Alexandria, VA – In April 2020, I wrote about my favorite tree – the redbud. There’s more backstory than I shared in that column.
I wrote that I learned of redbud trees from an elderly gentleman I met in Paris, Va. Part of the backstory is how I came to Paris in the first place. I worked then as executive assistant to the director of an association of state employment/unemployment agencies. I was responsible for coordinating their meetings. I promised myself that after one big conference, I would reward myself by driving to — I didn’t know where — but I knew I would know when I got there. I packed my watercolor paints and a pad into my two-seat, hot pink, ragtop Fiat Spyder. I had dreamed of a pink car, and Fiat made one!
I parked alongside the road near Paris, Va. It was April and the trees were that tender shade of light green they get when they first leaf out. There was a small lake and low hills in the background. Before long, a man who called himself Pop stopped to talk to me because, he said, I was painting the very scene that he had built his home to overlook from the mountain on the other side of the road. He had seen my car (he later described it as Pepto Bismol pink) and wanted to meet me. A few minutes into the conversation, he asked for my address.
What I didn’t write in my first column was that driving out to the country by myself was a carefully considered decision. And speaking to a stranger required courage I didn’t know I had. When Pop asked for my address, a warning signal went up. I gave it to him and asked for his. My thought was that his name and address in my notepad would be a clue if I wound up dead.
Happily, a book of poetry written by Pop arrived in the mail a few days later. That’s why he wanted my address. It was inscribed, “To a kindred lover of a beautiful scene.”
W. Caldwell Webb, AKA Pop, was an interesting man. Before retiring to Paris, he was a farmer in West Chester, Pa. Although his neighbors especially appreciated Pop for his dowsing skills, his poetry was published in many magazines and newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Herald, and The New York Times.
He befriended hikers on the Appalachian Trail, which ran by his land. His many bird feeders were hung on a pulley-controlled line in his backyard. He put out salt licks for the pair of visiting foxes he named Him and Her. A square opening was cut in his back deck to allow a tree to grow through. I remember sitting on that deck one Sunday morning with him and a friend when we enjoyed scrambled eggs, strawberries, and white wine. The morning fog obscured everything but where we sat. It was purely magical.
On the day we met, Pop invited me to a party his neighbors were planning to celebrate his upcoming 80th birthday. After the book of poetry arrived, I decided to go. I packed my two younger kids into the Fiat for the visit. Over time, Pop and I became friends, and I would drive out to Paris whenever I could. When it was cool, I would pull a wooden rocker in front of the living room fireplace, hugging the well-worn teddy bear he had kept from his childhood.
Pop liked small planes and chartered one annually to fly to his summer cottage in Maine. I drove him once to the Air and Space Museum in D.C. He was unimpressed, saying there was not enough air and not enough space. We remained friends until he died some five or six years later. I later learned from his family that the teddy bear was buried with him.
Redbuds were Pop’s favorite trees because they bloomed on the mountain before anything else. When I moved to my current home, I mail-ordered three bare root redbuds in his honor. Only one survived, but that one has offered me many seedlings, one of which is now visible from my bedroom window. I love the exuberance with which the mamma tree opens wide its arms to welcome spring. Every year, I inspect that tree in the late winter-early spring, watching for the first fattening buds and saying a silent thank you to Pop, grateful for the friendship.
After a time, Pop dedicated a poem to me comparing my constancy to sunlight. He described himself as “A romantic, star-struck, moon-stirred man…” and then added, “but what is the sun but a closer star, and what is moonlight but a reflection of sun-star light?” I loved that poem. I hope I told him so.
Mosaic Artist/Photographer Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria.