When the catalpa trees bloom

By Bruce Stambaugh

I remember the catalpa tree that grew across the street from my childhood home. I had no idea that such a tree had a brief but pinnacle part in the history of our family until my late father related an unforgettable story to me about this time last year.

We were on our way to one of Dad’s numerous doctors’ appointments regarding treatment for his aggressive cancer. I drove. Dad rode shotgun, while his walker took the backseat.

During each trip to and from the doctors, Dad would tell me many stories about his past, the family, or complain about his Cleveland Indians, the team he loved to hate.

If Dad weren’t feeling particularly well, he would ride along silently, head turned gazing out the passenger window. He might speak up if something caught his fancy, like a field he thought would be good for hunting arrowheads.

On this particular trip, Dad was quiet until he spied a catalpa tree.

catalpa tree by Bruce Stambaugh
The fading blossoms of a catalpa tree overhanging a pond.

“See that tree?” he queried. I answered in the affirmative. “That’s a catalpa tree like the one by our house.”

I assured him that I remembered the tree. We called it the cigar tree because of the elongated, greenish-brown seedpods that it produced.

The tree’s broad canopy loaded with big, lobed leaves provided plenty of shade. We lamented, however, that it grew so close to the road. Its blossoms were large, white and fragrant.

“I remember the Sunday your Grandpa and Grandma Frith visited us,” Dad continued. By “us” he meant Mom, my older brother and himself. I was six months along in my mother’s womb. It was June 1947.

While sitting on the porch of my parent’s first home that Sunday afternoon, my grandfather saw a tree in full bloom that he didn’t recognize. Grandpa asked what kind of tree that was, and Dad told him it was a catalpa tree.

“I’ll never forget that day,” Dad said, “because after visiting with us, he and Grandma also visited with Aunt Gerry and Aunt Vivian.” They were my mother’s sisters, who also each had a child.

Dad’s voice softened as the thoughts played out in his mind.

“Normally Grandma and Grandpa Frith only visited one daughter per Sunday,” he said. “But for some reason this Sunday they went to all three families.”

“I was always so glad they had done that,” Dad revealed with rare emotion, “because the next day was when Grandpa Frith was killed.” My grandfather was an electrician and had been accidentally electrocuted on a worksite.

I knew the electrocution story by heart. But I never knew of the fateful Sunday afternoon visits.

The other day I happened to see a catalpa tree in full bloom. It was tall with an impressive crown and full of showy white blossoms, just like I remembered from my childhood. I smiled, and fondly if not sadly thought of both my grandfather and my father.

Dad had taught my brothers and sisters and I a lot about life. Foremost in his teaching was the importance of family.

Now, whenever I see the catalpa’s showy white blossoms, I will be forever reminded of that poignant lesson, and eternally thankful that Dad had related that personally valuable slice of family history.

Author: Bruce Stambaugh

Writer, marketer, columnist, author, photographer, birder, walker, hiker, husband, father, grandfather, brother, son, township trustee, converted Anabaptist, community activist, my life is crammed with all things people and nature and wonder. My late father gave me this penchant for giving and getting the most out of life, my late mother the courtesy, kindness, and creativity to see the joy in life. They both taught me to cherish the people I am with. I try and fail and try again.

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