Journey of a Japanese maple

After returning to the US from overseas, a woman gladly takes back the sapling she'd given to friends the year before.

When my husband and I sold our San Francisco Bay area home to move to Shanghai, China, we began a major clean-out, packing away many of our belongings, storing others, and disposing of or donating what was left.

But the bigger task lay ahead of me: What to do with my container garden? More specifically, my Japanese maple, housed in a gallon-size container, nursed from seed by my then 88-year-old Grandma Anna, and given to me when she boldly moved from California to Texas to be closer to my parents.

A one-foot-tall seedling, with a trunk as thin as a pencil and only a leaf or two sprouting from the very top, my maple was shabby at best to look at. But I adore Japanese maples for so many reasons.

They are majestic, architectural, yet delicate-looking trees that are a fixture in any Japanese garden – ethereal with their lacy leaf foliage standing beside a moss-covered boulder or stone lantern. These maples are seasonless, always carrying a graceful line regardless of whether their branches brim with vibrant leaves in the spring or hang barren in the dead of winter when the bark's colorful textures are on full display.

Taking the tree with me to China was out of the question. But I couldn't abandon it or leave it for the new homeowner either. My quandary was not with the parting, but rather with the prospect of finding someone to provide a loving home.

At my childhood home in suburban northern New Jersey, landscape trees were chosen based on color, shape, and height, and always treated as family. My avid gardener parents were not beyond digging up some of our finest specimens when we were readying for a move to a bigger house. They wrapped the rootballs in burlap and transported them in the back of Dad's Volvo wagon to our new location.

More than 700 varieties of Japanese maples exist, and when I was growing up, my parents always made room for one or more of those cultivars. They hold the same allure for me. No home I inhabit will ever be complete without at least one Japanese maple.

So when I planned my move to China, I considered my friends carefully. Who had houseplants they doted on? Who owned rather than rented? Who would ultimately loosen this tree from its crowded confines and plant it in the earth?

I thought of dear friends, John and Julie, and their home with backyard views of the Pacific Ocean and believed I had found the perfect match. I visualized the maple tree alongside Julie's much-treasured rainbow assortment of rose bushes and riotous passion flower-covered fences. John, one of those rare San Francisco natives, I deemed unlikely to leave the area.

And so I passed my maple on, relieved that I had found a good home for the tree before leaving the country.

What I hadn't realized was the responsibility I had inadvertently passed along in a living thing that required care.

Now I see that I may have been like one of those child-free aunts who carelessly presents her favorite nephew or niece with the surprise birthday gift of an ant farm, fish, or guinea pig without realizing that the new pet usually becomes the sole burden of the parent.

I never considered the pressure my friends must have felt until my husband and I unexpectedly moved back to the Bay Area a year later and heard the full story.

When John, Julie, and I met over coffee, John pushed across the table a three-foot-high Japanese maple. I was immediately taken aback.

"Could this be the same tree?" I asked John, who smiled broadly and assured me that it was.

Honestly, I had forgotten about the tree but was beside myself to see how it had flourished in their good care, with many willowy leaf-filled branches, and a bonus addition courtesy of Julie: a strawberry companion plant now emerging at the base of the tree like a lush carpet. The maple looked contented; happy.

"We didn't kill it!" John continued, half-amazed, half-relieved, as he wiped an imaginary bead of sweat off his brow.

There it was, the awful moment that shook me out of my reverie. Although John and Julie had graciously accepted the maple at the time, they had been terrified that the tree would meet an untimely demise in their care. How would they ever respond had I asked about the tree, especially having met my Grandma Anna and knowing of our close bond?

I had never meant to get the plant back; it had been a gift. Still, I accepted it willingly.

Fast-forward to today, two years later. Our family has expanded to include a daughter, Lauren, and we have purchased a new house: a place to plant the maple permanently. I chose an ideal location – a partially shady corner at the front of our two-story Mediterranean where the soil is rich with compost.

The maple has responded to its new surroundings – it's now lush and thriving at a height of six feet, its trunk thick and strong.

Every time I come up the driveway, the sight of my maple comforts me like an old friend. I watch its seven-fingered leaves lit by the sun. Some leaves wave like hands as they catch the breeze.

Sometimes, I think of much-missed Grandma Anna and how it would have tickled her to know of the circuitous journey of her Japanese maple back to me. But mostly, it speaks to me of home and love.

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