declaring his romantic interest in her. If she gave it back, it meant she did not return his feelings; if she kept it, she was expressing her interest in him as well.
Charlotte gently plucked one of the blossoms from the slender branch; she held it close to her face to catch its nearly transparent fragrance; and then she tucked the flower into her thick, bright hair. Giving Walter a slightly crooked smile, she held onto the precious symbolic dogwood with surety.
Walter and Charlotte would be married a few years later; they would stay together for the rest of their lives. Walter and Charlotte were my grandparents.
I began remembering the dogwood symbolism and stories and lore, I suppose, because of this Spring’s odd weather and blooming patterns. With an early, extended warmth, followed by sudden, repeated freezes, most blooming things lived and died quickly – bright colors turned to faded browns, soft pastels to bloodless whites, practically overnight. I remember the wisteria in particular resembled a sort of sad Spanish moss in its ghost-like residue.
And then the real Spring awoke and stayed. And with it came the dogwoods. Whites and creams and pinks, both soft and bright. Year after year, they are always present throughout the landscape, of course. But this year they seemed to really come into their own. Instead of providing familiar, dramatic backgrounds and undertones, they were the forefront of Spring itself. The very face of it.
It caught our attention and attracted our minds away from missing the usual lingering, flowering bounty, and pleased us with this singular display.
Perhaps, as some Native American legends contend, this was no mere happenstance. Perhaps it was the magic of the little people – specifically, the dogwood people themselves, who live among the trees. The dogwood people are purposed to teach us harmony with the earth and woodlands. And they are dedicated to kindness, reminding us especially to care for the very young and very old. Perhaps by bringing the dogwood to our attention this year, it was to remind us to look for those who might be lost in the background of existence; those tucked away and under and often overlooked. Those easily forgotten – even in all their unique, individual beauty.
Another legend purports that the dogwood once grew as one of the largest of all the trees in the forest, straight and strong and tall. Because of its properties, its wood was used to make crosses for crucifixions, which broke the heart and spirit of the tree. Christ, hearing its cries, declared that from then on it would only grow short and twisted and gnarled, and never again would it be used for death; it would remain incredibly strong and supple and enduring, but its wood would be used solely for helpful, delicate service to man. Its blossoms resemble the shape of crosses in remembrance of this – with two short petals and two long. (In frustration, the Devil himself came along and took bites out of them.)
I suspect that we respond to these various images of the dogwood tree because they remind us that beauty and value and possibilities are always there waiting for us; all we have to do is pay attention to the evidence of things not seen. And, sometimes, we can give a bit of it away to someone we’d like to love.