As I sit at the kitchen table with my 9-year-old son, I bite my lip as he frets and sulks over his division homework. Every so often, between my attempts to explain the problems to him, I lift my eyes to the window and look outside at a gentle, picture-postcard snowfall. I am especially drawn to the twiggy little shadblow I had planted, and with good reason.
Shadblow, Juneberry, or serviceberry - what you call it depends on where you live - represents nothing less than the cusp of spring here in Maine. The woodlands are full of this small wild tree, and when it blooms, I know that - at long last - we are home free, and winter has retired for good.
The thing is, shadblow is devilishly difficult to transplant, because it grows in ungainly clumps. It took me five years of careful searching and waiting until, last May, I found a single, very young sapling, bearing one wispy, white, five-petaled blossom as the identifier of its species.
Realizing it had little chance of surviving in the shade of its parent, I ever so carefully dug it out and transported it in a bucket to my front yard. It continued in good health through the balance of spring and summer, and shed its leaves, right on cue, in the fall. Now it stands in its winter repose, a thin, dark thing, banked in snow. Will it come back to me, or won't it?
Anton notices my distraction. "Dad," he says. "I need help. What are you looking at?"
I try to explain the "shadblow waiting game" to him, but he is absolutely, totally unimpressed. Of course. What interest could he have in taking spring's pulse by observing a diminutive tree which, by some bold grace, has possibly, just possibly, made it through a Maine winter?
Anton is not a bad little mathematician. He grasped addition, subtraction, and even multiplication with facility. But division has proved more of a conundrum. It's tougher than the other functions because it requires a greater leap of the imagination.
With addition, you can use your fingers and soon have your answer. But division is not quite so elementary, especially when the child first confronts the issue of "remainders." (Seven divided by three equals two with a remainder of one. Why? And what does one do with the remainder?)
What it comes down to is that, as with everything else a child learns, "patience" is the watchword. But I also bear a share of responsibility for his success, because while Anton doubts his ability to "get" division, I already know he will eventually grasp it. Therefore it is up to me to encourage my son to hang in there and not throw in the towel before the light of understanding pours over his mind's horizon.
Just down the street from me, there is a field of scrub: pines, birches, wild cherries, poplars, and yes, shadblow, all competing for space in an area which was - long before my arrival - clear-cut and then left to nature's vagaries. In the middle of my son's math travails, just at the point where the first tears are about to brim over, I place my hand on his shoulder and tell him, "Break time."
Before he knows what is happening, I bundle him up and hustle him out the door and into a sled. He perks up in anticipation of a good pull down the snow-laden street and through the woods, the frustration of division receding as we move forward.
I take hold of the rope and run with the sled, pulling my son behind me as he whoops for joy.
We dash into the woods, and our pace slows in the deeper snow. In we go, under boughs heavy with the stuff. Finally, out of breath, I stop, and I behold the stands of shadblow. They have stark, narrow, bare trunks, but there is life within.
"Look, Anton," I say as my son gets up from the sled. "This is the first tree to bloom in spring. In a couple of months, this whole place will be white with blossoms."
Anton wrinkles his nose. His pronouncement is blunt. "It looks dead," he tells me.
"Look closer," I reply. Then I remove a glove and scrape away a bit of bark with a thumbnail, revealing brilliant green.
"See," I continue. "Patience. It's only a matter of time."
I look into my son's eyes and can see the wheels turning. "Why are there six trunks?" he finally asks.
I smile. "Well, there are two of us, so that means ..."
"We each get three," he volunteers.