Birthday Trees

By: Yongsoo Park

Akin to having the proverbial white picket fence in the Unites States, for Koreans of my parents’ generation who came of age during the Korean War (1950-1953), having a persimmon tree in one’s yard symbolized the attainment of the ideal home. My parents’ yard in an unfashionable part of Seoul in the mid-1970s never had such a tree. But, our home was made special instead by a peach tree and a jujube tree, which my parents had planted to mark my brother and my births.

My jujube tree reminded my father of his remote mountain village, the sticks, as some might describe it in America. A die-hard country creature at heart, one of his many laments about city life was that the polluted city air brought with it a yearly scourge of caterpillars who feasted on the jujube leaves. He claimed that no such caterpillars had ever crawled on the jujube trees of his mountain village because the air, water, and soil there had been so pure.

Despite the yearly caterpillar infestation, the jujube tree, like my brother’s peach tree, flourished in our sun-drenched yard, and our family ate our fill of peaches and jujubes each summer and fall. And whenever guests came calling, my parents made a point to show off our trees and explain their significance as my brother and I looked on, beaming with pride that our parents had cared enough to mark our entry into the world in such fashion. What made my parents having done so extra special was that planting a tree to commemorate a child’s birth wasn’t a common practice or a local custom. My brother and I knew no other child who’d been given such a gift.

Buoyed by those memories, I’d longed to give my own children the same gift when I became a parent. Indeed, it was the one practice from my childhood that I most wanted to pass down to them. But when my son Isaiah came into the world, the only patch of earth my wife and I had access to in our neck of New York City was a two-feet-by-five-feet rectangular plot meant only for flowers and vegetables in our neighborhood community garden, a former vacant lot that had been resuscitated by a team of city people with country souls. And as fortunate as my family was to even have access to such an urban oasis and as much camaraderie and fellowship as we enjoyed in that garden, sticking a tomato plant into the ground for my son didn’t quite seem to carry the same gravitas, permanence, and meaning that planting a jujube tree had once done. We couldn’t point to a tomato plant year after year and tell my son, “Look how big this plant has grown. It used to be no bigger than you.”

So when our family later moved out of the city to a 100-year-old house on a quarter-acre plot, in the suburbs in anticipation of our second child being born, a part of me was ecstatic. A quarter acre wasn’t much by suburban standards, but it was more real estate than I’d ever had access to. All through that first winter, my wife and I readied our home for our soon-to-be-born daughter, and I waited eagerly for the ground to thaw so that I could plant fruit trees for my children and recreate the garden of my youth come spring. In addition to our fruit trees, my mother had tended a small vegetable patch, and my father had helped my brother and me raise cats, dogs, chickens, and even a rabbit.

My daughter Hannah was born several days before the spring solstice. I planted a peach tree in the backyard a few weeks later to mark her birth and a belated apple tree in our front yard for Isaiah. Digging two holes for the trees took nearly all day, but brimming with pride at having passed down a family legacy and drunk with the joy of literally putting down roots in our new home, I didn’t feel at all tired afterwards.

Later that summer, we enjoyed our first harvest of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, lettuce, and perilla leaves, an edible leaf used in Korean cuisine to wrap grilled meats.

“Will I be able to climb my tree someday?” Isaiah asked, pointing to his apple tree after we’d enjoyed a dinner of Korean barbecue wrapped in perilla leaves picked fresh from our garden.

“Of course. By then, it’ll give us a hundred apples a year.”

“A hundred?” He stared at the tree as if he were trying to picture its empty branches filled with apples.

“Maybe even more.”

Everything seemed to fall into place later that fall, when I overheard Isaiah proudly tell his friends who were playing in our yard why Hannah and his trees had been planted. I couldn’t help but grin. Their trees were giving them the same sense of love, pride, and belonging that the jujube tree of my childhood had given me nearly forty years earlier. They would see their trees grow into full maturity and know permanence and stability, which had been wrested away from my own childhood when my family had moved to the United States. Indeed, part of my intense attachment to the birthday tree of my childhood had stemmed precisely from the fact that I’d been forced to give it up. I vowed that my children wouldn’t have to go through a similar experience.

But then, after three years in our new home, life intervened precisely when both my children’s trees were just starting to bear fruit. My wife and I found ourselves suddenly having to relocate due to job changes. It wasn’t something we could forestall or control. Hannah was still too young to understand what was going on, but Isaiah, a savvy second-grader, cried when we broke the news to him. Seeing his tears broke my heart. I’d done everything I could so that my children would enjoy the sense of home and permanence that I’d lost as a child. Yet, now, as fate would have it, I was making my children leave the first real home they’d known.

My children and I are back in New York City, far from the fruit trees we planted next to a century-old house. I miss those trees more than even having had extra bathrooms and storage space. But, as difficult as leaving those trees was, we are slowly adjusting to life in the city. And I am grateful for our time in that old house and that my children got to experience life alongside their trees for three years. It wasn’t a long time, but they got to dig, plant, and harvest. They got to pick cicada shells, chase fireflies, and see life grow all around them.

And although our tree-planting ultimately didn’t go quite the way we’d hoped, it was well worth it for I know that Hannah and Isaiah will carry the memory of their trees with them throughout their lives the way I did the memory of mine. Who knows? They may even continue the practice of planting a tree for a child if they become parents someday. In the meantime, we make sure to give thanks for each piece of fruit that we eat and remind ourselves that every fruit in the world came ultimately from a tree that may very well have been planted in honor of a child.

Yongsoo Park is the author of the novels BOY GENIUS and LAS CUCARACHAS, the memoir RATED R BOY, and the essay collection THE ART OF EATING BITTER about his losing battle to give his children an analog childhood. He lives in Harlem and gets around on an old bicycle.