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Under the Birch Tree: A Memoir of Discovering Connections and Finding Home

Under the Birch Tree: A Memoir of Discovering Connections and Finding Home

by Nancy Chadwick


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A birch tree grows tall and arabesque in the front yard of Nancy Chadwick’s childhood home. Over time the tree becomes her buddy and first learned connection, synonymous with home—and one spring morning, she makes a discovery under its boughs that foreshadows the many disconnections within her family, relationships, jobs, and home that are to come. Through the chapters in her life, Chadwick’s search for home carries her through with unflinching honesty, but in the end, it is a story of survival and triumph over adversity. She does not wallow in self-pity but remains tenacious as she examines her life. An exploration of what it means to belong, Under the Birch Tree is a success story of finding home.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631523571
Publisher: She Writes Press
Publication date: 06/19/2018
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Nancy Chadwick got her first job at Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago. After ten years there, she couldn’t get to where she wanted to be so she turned to the banking industry. Then, after another ten years, she realized she wasn’t a banker—so she quit and started to write, finding inspiration from her years in Chicago and San Francisco. Her essay “I Called You a Memoir” appears in The Magic of Memoir, an anthology published by She Writes Press. She and her husband enjoy traveling, cooking fine dinners, and chasing their beagles in circles.

Read an Excerpt


part 1

the birch tree

underfoot and in hand

On a summer Saturday morning, the sweet scent of cut grass signaled the start of an afternoon of play. For a chubby ten-year-old, the short lawn meant my wide feet were free to run bases in the backyard without tripping over a thick carpet underfoot. It also was an invitation to take a seat cross-legged, and to enjoy a respite without having to rock from side to side to scratch my legs and rear end because of grass blades poking me from underneath. But I never stayed seated; I was a walker. I would circle the house, starting in the backyard, continuing around to the side door and then to the front yard to meet a landscaped island of pussy willows, evergreens, and a black light pole stuck in the middle of the foliage. As I neared the final stretch, I released an unconscious sigh at the top of the driveway and greeted my birch tree. I noticed my buddy's fullness, a thick base with surfacing roots, and acknowledged any changes I may have overlooked since my last survey. A gentle touch to its peeling trunk was a handshake in greetings. Its bark never broke off when I stuck my finger through a smooth papery curl dangling from its base. We danced with long leafy branches connecting, hand in hand, while dappled light illuminated our stage. Connections were learned and encouraged in this safe place. My home was underfoot and in my hands.

One warm summer morning, humidity obscured the rising sun as I stood at the top of the driveway. Lending its shade, my tree caught my attention as if to warn me. I inched closer. With bent knees and my rear end sticking out, I squatted to get a better look at the curb encircling its trunk. I stepped to the curb into the dim spot, knowing if I could get closer to the ground, I could focus better. My once-warm body cooled, and goose bumps crept up my arms. I'm not sure if my reaction was due to my cooling in the shade or the ignition of adrenaline anticipating what was to come.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed the grass was damp and the top of the lawn moved with punctuated jabs in the air. I was startled; I ran to the driveway's pavement. With one hand on my hip and a finger pointing to the tree, I could only think the shadows were playing tricks on me or else my older brother, Timmy, was behind this.

"Come look. Quick!" I yelled. Timmy was washing his bike in the backyard, concentrating on details of the wheels' spokes. My urgent voice signaled Timmy to let his bike crash to the ground. He took off to the front of the house and stood next to me.

"What's your problem? What's wrong with you?" Timmy asked.

I pointed to the curious curb. "Look, look closely, there — the grass is moving. What is that?"

"Where? I don't see anything. There's nothing there." He moved his head from side to side to see as many angles as possible.

"But it did move, the grass jiggled." I yanked Timmy's hand and pulled him down with me. "Watch." As our eyes focused on the spot, I touched the blades and gave the turf a gentle nudge. He looked closer at the base of the tree, over the bumpy hills of roots and dried dirt clumps and then to the grass.

"Wow, it looks like a hole or something. Looks like a hole's been dug out, not very big, and ..."

"What, what is it? What's there?"

"There's something in it." "What's in there?"

"Touch it again."

"No, I'm not gonna. We're disturbing it."

"I want to find out what's in there." Timmy was never one to hold back his sometimes-misplaced curiosity, an annoyance to me during my brother's little-boy life. His curiosity showed me he was a smart kid. My irritation was really disguised envy.

With Timmy's urging, I gave a nudge, and the hole filled.

Something was peeking out of the dark recess. "It's furry." Timmy said.


"I think they're rabbits, babies. I think they're little bunnies in that hole."

"Then don't touch them, just leave them alone," I said. "No, this is cool."

I knew Timmy wasn't going to leave this alone. He pushed me away, and I felt awful because I had made my discovery public, and with that I had put the safety of that spot in jeopardy. I would argue that I'd discovered it first; it was mine, and that meant it was my responsibility to keep things right. I pushed him back. "Just leave it be. Let's go." As we walked away from the tree, Timmy in the lead, I turned around to look at the birch tree with its young thin branches reaching for the sky. I stood in tandem and innocence with my tree and noticed its peels on the trunk were shaking along with its leaves, as if frightened by the intrusion.

I embraced my home, establishing my roots with every step, hugging its boundaries. I always returned to my starting spot, my birch tree, where it looked sensitive with its white peeling bark interspersed with gray bumps spread out in its niche. It was a provider of shade during the days of blistering sun, and, at the best of times, it let the sunbeams warm the house during the most frigid hours of winter's cold. In my adult years, a birch tree sighting was like spotting home, like an instant message telling me to be comforted.

My birch buddy became a first connection as I learned that the tree was synonymous with home.


While recently freeing my life of closet clutter, I spied a gray bucket packed askew with folders and paper and other goods aligned on parallel shelving. I delved into the vessel with abandon and plucked a few files, ready to purge the litter. Inserted within the stack were large sheets of thick white paper, aged to tan and arranged in quarters. I held the parcel like a curious treasure in my hands before separating the folds to discover blueprints on the reverse side. I spread the poster-sized drawing flat on the floor and squatted to read the details of the reverse print. The building commissioner from the village had given his approval, stamped September 4, 1964, when I was two. My girlhood home was illustrated in blueprints.

Memories flooded my mind. We were lot #18 on Carlisle Avenue. William D. Murphy was the architect ... three-quarter-inch Driftwood panelling in the family room, (paneling was misspelled) ... Donley Brothers Dutch Oven Door in the fireplace, below the mantel. There were views of the inside including the basement and crawl space, but there was no attic. I was disappointed that artifacts of my ancestors, accompanied by dust and cobwebs as telltale signs of age, would not be found there. Old family photos were few. Letters bundled by a single string revealing my family and their relationships were nonexistent. I wanted to discover a rich heritage, a connection that might have been squirreled away in a hidden corner of the basement. My fingertip was a magic wand following the thin white lines to draw a circle engaging the contents to life. I was no longer seeing empty space.

The blueprints unfolded in white print, pages turning to show detailed floor plans. I was in my childhood home where I saw rooms alive with color. A pink-and-green wall-papered mural provided a backdrop to the pink wrought iron kitchen set centered in the breakfast nook and made me feel like I was dining in a fancy café. A large floral print in shades of green on paper hugged the dining room walls. "No sliding on the wood floors, you're going to get splinters," Mom would yell to Tim and me. Socked feet were mandatory for speed to escape when chasing each other. Mom's statement was serious enough for me to stop, questionable enough for me to examine the bottoms of my feet for loose brown specs imbedded in the sock's white stitching. I resumed sliding all the way into Timmy after I'd confirmed there were no wood fragments. We were bumper cars, knocking each other off our feet, disabling each other's slide progress.

I saw Agnes, my mom's mother and the only grand-mother I knew, sitting in a black Naugahyde rocking chair in our family room in front of the television, watching The Price Is Right while peeling an orange and then placing the oily citrus skins in a neat pile on an unfolded white paper napkin in her lap. When I went near her, an orange fragrance bloom would engage my nostrils. On the second floor, a pair of twin beds anchored the master bedroom with headboards bumped up against a wall of Wedgewood blue-and-crème toile paper, and in the dressing area, double sinks filled a black marble counter. In the basement, a Ping-Pong table — used more for Tim's arts and crafts than for family table tennis — and Dad's drum set complemented the ends of the floor.

That two-story house invited sun to spotlight the right rooms like lights illuminating scenes on a stage, thanks to a decorator who created the perfection Mom demanded. The living room was a showroom with red carpet underfoot and satin-covered love seats in creamy white with crimson velvet piping at the seams; black velveteen accent chairs completed a social circle. This was not a place for children, and on the rare occasion Tim and I were invited into the living room, our rear ends would have to pass inspection to make sure the silken seats would not be smeared with peanut butter or chocolate chip cookie remnants.

And then there was my birch buddy, never failing to include himself in the picture window with his branches posing as an umbrella over us. My home was not limited to its exterior circumference but spread inside through all rooms and inhabitants.

My memories summoned me back in time to those places outlined in white ink on the blueprints. Chapters in my life were like doors blown open with opportunity and closed with setbacks by gusts of wind where outside forces changed their direction. I would create a place for myself no matter where a challenge sent me. But was my place my home? The house on Carlisle was my home because I had started there. It was my point of reference, together with my birch tree.

early foliage

For as long as I can remember, Mom did not like to reveal that she grew up on Cleaver Street because it was in a poorer part of the city. "Cleaver Street. Oh, that bad neighborhood." she'd say, conjuring memories of her childhood during the 1930s and '40s. Mom told me there had been no toilet in the house, and they had to use one outside if they had to go. The placement of the toilet divulged their financial status. When I was a little one, I would visit Grandma on holidays at the house on Cleaver Street. I thought the house was situated in a good place because I could visit my Polish relatives — Uncle Tony and Aunt Helen, Aunt Harriet, and my godmother, Bonnie — in their homes without stepping outside, for their apartments pocketed each corner of the four flats. I thought this comforting to know they were all together as family under one roof, one home. When Mom married and moved away from her brother Norman and her mother, no longer sharing the same bed with her, she awaited an upscale life in a fancy high-rise condo on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, a stark contrast to Cleaver Street and her small apartment with no toilet. Her life had turned richer than she could have imagined. But then she had kids, and that's where it started for me.

I was born in the early sixties to a mother who thought that once you married, you had kids, whether you wanted them or not. "I wasn't ready to have kids," she declared, negating her devout Catholic tenet declaring the sacrament of marriage necessary for procreation. Mom said Dad wanted to name me "Victoria" but he didn't want the kids at school calling me "Vicky." "Victoria Chadwick sounded like a movie star," she said. Perfection became not only Mom's mandate for her life but also for her daughter's. So "Nancy" rang truer, and I was baptized Nancy Ann, and my birth certificate declared Nancy Lee. This discrepancy went unnoticed by my mother and remains unclear today. My older brother by three years, Timothy Hugh, however, experienced no name drama. I never knew what my dad thought about having two more kids after having Ann and Tom from a previous marriage to his first wife, Virginia. Maybe starting again with Mom was a blessing because he had a second chance.

Mom and Dad met at Henri, Hurst & McDonald, Inc., an advertising agency in Chicago, and married in 1957 when Dad was a VP of Advertising and Public Relations for Admiral Corporation, a television and appliance company and the agency's client.

Instant trauma and isolation struck Mom when she moved from the city to the suburbs after they married, because Mom was a city girl who relied on public transportation and foot to get her from North Avenue to the Palmolive Building and down Michigan Avenue. "I had to learn how to drive to get anywhere, and I was scared to death. I was living in the middle of nowhere with two small children and didn't know anyone," she told me. Every time Mom belted up in her new red Ford Falcon her nerves gave a jumpstart, instead of the gas pedal.

Dad took Mom, Tim, and me on an airplane — really a small propjet — in the late sixties, to Detroit to watch Dad shoot a commercial. Mom was a nervous wreck during the bumpy ride, cupping her hands over her ears while fidgeting because of the loud noise from the propellers. I, however, was on an adventure. It didn't matter if Mom was traveling by car or plane; as far back as I can remember Mom was usually anxious.

When Dad brought home a black-and-white headshot of a famous singer, he pointed to the photo and said to me, "Guess who that is."

I had no idea.

"It's an autographed picture of Glen Campbell," Dad said. He laughed. I didn't think there was anything funny about it. It was as if he was laughing at me, testing me, knowing I couldn't answer.

Throughout Dad's advertising years, he would always say he was responsible for discovering Kim Novak. Previously an unknown actress, she appeared in one of his commercials, and her acting career took off. I found Dad's humor and boasting uncharacteristic of the reserved and quiet man I had been accustomed to. Memories of the plane ride, recording studio, Glen, and Kim represented equal parts adventure and discovery of my mother's nervous states and my dad's chameleon-like personality.

I wondered why these memories of Mom and Dad stood out. Perhaps I expected Mom to be excited and happy with me when faced with new situations, whether a car or plane ride, but when I would see her anxious face, tension in her stiff body, and lack of a smile on her face, I was concerned that something was wrong, giving me good reason to feel that way too. Perhaps Dad's invitation to join him at work, to show and tell with a photo, and to reveal a personal accolade were his way of connecting with me, and I with him.

When I was two and Timmy was five, the family moved to the Carlisle house in Deerfield, a northern suburb of Chicago. Our four-bedroom red brick colonial was the unspoiled suburban backdrop in membership with other two-story houses which sat like gems on their velvet green lawns set with oak and maple trees and manicured hedges. Growing up, I thought my house was big and modern because it was new.

When I was a young girl, Mom insisted photo opportunities were best served when taken in front of the house's picture window. I obliged her because my birch buddy was near, plotted in the center of circling greens where it stood tall and arabesque in front of me, as if to say, look here and smile, when my photo was waiting to be taken on my first day of kindergarten. The tree's branches did not shade my eyes, squinty from the sun's high-noon rays. My pixie haircut was aglow in sun-bleached hair; my tanned body offset my navy dress, patterned in tiny white polka dots, with an appliqué of paintbrushes and an artist's palette in primary colors at the hem. A white Peter Pan collar mimicked the roundness I was trying to evade. But the dress was too small because the sleeves did not meet my wrists, and the skinny elastic around my forearms left an indented pink ring on my skin. My chubby feet were crammed into blood-red Mary Janes, whose straps Mom had struggled to pull just to the first hole on the buckle. Standing at attention with my feet together and my hands folded in front, I posed with my heels brushing against the yellow marigolds in full bloom. Connecting with my birch buddy made the irritations of a too-small dress and short-strapped shoes diminish as my buddy's arms welcomed a toasty blanket of sun overhead. The tree ushered a smile on my face and a squint in my eye on that Indian summer day, allowing my contentment to win over my physical discomfort. I was present with my house and my birch buddy. I was at home.

* * *

Ballet and Brownies initiated my girlhood. Though my occupations were a short-term investment, I learned that working with others was intimidating and difficult as I tried to keep up on toe and in Brownie points. I dropped out of both ventures, but not before I reveled in wearing the pink-and-brown uniforms in membership and belonging.


Excerpted from "Under the Birch Tree"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Nancy Chadwick.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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