The rhododendron skeleton in my yard reminds me what is important. We dug the hole together, one year ago, on one of our few sunny, warm summer days. Our family was fumbling through a time of sadness, feeling our way ahead, and we planted the rhodie in an attempt to honor that time, loss and our family.
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My daughter, then 3 years old, helped my husband and me dig, then patted dirt around the base. Afterwards, she tugged at the banana-like leaves. We all felt the plant, and the planting, were right to move toward healing. But soon the skeleton stood bare in our yard, surrounded by a muddy puddle, formerly the shrub's base. We never even got a single flower off the thing; once in the ground, it just disintegrated. Over the winter, the frame was completely buried, and slowly it reemerged, even stragglier and down-trodden than before.
Now a year later, my husband wrestles a tower out of thin air for the massive, remarkable Project Playground. The work site is crawling with helpers building, planning, organizing and feeding. I sit in a sunny, grassy place down from the park while my daughter crafts granola bars from tree buds. I know I should not let her pick the buds off a tree just feeling brave and faithful enough to let loose on a Juneau summer. But her satisfaction, along with the sunshine, is intoxicating, and I let her.
However, to get the buds, she needs to stand on the very edge of the water and lean out to the desirable branches. This unnerved her a bit, so whenever she reached for a particularly juicy little bud slightly out of reach, she would look over at me, hoping I would encourage (or maybe discourage) her from stretching her comfort zone. Then she would lean, shove her arm a little further and pluck the little tidbit from the tree. Mostly. Sometimes she didn't. Sometimes the reach was just too far, but that was OK too. She just looked for another one.
Afterward, she cooked up a scheme to sell said dandelions for 25 cents each to the playground workers and fixated on the shocking find of a spiderweb on a mailbox. In truth, the one thing that did not intrigue my daughter that day was the playground itself. The scope of it was too much, too big for a 4-year-old to embrace.
So was it a bad idea, that in our sadness, we planted that rhododendron? After all, it died and never brought us flowers. Is it a bad idea to build a massive playground when a few leaves and dandelion clumps can deliver a day's worth of entertainment? For me, the answer to both these questions is no.
My husband's crew chief, a very accomplished professional, introduced himself as a playground builder. This, along with the skeleton in my yard, reminds me that what matters is the process, not the product. As I encounter the daily parenting trials and choices in raising children in and of the world, I try to remember this simple premise. And perhaps I will leave the mud puddle and the skeleton as a reminder.
Marie Ryan McMillan is a Juneau parent and teacher.