Reading the rings of the tree of military life

Reading the rings of the tree of military life

by Lisa Smith Molinari
The Meat and Potatoes of Life

In grade school, our teachers taught us that tree stumps weren’t just for playing jacks. Truth be told, I’d place earthworms I’d dug up on the stump in front of my childhood house. While they wriggled in the sunlight, I’d chop each one into smaller pieces with a sharp rock, as if the stump was a big cutting board. I wasn’t an earthworm serial killer. I believed that each severed piece regenerated into a new worm, and thus, I was improving the ecosystem.

Regardless of the heinous acts I unknowingly committed back then, all kids learned that the rings on tree stumps represented each year in that tree’s life. The light bands of cambium cells represent rapid growth in spring, and the dark bands indicate slower growth each fall.

Our teachers said that the rings determine not only age, but also significant events in that tree’s life. Thick, even rings show years of good health and abundant resources. Narrow rings, uneven bands and scars can indicate drought, low sunlight, plague, disease, fire, pests or injury.

By reading the rings on a cross-section of trunk, we know when a tree was happy and when it was stressed. The rings tell the story of a tree’s life.

From my seat in front of my computer, I can see the big Norway maple in our yard. Through the window, the tips of its branches are a hue of chartreuse, because its buds are forming the greenish-yellow flowers that will produce whirligigs that will spin down to invade my shrubs and garden. It’s a tenacious tree, an intruder that insists on rooting where it doesn’t belong.

I wonder, if I sliced off a chunk of my elbow or kneecap, would scientists be able to read my rings and know my life? With a sudden rush of sympathy for all those poor earthworms I chopped up long ago, I realize that harvesting a cross-section of my limbs would be extremely painful.

However, if humans did have rings, I imagine that the trunk of a military spouse would tell quite a story. There would be dramatic ups and downs, moments of upheaval, pride, self-discovery, loneliness, strength and sadness. There would be clear evidence that the military spouse lived through regular periods of extreme stress, but also thrived.

Under a microscope, the early rings of my cross-section would indicate that I was a naive military spouse whose utter happiness was based on her unrealistic expectations. The bands of sapling growth would be thick and thriving in those early years, out of pure ignorance of what was to come.

But soon, uneven rings would appear, revealing that the realities of military life brought watch hours, loneliness, miscarriage, the divorce of her parents, her toddler’s autism diagnosis. The bands tell a tale of stress, but the tree perseveres, laying down ring after ring, year after year.

After an overseas tour, the tree takes root in Virginia, where she is determined to build her heartwood, a tree’s inner pillar of strength. With three kids and countless sports practices, laundry baskets, therapy appointments, diaper changes, chicken nuggets, scout meetings, dog walks, school functions and floors to mop, she finds her groove out of necessity while her husband works, travels and deploys.

It is a period of incredible growth for the tree, and thus, her family. Whether she knows it or not, she is key and essential. Her husband and children could not thrive without her. She is a source of strength, nurturing and encouragement from which they feed, like water, earth and sunlight.

In the years that follow, more rings appear, some bands showing signs of stress from moving, loneliness, mothering teens, military retirement, job searching and financial issues. Through it all, she survives, becoming sturdy and resilient.

Today, she stands permanently on a plot of earth in New England, her husband no longer active duty and her adult children having whirlygigged away on their own. Like the Norway maple, her branches creak in the wind, but her rings speak the truth that her heartwood is strong as steel and her roots run deep.
Read more at the website and in Lisa’s book, “The Meat and Potatoes of Life: My True Lit Com.” Email:

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