beauty in the eye of the beholder

Most people don’t want them growing in their yards, but sweet gums are one of my favorite kinds of trees. They grow tall and straight with a traditional triangular shape. They are strong in a storm. Their leaves are star shaped, and in the fall they turn a rainbow of colors, from yellow to crimson to purple. And they aren’t much trouble to take care of as they grow.

So why don’t people want these trees? The problem, they say, is the fruit of the tree. It is actually a seed pod, and it is a small prickly ball that is produced in abundance by sweet gum trees. A large tree can produce enough seed pods to cover the ground beneath it when they fall.

But I love the sweet gum tree for all its good qualities, which in my mind far outweigh the troublesome sweet gum balls. And I have a childhood memory that makes me treasure the possibilities found in those thorny orbs.

I was six or seven years old and during the Christmas holidays that year I came down with a bad cold, strep throat, or some such ailment that caused me to stay home from school for several days. Once I started to feel well enough to do something besides lay on the couch and sleep, my mother devised a craft project to keep me busy for quite some time.

She brought me a sweet gum ball, along with some glue and toothpicks. She squeezed out some glue in a saucer, rolled one end of a toothpick in the glue, and stuck the toothpick on one of the many holes in a sweet gum ball. “Now, we are going to put a toothpick in every hole of this sweet gum ball, and then let it all dry so the toothpicks won’t fall out.”

It took me quite a while to complete the sweet gum ball/toothpick extravaganza, which now looked more like a star. Even when it was all done, it still didn’t look like much, so I asked my mother what it was supposed to be. “Oh, we’re not finished,” she replied. Then she showed me a sack full of sweet gum balls. “We’re going to do the same thing to all these,” she said with a smile. “Oh,” was all I could think of to say.

The star I made looked similar to these.

The star I made looked similar to these.

Since I was sick and didn’t have many other options for activities, I worked (and worked) on transforming those seed pods into stars. I must have made thirty or more. I still wasn’t sure what this was supposed to be, but I persevered patiently and eventually got them all put together.

Then my mother worked her magic – she took a square of styrofoam and made a circle of sweet gum stars to almost cover the surface. Next she added another, smaller layer, followed by another, and another, ending with a single star-shaped sweet gum ball. They all intertwined and connected in a way that I knew would hold them together without any more glue. “It’s a Christmas tree!” I said with a smile of recognition. “Yes, but we’re not finished yet,” my mother explained.

Next she took a can of “snow” – the stuff you could flock a tree with or spray in the corners of window panes to bring winter into our southern landscape – and sprayed the entire tree. She angled it from the top, each side, and even the bottom so that every surface of the pods and toothpicks would be covered. It was beautiful! If you didn’t know what it was made of, it would be hard to make a guess.

“Oh, Mama! Look what we made!” I said. “I love it!”  She smiled and told me how proud she was of me, persevering and working so long on the initial toothpick gluing part. “And we are almost finished,” she said.

“Almost?” I asked as she brought out another bag of supplies. I watched as she pulled out some teeny, tiny red Christmas ornaments. They were less than a half inch in diameter. Mama pulled out the top part of an ornament – the cap that has the loop for the hangar, leaving a miniscule hole in its place. “Now we’re going to glue these onto the ends of the toothpick so they look like ornaments on the tree,” she said.

This part we did together and it really didn’t take long. She had one gold star ornament that we glued at the top of the tree. Last Mama wrapped a red satin ribbon around the edge of the styrofoam block that the tree rested on, and it was finally complete.

I don’t think we have a picture of it anywhere, but when I close my eyes right now I can see that tree. It lasted for several years, wrapped in plastic during the off season and becoming a bit more tilted each Christmas. For years I have thought I would make another one, and who knows, maybe I will one day.

Thank goodness I like sweet gum trees and know the beauty those thorny seed pods hold hidden in their spiky unfriendly appearance.

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