HomeStoriesMy Mother Planted a Suffrage Tree by Hannah Wright

My Mother Planted a Suffrage Tree by Hannah Wright

This story is to remember Nelly Crocker who planted an Abies Magnifica on 7 February 1911 

My mother planted a Suffrage Tree in the winter of 1961.

The sitting room was small and smelled of old books. Sarah watched dust motes fall through the light that filtered through the half-closed blinds. They moved in a steady stream towards the floor, ready to start collecting as a layer of dust. In the corner, a spider’s web billowed softly in a barely-felt breeze. The spider was nowhere to be seen.

Collections of newspapers, magazines, old receipts and books were piled high on every surface, giving the room the look of a dystopian cityscape. Sarah’s grief was for a moment broken by a pang of guilt that blossomed like a bruise in the pit of her stomach. How had she let it get this bad?

Picking her way over old rolls of wrapping paper and being careful not to disrupt the fragile equilibrium of some piled papers, she made her way passed the column of dust motes that exploded chaotically in her wake.

The hallway was a mess of unopened mail. In the kitchen, a tower of recycling threatened to break against the doorway and Sarah almost couldn’t resist the urge to remove something small from the bottom and let it topple over her.

My mother planted a Suffrage Tree in the winter of 1961.

The funeral had been on Tuesday and she’d shaken hands and nodded at helpful sentiments about grief, all the while wondering what to do with the house. She’d have to chuck it all. But she couldn’t do that herself. She couldn’t pick her way through her mother’s things and decide what was worth keeping and what was not; if her mother couldn’t do it, how could she?

Her father had come to the funeral. It was a surprise but one she had prepared for. He tried to seek her out, but Sarah had placed distant relatives and servers in his way so that any time he tried to get close, she could retreat and find someone else to stand between them.

Another pang of guilt rose up in Sarah’s throat like bile and she swallowed it down and walked through the kitchen to the sunroom, the heart of the house.

My mother planted a Suffrage Tree in the winter of 1961.

The sunroom was like a tropical island surrounded by stormy seas. It had been recently painted yellow, her mother’s favourite colour, and the armchair, footstool and side table were empty of any clutter. It was a scene Sarah recognised well from their frequent video calls but she knew that this was not her mother’s only reason for keeping this room free from her hoarding.

Outside the window, the room had the best view of the tree that stood defensively in the corner of the garden, its branches hunched away from the wall and curving towards the house as though leaning in for a hug.

My mother planted a Suffrage Tree in the winter of 1961.

Sarah’s mother had met her father when they were really too young. He was ambitious and attentive but then controlling and cruel. She left him in the autumn of 1959 and moved herself and Sarah into a council flat. When she could afford the deposit on her own home, she commanded Sarah dig a small hole at the bottom of the garden and into it she carefully placed a small Abies magnifica, a red fir tree, into the soil.

She told Sarah, a statement she repeated over the years, that this was a tree for Nelly Crocker, a tree for all the Pankhursts, and a tree for all the women like her who were building lives and changing the world one seedling at a time.

My mother planted a Suffrage Tree in the winter of 1961.

When Sarah grew older and finally left for university, the tree had slowly grown taller too. By the time she was thinking about a family of her own, it had grown into a towering spectacle of determined trunk and strong, protective branches.

Sarah’s mother would often sit under her very own suffrage tree, proud of the life she’d nurtured from a sapling.

When the trees in neighbouring gardens would turn yellow and orange and leaves would fall to the ground, the blossoming carpet of golden colours would look like rust creeping ever further into their private hideaway. But the fir, an evergreen, would stand consistent with glorious, unstoppable life. It was a guardian against the outside forces that threatened the peace that lay within.

My mother planted a Suffrage Tree in the winter of 1961.

Sarah sat on the cushioned chair that the archivist had provided, and waited for the briefest of moments before placing her hands on the box. The complex fibres of everything she was feeling wove around one another.

As the lid slipped free from the tray below, the box let out a sigh of contentment; a puff of air that was relieved that Sarah was there and pleased that she was curious about its secrets.

Inside, a selection of tree clippings had been affixed to pieces of paper which detailed the species of tree and the date it was planted. They also included the names of the women who had planted them, each one a campaigner for women’s suffrage.

Her mother was not a suffrage campaigner. She really wasn’t anyone of note. But her story was no less deserving of attention and Sarah liked to think of her life as a continuation of the branches in the archive box. Without these women, Sarah’s mother may never have had the courage, or the freedom, to leave the life she hated behind.

My mother planted a Suffrage Tree in the winter of 1961.

Now when Sarah goes walking in autumn, feet wading through fallen leaves, or sees the first buds of life on otherwise barren branches, she thinks of the names of women who are being whispered on the breeze.

Hannah lives in Edinburgh and works both as a digital marketer and a trapeze teacher. She writes arts reviews for The Wee Review and was accepted on to the Scottish Review of Books Emerging Critics scheme in 2018. Her first piece of creative writing was published by Dear Damsels this year.