One-hundred years ago, residents of Woodhaven were still reeling from the brutal one-two punch of the deadly 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and World War I. Out of all that loss and despair, an idea for a beautiful and unique tribute was born: the Memorial Trees of Forest Park.
Located at the top of Forest Parkway and running through the park, each tree was planted in the name of a soldier who left Woodhaven to fight overseas but never came home.
And every year on Memorial Day, friends and family of the fallen would gather in the park to decorate their trees.
We’ve written many times about how this tradition faded away over time, as well as how it came to be rediscovered and revived.
But because we are so far removed from the tradition itself, there are few details on the decorations themselves. Articles in the Leader-Observer 100 years ago mention ribbons and flags, so we’ve incorporated those into our decorations.
And they also mention notes the friends and families wrote to their loved ones, telling them the things they wish they could if they were still alive.
So whenever I’ve imagined former Woodhaven residents decorating the trees, I’ve always pictured a somber scene. Quiet, tearful, mournful.
That would better describe last year’s decorating of the trees in Forest Park when we were limited to four people due to COVID-19. The park was empty that morning. It was quiet. It was somber. Our voices echoed around the back stretch of trees and any passersby kept their distance.
But this year was a little different. And I wonder if, years ago, the decorating of the trees came to more closely resemble yesterday. I wonder if, over time, the decorating of the trees was part of the healing.
I would never compare the last year to what residents of Woodhaven went through 100 years ago, but I think the healing effects of the trees works just as well now as it did a century ago.
It was really good seeing a bunch of friendly faces again in person, not via a computer screen. It felt good to be together again, setting off to complete a job and seeing it all the way through.
To be honest, I really didn’t have to do much. I decorated the first tree as an example, and the group took it from there.
Instead, I was able to amble along and just enjoy everyone’s company. And as they moved from tree to tree, I was struck by the tone in conversation. It was quiet and respectful, but there was also a happy tone, people enjoying one another’s company once again.
As I walked along, I began thinking that if the tradition itself was far removed from us, the people we were honoring were not.
They lived in our houses. If they turned up alive in 2021, most of them would be able to bring you to the very homes they grew up in.
They went to the same schools and churches we go to. They rode the same elevated train we do, though it was just a few years old at the time.
They walked the same streets we do, and they would still recognize their old hometown.
And I think they would be touched to see that their loved ones were still remembered all these years later. I think they would recognize the people who decorated the trees this year as the same kinds of people that began the tradition a century before.
And that’s why this year’s decorating of the trees is one I will remember for the rest of my life. It felt wonderful to see these faces again and enjoy some healing time together in Forest Park.
It felt like the worst was behind us and we were moving forward, that everything was going to get better. It was a very good day.