The big tree on T Street has always been there with Kristen Anderson.
It was there in Anderson’s childhood, its majestic branches reaching into the sky down the street from her grandmother’s home. It is with her now as a young woman, down the street from her own home as she gets ready to start a family.
And it will be there for her next month, when Anderson marries a young man she seems incapable of not touching. Anderson will marry Dan Henderson under that tree, beneath an incredible, 50-foot branch that bends toward the earth like a massive arm reaching out to embrace an imaginary partner.
But the big tree is dying.
City arborists think it might have Dutch elm disease. If tests confirm those fears, the tree will need to be cut down so its illness doesn’t spread into the other trees that make up the charming parkway that runs through the neighborhood of Elmhurst. The city originally thought it might have to tear the tree down this spring, but is waiting until after the wedding.
Even if the tree at T and 41st streets is free of disease, it’s in rough shape. Many of its highest branches are bare or have been removed.
The biggest branch – the one that resembles a giant arm – is in good health. It’s because of that branch that people call this old giant “the hugging tree.” Others call it “the elbow tree.”
“It’s always been like a security blanket to me,” Anderson said this week, standing in its shade with Henderson.
And for others, too. Someone has placed a bouquet of flowers at the tree’s base, apparently aware of its fate.
Joan Zeglarski has lived across the street for more than 40 years. She’s been updating neighbors of the tree’s status in heartfelt notes attached to the trunk.
Two years ago, Zeglarski’s family posed underneath the tree for a Christmas card photo. Last week, she looked out her window and saw a woman sitting quietly, her back against the tree’s trunk. She was writing in a journal.
“It is just so big and sheltering and powerful,” Zeglarski said.
Her heart aches, but she knows the tree has become a hazard.
“It’s like most things in life,” she said. “There is no easy answer.”
And so the hugging tree enters one more summer after what has likely been a century of summers.
Elmhurst was settled in 1909. Imagine all the children who have hung from this tree’s branches, all the young couples who fell in love in its shade. This tree is a symbol of a city that maintains a deep connection to its natural surroundings – and especially its trees.
The hugging tree’s last gift could be Anderson’s wedding, a ceremony of life and love. More than 100 people will gather on the lawn that Saturday evening. Their eyes will be fixated on Anderson.
The tree will be watching her, too. Just like always.