Leaves of Love
Through the remaining snow alder limbs reach like fingers sprouting up from a grave after a long rest. New buds pop on the branches like pom poms. In the deep snowfalls of winter it's easy to forget they're here, a tree easily cast aside, no one's favorite. I felt a kinship with the tree at an early age, though for a time I forgot why.
In the autumns of my childhood I'd collect dried leaves from their boughs for my mother and she'd make us tea, not floral or sweet but gentle and subtle, and I'd drink it from a mug she gave me that was much too big for my tiny hands. When winter came I'd find my way to the secret sledding hill hidden amidst the alders, the biggest one marking the spot where to start and I would sled until I heard her whistle calling me home before dark. Then in the summer I learned how to brand myself with it: place a leaf of your choosing on your forearm, pack it down with mud, keep it there for ten minutes, remove the dirt, gently peel the leaf off, and you have a temporary tattoo. Oh how she laughed when I came every summer day with the earthy tattoo and she'd trace the lines on my arm telling me that they told a story I'd never fully know.
As the trees and I grew, I found a cruelty revealed in the world. Like a cycle, there is both light and dark, death and life, and I found darkness and death to coalesce one fateful winter. It was a cold one as beautiful as an icicle, but icicles shatter. That winter my mother died on Christmas day and with that the light went out in my world. I could no longer bare collecting the leaves for tea without her. I hiked to the sledding hill angrily by myself, thinking of how they reminded me of my mother, all the while snapping alder branches as I ascended. When once I'd easily slink between the alders sticking out from the snow, now the trees pushed me to the ground. The seasons changed and warmth returned, but the leaves seemed meaningless and for a long time I thought nothing more of their story.
They say time heals all wounds. I haven't decided yet if that's true or not, but it does lessen the pain. Years later on a hike along a clearwater creek to a lily-pad filled lake, there came a silent moment with an alder leaf. Where I live, this is the time of year when summer turns to autumn, and a warm breeze rustled the trees just enough to send a few leaves to the ground and I stopped as abruptly as they had fallen to look at the largest of the leaves, an alder leaf. Without thinking, I pressed the dirty leaf into my arm and memories of sledding and tea came coursing back, and it was as though I could hear her laugh and feel her touch. For so long I hid from the alders, burying the memories, but as I gazed upon the tattoo I realized the lines told the story of us and what a story they told.