Tulip Tree*

from Reflections on a Life, writings and paintings for my father

watercolor of tulip tree flower by Annette deFerrari
Tulip tree flower, 8x8 inches {one square}, watercolor on board, by Annette deFerrari

When I was in my early thirties, my parents took me camping. They drove all the way across Pennsylvania to where I was living in North Philadelphia. We left the city and found our way through the countryside to a state park. My dad did all the driving. We arrived at the park, found a wooded site, and set up camp. My folks pitched their tent near the picnic table. I would sleep in the back of their van.

The campsite was homey. Trees were tall and thick with leaves. Bugs were singing. We sat at the picnic table and chattered back and forth. When the air cooled and darkness came, we curled up in our sleeping bags. In the morning, we made breakfast on the green Coleman stove, drank our instant coffee, and walked. The path meandered. We stepped over rocks and logs and slicks of mud. We walked until we couldn’t walk anymore and then we rested by the lake’s edge. Canada geese were everywhere.

My dad showed me a tulip tree that day, and he showed me how to identify it by its leaf. I liked this: the leaf’s top was chopped off, so it was an easy shape to remember.

Years later, while I was walking in the forest in North Carolina, I came upon yellow-orange flowers littered onto a pathway. I felt like I’d chanced upon a fairyland. Where did these blossoms come from? I gathered them, took them home, and placed them in bowls of water. When I looked them up, I found that they belonged to the tulip tree.

The next time I talked to my dad, I told him about the flowers. We discussed the tree for a while, then I asked him if the tulip tree was a special tree.

“No,” he said. The question irritated him. “Why would it be a special tree?”

“Oh,” I said. “I guess I thought it was special because you’re the one who showed it to me.”

“Oh,” he said.

And for a moment, we were stopped in a shy and sweet silence.

*Liriodendron tulipifera This tree has more common names than you can shake a stick at: tuliptree magnolia, tulip poplar, whitewood, white poplar, yellow poplar, to name a few. {Though it is not a poplar. It’s in the Magnoliaceae family. Who knew?}

An earlier version of this writing and the above painting {just one of the squares} were part of an exhibit honoring my father shortly after his death.

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Annette deFerrari

Wanderer & ponderer of nature, art, & our ties to our stuff. I have a series of stories about my dad & an in-progress book: You Don’t Have To Throw It All Away