The ‘girl’ on Windmill Island
Were it not for her name, we would have missed her.
Tens of thousands of eye-popping tulips, the unfamiliar music of the street organ, the Friesian horses in the field, the replica of the Dutch village, the romantic allure of the red and white bridge, and the winding path to the famous “De Zwann” windmill are overwhelming attractions. She is, after all, small in stature and tucked in a corner alongside the river. Without even a nearby bench to give one pause, to invite the weary to sit and smell the sweetness of her tulip-like blossoms, admire the glossy green leaves of summer, she lives alone. Unnoticed.
Her name is Jane.
Unlike the other seven hybrid magnolia trees in the family of ‘Little Girls,’ the Jane Tree was named after a wife, not a daughter. And not just any wife, Jane was named after the wife of Orville Freeman, the 29th governor of Minnesota; a Lutheran deacon who campaigned against religious bigotry and nominated the first Catholic president for office in 1960. He was a two-term Secretary of Agriculture who initiated the food stamp and school meal programs and was known for his focus on increasing farm incomes while using surpluses to feed the hungry.
The tree’s history is as rich as that of the island.
My mother’s name is also Jane. And although she is 94 years old, she will put her arm in mine and walk the island to listen to the red-winged blackbirds, eye the ducks, geese and once, the tundra swans, marvel at the butterflies and gardens, and, of course, visit the Jane Tree. While at the tree, we talk about family.
Mother, too, was named after an influential Democrat, Virginia Ellen Flood, 1902-1985. While details of her life are sketchy, we know my mother’s aunt went by “Jane” and owned and managed one of the largest insurance agencies in Oklahoma in the middle of the 20th century. She was a trailblazer for women in business and politics before we understood what that meant.
Similar to her namesake, Mother, Jane McKinney, is also considered a pioneer, although she rarely speaks of it. Formerly the Director of Public Information for the East Lansing School District for eighteen years, Mother’s primary responsibility was passing the millage in an era when public school funding depended on millage. Nationally recognized for her creative use of cable television to build relationships between the school district and the community, Mother helped pass the millage every year she was in office.
Like the tree, the Janes in our family are strong, resilient. And they span multiple generations, three of whom posed with the Jane Tree in 2018, when the family held its 72nd consecutive annual family reunion—this one in Holland.
The Jane Tree is worthy of a bench, a place where families can gather to share and create memories. Thanks to Matt Helmus, Windmill Island Garden Development Manager, and the Rotary Club of Holland, the tree will get one this spring.
(as seen in the April 8th issue of The Holland Sentinel)
4/9/2021 11:25:52 am
Mary, you and your mother must have delighted in finding the Jane tree! And what a lovely metaphor you have created that ties that magnolia to the strong beautiful women in your family. It’s so good to know that the bench will soon enable visitors to pause a while and contemplate the wonders of a little secret tucked in a corner alongside the river, even if they never know the story of your Janes.
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