Winner of the English Forum creative nonfiction division.

There they were again. I halted at my window when I noticed hundreds of flecks of white and pale pink outside, bright and delicate against the web of brown, bare tree branches which were still hibernating for the last few weeks of winter. For a few seconds, I gaped at the single, purple-leafed plum tree in our backyard, surprised that it was blooming so early. The skeletal tree had come to life again, breathing in hues of maroon and purple, and dressing itself with dark leaves and clusters of shell-pink petals. At my house, it was always the first tree to signal spring, and by far my favorite.

The tree blooms every year on the first warm week in February. At the first hint of the winter sun defrosting, the tree explodes with color, nearly overnight. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the tree come to life; it had been a warm winter. But in the middle of a busy semester, the existence of one small tree in my backyard was easy to forget. This year, I just wasn’t looking.

Once I recovered from my awe of seeing the plum tree bloom again, I abandoned my homework, grabbed my phone, unearthed the garden shears from a drawer, and dashed into the afternoon sun. Remains of last autumn’s leaves and patches of weeds and grass rustled under my feet as I made my annual trip into my backyard and stepped to where the six- or seven-foot tall plum tree grew, its sprawling branches dwarfed by the oaks surrounding it. Normally the tree was camouflaged by the tangle of other branches behind it, but today, the tree and its blooms were the centerpiece of the backyard.

I stood under its thin branches, admiring the clusters of flowers, each comprised of five pink tear drops, with a spray of red in the center. They swayed in the breeze, the new petals highlighted against the background of a pale blue sky and trees grayed with age. A springtime perfume hung in the air, and I heard a hum around the tree. I smiled when I saw dozens of tiny gold and black winged insects landing on the petals. Apparently, the bees had the same idea as me. Avoiding the honeybees, I carefully cut off a few sprigs of the flowers and leaves, returning inside with my mission accomplished, determined to successfully preserve the fragile flowers this year.

I should clarify that I don’t normally dash outside and take a sample of every flower I see. I hardly pay attention to the flowers at all. But my family’s plum tree is different. It’s a unique tree. No one knows how it grew in our backyard. For years, we hardly noticed the spindly dark shrub growing. And then one year it put on a show, arraying itself with beautiful white flowers, ready for spring when no other tree was. For a while, we presumed it was a Cherry Blossom tree, and thought how special it was that one had managed to grow in the middle of a woody yard with hardly enough sunlight. A friend from China told me last year that our tree was not a Cherry Blossom, but a Plum Blossom. She said in China, plum blossoms were symbolic for hope and perseverance. They are special trees. Ours is certainly unique. The flowers are gone almost as soon as anyone recognizes the tree has bloomed. Our tree lasts only a week. For a few short days, before winter can steal February back again, the little tree displays all spring’s beauty, reminding whoever sees that spring is coming. But sometimes, no one sees.

Last year, I tried to preserve the fragile flowers in water. The flowers were so thin that several petals floated to the ground before I could bring them inside. The flowers that survived the trip had shriveled and the translucent pink shade yellowed like ancient book pages within a day. This time, I pressed the branches I had gathered between stacks of books and waited a few weeks. Waited until the both the plum blossoms outside and the February chill had vanished. This time, I would have more than just a memory or picture of the tree.

Any sign of the flowers vanished weeks ago, and now, the tree is covered only with purple and red leaves. It is still pretty, but its dark color cannot compete with the clouds of white Dogwoods above its leaf-tops or the sunny yellow Daffodils at its roots. Once the warmth returned, the little herald stepped back with its job accomplished, allowing Spring to display all her glory.

I flipped through the book pages that held the pressed flowers, searching for the right place. My heart sank when I saw the plum blossoms. They were dried and pressed, but the five pink petals on each bloom had shriveled and browned and the tiny red leaves had turned to a rotted black. I have never seen a flower turn so ugly when it is pressed. As my fingers brushed the page to pick up one mostly intact flower, the petals crumbled like dirt under my touch. I didn’t even bother to take them out. I closed the book shut again with a thud, wondering what happened. For flowers that symbolize perseverance, they seemed determined to die, taking their beauty with them. I pulled out my phone and scrolled back to my pictures. Once again, I wished I was gifted with good photography skills. The pictures couldn’t do the plum tree justice. The image on my phone was only an LED illusion of the real tree. The real beauty of the pink petals waving against blue skies, the scent of the flowers in the breeze, and the hum of the bees had once again disappeared without a trace until next year.

I glanced back out my window, at the now plain tree, standing alone in the middle of the world’s celebration of spring. Of course I couldn’t preserve the tree’s beauty. I can’t preserve the first warm week in February. I can’t preserve the joy of seeing of one pink and white tree in a world of gray. I can’t preserve the plum tree’s perseverance through the cold and its annual show of the future spring. I wasn’t meant to preserve its beauty. It was if, every year, for that first warm week in February, God’s creation invited me to look up from the busyness and coldness of life. It said, “Look up, because spring is coming. Look around, because it is already here.”

Look up. And look around.