Miami Stories

Coral Gables tree watched over young girl from childhood to college

August 2010: This tree watched Julie Gittelson grow up from being a child with dreams of becoming a princess to a young adult who was just about to start college.
August 2010: This tree watched Julie Gittelson grow up from being a child with dreams of becoming a princess to a young adult who was just about to start college. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

“Look, Mom! I’m a princess!” I used to yell from the inside of a tree that stood the height of a two-story house in the heart of Coral Gables, close to my childhood home, the one my parents still live in today.

The tree stood on a triangular patch of grass bordered by Banos Court, Calbira Avenue and Durango Street. The inside branches formed a seat facing west, and from there I could spot the top of the Biltmore Hotel over the line of houses in front of me. I felt like royalty perched in there.

For years, I could not climb up by myself without my fear of heights taking over. My mom would push my bum up to help me climb on. My clothes would get dirty, but it didn’t matter: I ruled this “land” as Queen of Green Gables. This was my sanctuary.

As I grew up, I’d introduce my friends to “The Big Tree.” I remember my childhood best friends playing tag with me along the trip-hazardous roots, hanging out there after my 14th and 15th birthday party shaving-cream fights, passing time with former love conquests on my previously pure “throne,” its branches marked by initials enclosed within a heart, and many photo shoots I had with my high school best friend prior to her permanent move to Spain.

This tree watched me grow up from being a child with dreams of becoming a princess to a young adult who was just about to start college.

In 2013, I spent the summer before my first college semester walking around the block, stopping at the tree on occasion. I remember distinctly crying my eyes out, sitting on the roots of this tree, post-breakup with the boy who’d taken my virginity.

I wasn’t crying because my heart was broken; I was emotionally abused by him. The words: “No one will ever love you the way that I loved you” messed with my mind, triggering what would become the most difficult years of my life.

May 2, 2013, my tree would die. My sanctuary would no longer be mine to retreat to as bulldozers and chain saws tore down, branch by branch, my beautiful tree which grew no more leaves, just as my sanity grew no more hope.

I lived on campus at Florida International University in the fall of 2013 and even joined a sorority. However, my resident assistant had spotted my behavior change when my boyfriend ended our relationship only a month into college. She suggested the counseling and psychological center on campus, but no matter how much talk therapy I received, my sanity only worsened.

I saw a physician who diagnosed me with depression and prescribed for me the lowest dose of antidepressants, which I’d take daily.

Adjustment to the medication wasn’t quick and my tree wasn’t growing back. The first few weeks on the medication led to thoughts darker than the shadows that once lurked underneath the branches of my old friend.

My sorority prides itself on its many philanthropies, one of them being “Inherit the Earth.” With that, I wanted to become this exact tree in this exact spot with the Bios Urn, creating a tree with my life remains, giving back what my tree had always given me: oxygen to breathe in a natural remedy and breathe out the negative air. I could give oxygen to my beautiful city where I grew up and watch children frolic where I once did. I could be the anchor to children just like my Big Tree had been for me.

In spring 2016 while driving to my parents’ house, I noticed a chain-link fence surrounding empty space where my tree once stood and prayed that a house would not take its place. For a moment, I lacked oxygen.

In summer 2016, the summer leading to my final college semester, I had finally regained the sense of self that I had lost years ago. I was finally happy; the constant storms that had perturbed my brain had dissipated. I was repaired. But I was not the only one.

My eyes filled with tears of joy as the gated fence was taken down, revealing a beautiful grass patch with surrounding stone benches and a row of trees leading to a new Big Tree, placed in the same spot as my dear old friend. I felt that my neighborhood had regained that sense of normalcy that it had lost. It felt complete and so did I.

This tree and I had been living parallel lives, I just wasn’t aware of it. She still stands pretty today and I hope my children will visit her someday in the far distant future to etch their own initials on her trunk.

Tell us your story

To submit: Submit your story and photo(s) at www.HistoryMiami.org. Your story may be posted at MiamiHerald.com/miamistories, published in Sunday’s Neighbors print edition and archived at HistoryMiami.org/miamistories.

About Miami Stories: This project is a partnership between HistoryMiami, Miami Herald Media Co., WLRN and Michael Weiser, chairman of the National Conference on Citizenship.

  Comments