My First Home: From the horrors of war, veteran creates beauty

My First Home
Illustration of spruce tree and lilacs.
. —Rae Ritchie for The Boston Globe

If you go to the recreation area in Auburn, N.H., across from Clark Pond, you’ll see a 60-foot spruce close to the road and a tangle of shorter pines and maple saplings around it. What you won’t see behind that towering tree is my childhood home, which was razed 50 years ago. All of the Water Works buildings, the sawmill, and the garages are long gone, too. I visit this unlikely shrine to my childhood because Dad planted that spruce as a seedling after my ambitious kid brother (now 67) dug a crater with a tablespoon. Dad filled the hole in the ground — and holes in his life — with growing things.

My father learned to plant as a teen, part of his training in the Civilian Conservation Corps. This Depression-era program helped kids earn money to send home and taught them lifelong skills, including horticulture. By the time Dad returned from Army combat in Italy, he had lost 23 buddies. Growing up I had thought him quiet and retiring, edgy in crowds, just not as social as my friends’ fathers. Dad was nearly 80 when I discerned that he had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Then, when Dad had been gone for a decade, I discovered dozens of letters he had written to my mother before being deployed. These revealed a happy-go-lucky young man eager for adventure. War changed that.

Yet after wartime, the former ski trooper coped with memories of death by planting what was alive. Our home literally blossomed under his green thumbs. The yard now obliterated by maverick pines used to have a prettily trimmed lawn with an oval bed of irises, a trellis-climbing rose, and several lilac bushes. He transplanted one from his mother’s house; the others he brought home with the root ball wrapped in his shirt. In his lunchbox, he brought home lilies he found in the woods near abandoned cellar holes. Decades later, these enduring plants defy the upstart pines that try to smother them.

With his eighth-grade education and boundless life experience, Dad could make anything grow. He didn’t need to test the pH of soil: He knew that strawberries and rhododendrons like to live near pine trees. Once he retired from his work as a laborer, he began growing roses — away from the pine trees. I thought he exaggerated when he told me, “They’re as big as my hand.” They were. I used to joke that when I knew he and Mom were coming to visit me in Wyoming, I didn’t clean house or cook. No, I weeded my garden and sprayed my roses. Dad would be sure to notice if they were neglected.

Dad planted trees well into his 80s. He retained his military carriage, erect as the oaks he admired, even as his mind withered with Alzheimer’s. Both watching him and working with him in our vegetable garden, he passed on to me the joy of growing things. Come May, I will revisit the towering spruce he planted. I know I will always find his gangly surviving lilac — Dad’s gift of healing in a ravaged world — and a blossom that is just for me.

Gail Thorell Schilling, a writer and memoir mentor, lives in Concord, N.H. Send comments to [email protected] and a 550-word essay on your first home to [email protected]. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue. Get our newsletter at