It might not feel like it just yet — especially with the nippy weather we’ve had this week — but warmer skies are just around the corner.
Monday marks the first day of spring. It begins our journey toward sun-drenched days and T-shirt weather. Flowers will bloom and pine pollen will turn black cars yellow. Children will inevitably scrawl “Wash me” across their parents’ rear windshields, not realize they’ve just volunteered themselves.
I’ve always welcomed spring. If you’ve ever met me, you know I’m a skinny little guy, and the cold of winter isn’t my thing. I just don’t have the “meat on my bones,” as they say. For me, springtime can’t come quickly enough.
This time of year, the familiar four-petaled blossoms of dogwood trees finally emerge. Aside from live oaks, I have always found dogwoods to be the most handsome trees. There is something distinctly southern about them, although they can grow just about everywhere in the U.S.
When I was a youngster, Mama used to tell me a legend about dogwoods. You may have heard it. The story goes that in Roman times, dogwoods grew in the hills around Jerusalem, where Jesus Christ lived and preached. They say when Christ was crucified, the cross was made from a dogwood. There is even a poem about it, which begins:
“In Jesus’ time, the dogwood grew
To a stately size and a lovely hue.
‘Twas strong and firm, its branches interwoven.
For the cross of Christ its timbers were chosen.”
After the dogwood’s timber was used for such a purpose, God made a promise never to see it repeated. God weakened the tree, and turned its flowers the shape of the cross, as a reminder to the world. The poem continues:
“Never again shall the dogwood grow
Large enough to be used so.
Slender and twisted, it shall be
With blossoms like the cross for all to see.”
If you look closely, the center of a dogwood blossom even resembles the thorny crown Roman soldiers placed on Jesus’ head to taunt him.
Now, none of this comes from scripture, of course. There is no way of knowing what kind of wood was used to make Jesus’ cross. It’s just one of those southern tales families pass down. I can, however, personally attest to the true weakness of the dogwood’s branches.
When I was a boy, I loved climbing trees. If it had limbs, I would shimmy up them. We had a towering magnolia in our front yard, and I would scale its branches to the very top. My brother, Baker, and I would sit there and admire the football-sized flowers the magnolia offered up every year. Eventually, Mama would holler us in for supper, and we’d climb down.
One spring day, I decided I wanted a tire swing. I’m not sure where that tire came from, but I rolled it out to our front yard, toting a length of rope. Now, the magnolia’s low, strong branches made it ideal for climbing. But that same feature made it a poor choice for a swing.
So, as a second grader, I rolled that tire down the hill to the next tree — a dogwood. It was decent size for a dogwood, and I wedged by foot between the V-shaped trunk and scooted up to a branch.
Actually tying the rope was more of a challenge. I remember I crawled out on the limb and wrapped by legs around it. I dangled upside down as I tried to knot the rope around a limb as scrawny as I was. At the time, I was about 8 years old, I’d say.
As I tied the knot, my legs began to slip. I hung there briefly, upside down, looking at the pine straw below.
Then, the fall.
I put my arms out in front of me — straight forward, elbows locked — as I dropped. My right arm must have been the first to hit the Georgia soil below. I remember the fall knocked me silly. As I stood up to brush the dirt off my face, I looked down at my arm. Now, you have two bones in your forearm. I would later learn the’re called the radius and ulna; their dual setup is what allows you to rotate your wrist around.
Normally, these two bones run side by side. But standing up underneath that dogwood, my right arm looked more like the shape of a small harp.
Then, the pain.
I cried as I hobbled my broken self to the kitchen door. Not only was I hurt, I knew there would ultimately be questions about why I had rolled that tire to the front yard and climbed that tree with a measure of rope.
When Mama saw it, she panicked. It was her first child’s first broken bone. She filled a ziplock bag with ice and tried her best to calm me down, but the expression on her face said it all.
Soon, Dad came down.
He told Mama to quit fussing — that it was probably just bruised. It reminded him of football injuries he’d had as a young man, he told her. The subsequent trip to the emergency room would later show it was not like his old foodball injuries.
I spent the rest of that summer in an L-shaped cast that went past my elbow. Showering became an ordeal that involved trash bags covering the cast. Pencils were shoved up to scratch the seemingly endless barrage of itches.
It all turned out alright. I’d even went on to break more bones. I got over my dogwood aversion, and today look forward to the white blossoms they bring.
Stories like the one of Jesus crucified on a dogwood are part of our shared southern culture. Those stories are told for a reason — they are more than folklore. Looking back, I reckon I should have taken the poem’s advice and known, “Never again shall the dogwood grow, large enough to be used so.”