In my front yard is something beautiful. Something living. Something that sometimes reminds me of my mother.
You might not notice this particular something. In fact, most would probably walk by and never truly see it. But trust me, it’s there. It is a tree, about eighty feet tall, with a gnarled trunk, long limbs, and thick waxy leaves.
When we were building our little home, some twenty years ago, a hapless workman with a chainsaw tried to cut this tree down. I rushed to its rescue and stood between his chainsaw and the tree, shouting, “Turn that thing off!”
Later that day I tied a pink nylon ribbon around the trunk, reminding all workmen not to harm this beautiful thing.
On cool mornings I often sit beneath these branches, reading, sipping coffee. This softwood is home to many local creatures like neighborhood cats, squirrels, lizards, butterflies, ladybugs, moths, and 52,349 birds who twitter above me and occasionally drop air-to-surface poop artillery onto my hair.
Don’t get me wrong, this tree is not exceptional looking. Actually, it’s average as trees go. Its bark is peppered with scars, knots, and blotchy steel-colored freckles. Its oval leaves are stiff, the size of a grown man’s hand. The boughs are wild and unruly, like a mother’s arms, reaching for her child.
It’s not especially old, either. This particular tree is pushing 50 years old, although the one in my backyard is closer to 120. Still, many of these tough trees have endured droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the devastation of real estate development.
The older ones have lived through eras of war, stock market crashes, the ragtime age, the jazz age, the disco age, and these trees will survive the veritable hell that is the pop country age.
When I look at my tree I am fascinated by its tenacity. I am told that these things are hard to kill. They won’t die as easily as other wood, and they have been this way for eons.
There are about 210 varieties of this particular plant, they are the oldest known flowering species on planet earth. There are fossils of these flowers dating back 100 million years.
This means these plants were alive back when the Tyrannosaurus rex was calling the shots. They saw the Cretaceous period, the Cenozoic Era, they predate horses, canines, all major religions, human civilization, and Keith Richards.
They also predate honey bees. Which is why this tree variety is one of the select trees to rely on beetles for pollination even though, technically, beetles stink at pollination.
Most plants use bees for pollination. Your average honey bee is the college graduate of the pollination business, a sleek professional who gets the job done quickly.
Beetles are more like your uncle Phil, who was supposed to go to the supermarket for toilet paper but got distracted and returned home with a case of Michelob and a paddle-ball toy.
But somehow it works. And it’s been working for a long, long time.
The flowers on this tree are incredible. If you are lucky enough to see my tree bloom in late March or April, it will bless your heart.
The cream-colored blossoms are like a woman’s palms, cupped upward to heaven, waiting for something to fall from the sky. They are simple flowers. Not flashy. Not arrogant. They are meek and elegant.
But they are not dainty. That’s just a trick of the eye. These delicate-looking blossoms are anything but flimsy. They have leathery petals and can endure disagreeable weather better than a Chevy Impala with tire chains and Wisconsin plates. Some trees even bloom in the mid-winter.
And when the sun rises, I sit beneath this tree looking upward into its branches, watching daylight filter through the canopy of chlorophyll-choked foliage. If I stand in the right spot beneath this magnificent plant, it almost looks as though I am inside a chapel of green stained glass windows.
I am impressed by this creature. The tree is steadfast. It is strong. But most of all, it reminds me of people like you.
Yes, you. You’ve been kicked around a lot in your life. You’ve been whipped by people and circumstances that seemed stronger than you were. But they were not stronger. Neither were your problems too great. Your roots are deep, and your stout trunk bears scars that prove you are capable of survival.
But you were built for more than mere endurance. And you prove this each spring when you bloom so prettily, so arrestingly, so proudly, that people sometimes stop just to sigh at you.
That’s your purpose, you see. You were put here to be beautiful. That is your only job in this lifetime. I believe your task in this unforgiving world is to flower under harsh conditions, to be hard to kill, and to do it with graciousness, confidence, and the hardheadedness of a jack mule.
You were made to grow tall, to sway in the wind, to soak in sunlight, and to be the handsomest, hardiest flower in the woods.
So when some fool with a chainsaw arrives and threatens to harm your base, you can openly laugh at your adversaries because you’re protected.
Immediately, you will see a young man running to your rescue, shouting, “Turn that chainsaw off!” This young man will stand between you and your enemy with arms outward to protect your lovely branches.
Then he will tie a pink ribbon around your slender waist because he would rather die than see you fall. Because you are a magnificent magnolia. Just like his mother.
Steve Winfield (Lifer) - March 5, 2021 9:08 am
We had a couple monster Magnolia trees in our yard growing up. Man those things are messy. After my dad passed in 98 my niece ended up with the house which she later sold to a friend I grew up with. Long before he got the house his wife left him with 3 kids to raise alone. All 3 were far from normal but he done his very best. The middle child, a son, became an addict with a multitude of “issues”. My friend’s worked for the same company over 30 yrs, often 60 & 70 hours a week. This particular Sunday he was at work. His next door neighbor, another life long friend of mine saw something strange in one of the Magnolias & went over to investigate. This kid, now in his 20’s, had hung himself with an extension cord. The neighbor first called 911 & then the dad at work which is only 3-4 miles away. He parked his van so as to block the view of the hanging boy from dad if he beat the coroner there. Unfortunately he did arrive before the cops, coroner or anyone & had to see the worst site of his life. The surviving brother & sister have turned out fine & dad has since adopted the daughter of the dead son. This granddaughter keeps several psychiatrists herself as you can imagine.
Many have encouraged him to cut down the Magnolia tree but he never has.
Myself being raised by a single dad I have immense respect for this wonderful friend.
He just presses on. Helps his other kids, totally spoils the granddaughter, & goes to work every time the telephone rings.
I just really love this guy & can not imagine all the mental stuff he’s had to deal with.
Steve Winfield (Lifer) - March 5, 2021 9:13 am
Probably should have said, “keeps several psychiatrists BUSY”.
Oh well, it’s 3 AM.
Love you Sean & Jamie.
Sharon Lawson - March 5, 2021 11:22 am
What a joy to read your column about the Magnolias. With each paragraph I tried to guess what tree you were talking about. Thank you for highlighting the natural world we all live in. It was a delight to read!
thispedestrianlife - March 5, 2021 11:59 am
This! Pure gorgeousness!
John Steinbach - March 5, 2021 12:07 pm
Strong, beautiful words. Thanks, Sean.
Cyn - March 5, 2021 12:26 pm
Wonderful tribute to the magnificent magnolia that asks nothing of us—no fertilizing, pruning, no mulching—nothing. All we need do is enjoy.
Margaret - March 5, 2021 12:28 pm
Years ago, after an unasked for divorce from my high school lover, I moved in with my best friend and sometimes partner in crime. We lived in the upstairs apartment over a small architectural firm that was housed in an old but updated historic home overlooking Pensacola Bay. It was springtime and my heart welcomed the heavenly healing from long soaks in the claw foot bath tub, watching lighting storms from the floor-to-ceiling windows of my bedroom, leisurely walks to the parks and museums of downtown and especially the beautiful flowers surrounding our home. Two majestic old magnolia trees stood sentinel in the front yard, their leaves and blooms making our balcony seem like a living treehouse, along with fragrant rows of gardenia bushes along the front of the house. This was just what I needed to begin the next season of my life, I’m confident that there must be magnolia trees and gardenia bushes along the golden streets of heaven ready to welcome the weary sojourner with heavenly sights and scents. Thank you Lord for the sneak peak.
Barbara - March 5, 2021 12:38 pm
Love my magnolia but sure hate raking those leaves June through September and then all the other tree leaves begin to fall.
Leigh Amiot - March 5, 2021 12:58 pm
Two magnolias which my husband dug up out of nearby woods grace my front yard, and a dwarf magnolia/birthday gift is front and center surrounded by rose bushes. The bloom description of a woman’s cupped hands was sheer poetry, Sean. None of my magnolias are tall enough yet to be a chapel, but I do enjoy sitting beneath a Bradford pear tree when it is fully leafed. Gardening purists curse those for good reason, they do emit a noxious odor for about a week out of the year, the beauty otherwise is worth the trouble, but doubtful an entire column would ever be penned in their honor. Magnolias deserve every word.
Deborah Johnson Jones - March 5, 2021 1:03 pm
Absolutely beautiful writing and observations. I knew at the beginning that you must be talking about the stately and beautiful magnolia. I held it together just fine (that doesn’t always happen when I read your beautiful words) until that last line. Then came the tears….. thank you for a beautiful read, gorgeous mind pictures and a much needed cleansing cry. I miss my mother.
D masmar - March 5, 2021 1:12 pm
Lived in Mississippi once and loved their beauty–live on Magnolia!
Kate - March 5, 2021 1:19 pm
I love Magnolias. I had to leave the 3 I planted in my yard in Georgia 20 years ago, when I recently moved to Florida to help an elderly aunt and uncle. They always reminded me of strength for some reason and after reading your column I now understand why. Sean, thank you for reminding us who incredibly strong we all are, we tend to forget that ALL of us are amazing creatures, we mostly take ourselves for granted and forget how wonderful people really are. To Steve Winfield, my heart breaks for his friend. Steve, please send or print a copy of this column for your friend. He needs to be reminded how incredible he is. There are so many single parents out there that do incredible jobs working and rearing children.
Sharon Brock - March 5, 2021 1:19 pm
The real steel magnolia. The scent emanating from its simple bloom can transport one back sixty years to childhood. Please give the original Mrs. Dietrich my very best. She did good.
Genea Crockett - March 5, 2021 1:24 pm
One of my favorites today. Magnolias are my spirit plant. Thanks for starting Friday off perfectly!!
Martha Bunnell - March 5, 2021 1:29 pm
Good morning Sean! I read your column every morning right after my morning devotions. I really appreciate how down-to-earth and very update you are. Thanks for a wonderful start to my days
Jan - March 5, 2021 1:47 pm
One of your best! A lovely tribute to the magnolia tree so brave and true just like your Mother. It takes great strength, bravery, and truth to be a Mother and from what you have written, your Mother is all those and more!
Connie - March 5, 2021 2:02 pm
Fabulous. Love and hugs.
Paul S Gawrych - March 5, 2021 2:13 pm
This May will be 19 years since my sweet momma joined all of her older sisters in a Heavenly place that I am sure is full of Magnolias! She moved on at young age of 69 after way too many cigarettes, but I am here to tell you – that lady sure loved Magnolias! We had a large one in the back yard that we all grew up under that my momma carried on about all the time. Dad did too except for him the tree was a nuisance as it shed leaves year round and then quietly dropped Magnolia cones to lie in wait for his lawnmower blades. Every spring my brothers and I would try to be the first to carefully shoot down the perfect bloom with our pellet guns so we could surprise mom with a big blossom for the center piece on the table! Thank you so much for sharing your Magnolia/Mom story! As I started out reading I wanted to sneak a peek to the end, but I held on hopping it would the grand old flowering tree of the South. I love the way you kept us all in suspense and then BOOM, you laid it out beautifully. I have been crying and laughing now for the past 15 minutes – Magnolias and Mommas, ain’t nothing like em!
Becca - March 5, 2021 3:24 pm
You expressed so eloquently how I feel about Magnolias! Thank you!
David Brown - March 5, 2021 3:27 pm
I guessed your tree within the first 3 lines: “gnarled trunk, long limbs, and thick waxy leaves”. I have 44 of them lining my driveway – lost 14 in Hurricane Sally. Pulled up and staked 5 and then planted new (8′, 30 gallon pots) the remaining 9 that were beyond rescue – each required digging a hole the size of a VW Beetle. Just finished this project yesterday afternoon – at 70 YO, it was a real challenge. Although extremely messy (just ask my neighbors) they are truly a gift from the Almighty and a symbol of the South and our heritage! Thanks for your assessment, it was perfect timing for my labors!
Phil (Brown Marlin) - March 5, 2021 3:43 pm
Couldn’t fool me this time, Sean. I knew all along what species you were describing. Yes, they are gorgeous. Keep admiring and protecting it.
Hazel Barber - March 5, 2021 3:46 pm
What a tribute to the woman who gave you life! God bless you and your lovely Magnolias standing tall in an unforgiving world.
Bar - March 5, 2021 4:41 pm
Oh, Sean, Sean, Sean … yes, my spirit has been touch, hard to kill … but it has been a long time since someone sighed at me.
Patricia Gibson - March 5, 2021 4:58 pm
Linda Moon - March 5, 2021 6:13 pm
Trees. They remind me of my mother who loved Joyce Kilmer’s poetry. As I began to read descriptive beauty in your story, Sean, I knew it would lead to Magnolias…..and it did! Your mother and my mother threw newspapers to keep family from falling. They succeeded. Our Mothers and Magnolias…..both beautiful and magnificent!
Christina - March 5, 2021 6:46 pm
What a beautiful tribute to you mama! We honor her with you in every magnolia.
MAM - March 5, 2021 9:13 pm
I grew up with a lovely magnolia tree in the back yard in far south Texas. When I was still little enough, I loved to climb into that tree and just sit there and enjoy. The flowers are elegant and the trees are sturdy. You brought back marvelous memories, but then, we know you are good at that Thanks for all your writing.
Bob E - March 6, 2021 1:01 am
We have a couple of the ugliest trees imaginable but the blooms sure are pretty.
I will now admire this tree from a different perspective thanks to your associating the beauty of the flowers with your Mom.
Thanks for the insight.
Pat De Loncker - March 6, 2021 1:37 am
Jeanne Kelley - March 6, 2021 2:11 am
Magnolia, Camellia, Gardenia…Southern Trilogy….
Tammy S. - March 6, 2021 12:37 pm
“…thick waxy leaves” gave it away. Well, and the beautiful, spot-on drawing rendition of their blossom that you used to compliment this piece. Both a work of great, wonderful art. My in-laws had the most beautiful Magnolia in the front yard of their home. And my father-in-law, our beloved and so very missed Pop, he would cuss this tree each year. He would rake and rake when the time came for those leaves to fall to the ground. But each Christmas he would go out for a cutting for Nana’s mantel and proudly bring it to her as she exclaimed, “Oh Pop, it’s so beautiful!!” I asked him once, when I had brought his (they were not our three kiddos when they went to Nana & Pop’s “no rules for them” home) grand babies by for a visit, and he was in the front yard muttering, raking and cussing the dreaded magnolia leaves, why he didn’t just cut the thing down. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes, and the softening of our gruff Pop when he said, “Nana’s Dad planted this tree for her, and we’ll never cut it down.” For the rest of the raking not one cuss word was spoken. I’ll never forget that day or the understanding all wrapped up in one moment of a Father’s love for his daughter, her love for him and a tree, and the love of a man, for that same young woman, who he would promise to love and cherish, and rake all the Magnolia leaves, til death would part them. Or in Nana and Pop’s case, until they moved to a home later in life, without steps, after Pop’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Nana would miss her tree, the gift from her Dad, but her love for Pop ran deeper than the roots of that old Magnolia.
Thanks for writing a piece that reminded me of that moment and the love shared between my in-laws. It’s the same kind of love my husband and I now strive for in our marriage. We bought a home 6 years ago after living in the home we raised our three children in. The new home has two magnolias. One on each side of the house. Pop passed less than two years after we moved here but when we first brought him to see the home he pointed out the Magnolia trees and just smiled.
Roger Dodger - March 6, 2021 2:00 pm
I love to hate Magnolia Trees…much like the Gumball Tee!
George Leuenberger - March 6, 2021 9:37 pm
Love the Bay Magnolia in my front yard in Panama City. It to has weathered hurricanes, drought, heat, cold and time. After Michael it looked like two trees with a 10 gap between them. A tree expert removed the top tree a year ago followed by the power company taking some more to get it off the wires. Today it has a new beginning, new blooms are budding out. You can’t stop Mother Nature. Hope your tree is doing good too.
Joy Dollar - March 7, 2021 2:03 pm
Sean, as always I’m behind….what a beautiful tribute to your dear Mother! You always amaze me with your words and your analogies. What a God-given gift you have and thank you for using it so well. Have a blessed day!
Julie - March 7, 2021 2:07 pm
You had me at “thick waxy leaves”…that’s when I knew!
Your columns always trigger a memory…sometimes happy, sometimes sad. This one made me think of a favorite movie, where three life long friends lifted each other up through all of their joys and sorrows. Although I’m an Illini, I sure do love to travel south and enjoy the wonder of those “Sweet Magnolias!”
Dru - October 13, 2021 6:20 am
When I was a child, my favorite retreat was a small magnolia tree in our front yard. I could climb into the thick foliage about six feet above the ground, book in hand, stretch full length on a straight limb, and read by the hour, unseen by anyone. Good to remember.