When I was a kid, there was a sweet gum tree out in front of my house, planted around the time I was born. The kind that sheds those little prickly seed capsules. The fresh, heavy green ones hurt when they hit you in the back of the head, and the dried brown ones really hurt when you step on them in bare feet.
Some of the more colorful names for these spikey things include gum balls, space bugs, monkey balls, bommyknockers and sticker balls. Even though they can live to be 400 years old, some cities have vowed to destroy the trees, citing them as nuisances.
But I loved my tree. I learned to walk under it, and to ride a bike, and I sat in its shade on hot summer days. When I looked out of my bedroom window as a child, it framed Mt Baldy and the world that I wondered about.
On a brief visit to my childhood home today, I paused to stand in front of the old house. I really wanted to feel a connection to this house, but I just couldn’t. Other people have lived there for nearly 40 years. There are strange cars in the driveway, and there are strangers living inside.
But as I stood there, I mindlessly plucked a leaf off of my gum tree, and crushed it in my fingers. I inhaled the aromatic resin, and it released a flood of memories.
They say you can’t ever really go back home. My town has changed so much, and hardly anyone I know lives there anymore. But this living thing is still there, and for a moment I wondered if the tree remembered me. For all the gifts it gave me while I was growing up, it now shared one more – 40 years later: Time travel, through the fragrance of a crushed leaf.