I’m here this morning at the breakfast table, admiring through the window our redbud tree as it transitions from a lovely candelabra of delicate, wispish pink blossoms to a soft, here-is-spring green.
Idled by social distancing-induced lethargy and nursing a cup of coffee, it occurs to me there’s a life lesson in the redbud.
A number of trees are the focus of legend. The flower of the dogwood tree, for example, is white with a droplet of red at the tip of each petal, the red said to represent Jesus’s blood because the dogwood tree – according to legend – supplied the wood for the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
Tree are used as clan symbols in several Native American cultures of the Southwest. Common among them are the Willow Tree Clan, the Oak Tree Clan, the Cedar Tree Clan, the Pine Tree Clan, Cottonwood Clan and – even – the Dogwood Clan.
As far as I’ve been able to discern, there is no Redbud Clan.
But there is certainly a redbud legend, as rooted in Bible story as the dogwood’s. The apocryphal story is that after Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, he committed suicide by hanging himself from the limb of a redbud tree. The tree was common in Judea and, the story goes, in those early anno domini days was a sturdy, stately tree that bore white blossoms. The tree was so ashamed of its role in the story that forever after it would be thin, brittle, unable to ever again host a hanging; the white flowers blushed. The tree became known in some circles as the Judas Tree. (An alternate story is that the tree is quite common in what was then Judea and was called Judea’s tree which became Judas tree, but that’s not a very good story.)
Mom – who I always thought was quite pretty despite the quiet scars from a childhood fire – recounted that as a child she was “lessoned” by her own mother: You’ll never win them with your looks so you’ll have to have a great smile.
The redbud tree, it seems to me, wins us with its smile.
It’s a spindly, twisted, homely tree. One could more easily make lumber from a mesquite than from a redbud. But what a smile it wears, what a confident attitude it boasts for a brief period each spring! It’s the smile that earns it a permanent place in our landscape, a place that might otherwise be canopied by a vibrant oak or a graceful willow.
The story of the Judas tree is but a legend. The beauty of its tender pink smile is real, a lesson that a smile – however fleeting – might win the day.
The writer is a retired newspaperman (now Kilgore’s municipal archivist) and determined protector of the only redbud tree on the family lawn.