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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Leon

The Wedding Tree

There are few rituals or traditions that mark the end of a marriage, the death of a family. The Wedding Tree is a tender story of how my children and I created one of our own to mark the end of life as we knew it.


My husband, Ralph, and I had been dating for many months before we decided to have a joint gathering with our children. Our kids already knew each other from church and attended the same Catholic school, but that was very different from hanging out with someone when your parents were dating.  We can safely put that in the category of something no child ever wants.


One Saturday afternoon, Ralph perused the selections at our local Red Box and arrived at my house with a kid-friendly DVD he thought the brood would like.  We had nine children between us, five of mine and four of his.  At that time, they ranged in age from 4 to 22.  We likely only had the younger 6 with us, the older daughters being already in college or with part-time jobs.


The movie was remarkable for two reasons. One, it was terrible.  Really bad.  We would have laughed about it for weeks if we weren’t still recovering from the second remarkable point.  During a memorable moment in the film, the two young stars have an argument about what is the worst way to lose a parent: divorce or death. They go on about this for a long time, one whose parent died and the other whose parent left. When this dialogue began, Ralph and I stared at each other. “Really????” I said silently. “I didn’t know!” his look replied.

Early photo with our 9 children

This is our story.  We have nine grieving children. Ralph’s first wife died of cancer in 2010.  That same summer, my first husband decided he preferred a different life and moved to a different county with limited visitation.  All of our kids deeply missed a parent. I don’t recall if we watched the whole movie, but I do know our kids kept up that conversation, each considering if the other might have it “better”.  Understandably, Ralph’s children argued that death was worse because it was final.  There was no hope for more time with their mom.  But my children countered that it was pretty awful that their dad chose to leave their family, and at least for many years, had a minimal role in their lives. They didn’t say it, but I knew my children felt abandoned by their father.


Mercifully, the kids moved on fairly quickly as children are blessed to do, but my mind continued to consider their points. There was no denying that the finality of death is brutal and agonizing, but as a wife, I often think the ongoing horror of an unwanted, hostile divorce might be worse. Being discarded, betrayed, mocked, and hated by someone who once promised his life to you is horrendous. Although Ralph’s marriage was also over, its integrity was intact.


One monumental difference is the abundance of traditions that surround the death of a loved one.  Our Catholic faith provides structure and rituals that bring comfort and activity in the days after a death.  It is a mercy to have something to DO with your grief for at least a few days. There is beauty in mourning together and music, flowers, cards, and meals help you through the funeral, burial, and the weeks after.  There is a place to go with your grief – a gravesite to declare that this person lived and mattered.


With the exception of my ex-husband, my lawyer, and a few faithful friends, I went through my divorce alone. Don't misunderstand -- my people showed up. They did bring meals. I got many cards and calls of support. People watched my kids. One sweet friend left a heart-shaped balloon to let me know I was loved. But marriage is so personal. There was no other adult in my home to witness its death. Only my children and I endured the speech my ex-husband gave to explain the destruction of our family. I suffered alone the agony of shredding my motherhood into custody and visitation. I filed for divorce alone and received the final papers saying my marriage was over, alone.


There was no ritual, no tradition. Divorce is so commonplace in our society now that many people don’t stop and consider how many of us desperately did not want it. Who fought it and prayed for any other outcome.  There was no “divorce celebration” being thrown in our house.  I was in mourning.  The family I had known and loved was dead – and I didn’t even get to say goodbye.  


My children and I did eventually perform one ritual that, although sad, felt meaningful to me and was understandably fun for them. We chopped down and burned the Wedding Tree. The Wedding Tree was a scraggly New Jersey pine tree growing in the corner of our backyard in suburban Virginia -- with a unique story.


In the fall of 1994, as my wedding to my first husband drew near, my mother’s friend offered to help us decorate the church for our post-Christmas wedding.  She had a beach house on the New Jersey shore and proposed to make some small pinecone wreaths with green ribbon to hang on the end of the pews reserved for family. She could easily gather the pinecones in abundance on her long drive back and forth to the coast. We gratefully agreed and six pinecone wreaths were made and then given to each set of parents as a thank-you gift after the wedding.  My mother-in-law took her wreath back to the suburbs of Chicago and hung it over her living room mantle where it stayed all winter.  The heat from the fireplace, however, caused the pinecones to swell and drop seeds onto the mantle. My mother-in-law and her husband possess both a green thumb and a love for science and decided they would plant the seeds as a surprise gift for us.  Over the next few years, they tended the seeds and subsequent sprouts, but only one survived and grew into a vigorous sapling.  


When our family moved to what we hoped would be our forever home, my in-laws arrived for a visit with the baby tree in tow, ready to be placed in the earth.  They were thrilled to present us with such a unique gift, born from the joy of our wedding, to live and grow with our family.  We loved it and quickly dubbed it, The Wedding Tree. We planted it in the corner of our backyard where we could see it from the family room.


Over the next ten years, the Wedding Tree grew from a scrappy sapling to a five-foot tall pine with pinecones of its own. Each Christmas, we draped its boughs with big, colorful old-fashioned Christmas lights and gathered the pinecones in a basket. I loved that our growth as a couple and our growth as a family kept pace with the Wedding Tree. 

Until it didn’t.


There are many awful parts about the end of a marriage. What do you do with your rings? All the “Mr & Mrs” décor around your house? The cards, letters, gifts, and photos that document seventeen years of love?  And that beautiful, stupid tree. It wasn’t stupid, but when your happily ever afters don’t happen, it’s easy to feel foolish for all your hopes and dreams.


The kids and I lived in our house with the Wedding Tree for three years after my ex-husband left. It continued to grow when we did not – at least not the way we used to. I couldn’t bring myself to decorate it with lights.  I watched it from the window seat in my bedroom when I was awake at night, each of us making a solitary vigil.  

When my husband Ralph and I got engaged, I knew it was time to say goodbye to the Wedding Tree.  During our final spring in our beloved home, my children and I trooped into the backyard, saw in hand. They knew the story, of course, but we stood solemnly and told it again: how a pinecone from a scrubby pine on the Jersey shore had celebrated a beautiful wedding in Southern New Jersey before flying to Illinois and dropping a baby seed that grew to a sapling and came to live in Virginia.  I didn’t tell the rest of the story – about a heart broken in two. A husband who was lost. The complexity of mourning a marriage and falling in love at the same time. But it felt good to have something to do. Something symbolic that said: this life – this life that I loved – is over.  And I will make space to grow a new life that I will love.


My ten-year-old son got to work cutting down the tree.  The kids thought this was a terrific adventure! I was happy to be the only one wiping tears from my eyes.  They had been sad long enough. We each took a turn on the saw and yelled, “Timber!” when the wedding tree finally fell.  Together we dragged it to the back of our minivan and drove it to our friends' house, the hosts of the annual Easter bonfire in a few weeks.


Once the fire was roaring Easter night, Ralph was by my side when my children and I said good-bye to the Wedding Tree. When I said good-bye to a man I had loved and goodbye to the future I thought we would have. The kids dragged the dried-out pine to the edge of the fire and we hurled it into the flames. Pine trees burn spectacularly, and the fire crackled and blazed, a huge flame shooting into the sky. The air was pungent with the Christmas scent of pine.

It was a poignant ritual for the end of my marriage. The branches snapped and gleamed as they were consumed. I felt this fire in my body, the metaphorical burning of everything I had dreamed of when that first pinecone hung in the church.  Everything I thought my life would be. The love I had carried for a man I no longer knew. I watched them burn away while I basked in the warmth radiating from the fire, staying until the last embers glowed softly and the tree was gone.

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George Alexa
George Alexa
May 21

Divorce is awful. Kids are innocent victims. I have cut down my share of trees, but none affected me as to when you cut down the Wedding tree. I hope you replaced it with something as meaningful and more!

Elizabeth Leon
Elizabeth Leon
May 22
Replying to

Thank you, George. Oh for sure, Ralph and I have a glorious backyard garden. You are very kind!

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