The Furever Tree

In a secret corner of Central Park, the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree celebrates a heartbreakingly beautiful bond.

By Larry Closs

If there really is a Rainbow Bridge, an otherworldly paradise where dearly departed pets wait for their beloved humans to join them so they can enter heaven together, then surely one end of the Bridge touches down in New York’s Central Park for a few weeks every year.

Somewhere this side of that Rainbow, somewhere in the Park, at a location that has, by unspoken agreement, remained a secret for nearly 40 years, stands a lone 18-foot evergreen guarded by towering American elms and a holly bush. The tree is a ways off the fence-lined path, just far enough that a passerby would likely not even notice it—not from mid-January through mid-November, anyway. But from Thanksgiving to Three King’s Day, or thereabouts, you can’t miss it. That’s when the tree becomes the Tree—the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree, a shimmering, touching, heartfelt tribute to cherished pets who are no longer with us.

Like the enchanted Scottish village of Brigadoon in the Lerner and Loewe musical, the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree mysteriously appears and then disappears, but unlike Brigadoon, which materializes from the highland mist for only one day every 100 years, the Tree manifests for six or eight weeks every year starting in late November. Overnight, the bare branches of the Tree are hung with hundreds of remembrances, pictures of precious creatures great and small who have passed—mostly dogs and cats but also bunnies, birds, horses, hamsters, turtles, fish and squirrels, mostly from New York but also other countries—all tied with brightly colored ribbon and yarn and often inscribed with deeply personal memories, poignant messages and passionate promises to meet again.

There’s Leo the Irish Setter, “As big as a lion, as gentle as a lamb,” Wolfie the Chocolate Lab, “My happy boy, my sweetest blessing, my very best friend,” Max the Yorkie, “My little shadow,” and Max the Shepherd, “You were my heart.” There’s Peanut the Persian, “An extraordinary, sentient being,” Bailey the Staffie, “The greatest girl there ever was,” and Duke the Greyhound, “Faithful companion, loving and beloved family member, provider of great joy, comfort and solace.” And then there’s Georgie the Pug, “who lived 9 lives and loved his Teletubbies, meatballs, and his mom. He found joy in the simplest things and taught us how to keep moving forward without feeling sorry for ourselves. He was able to cross speed boating and NYC off his ‘pugket list.’ His love and memory will live with us forever.” Who wouldn’t want to have lived life so fiercely and be remembered so fondly?

Nearly all of the photos are laminated, to protect them from the elements, and the dates written on most of them that mark an animal’s lifespan indicate that some of the photos have been hanging on the Tree for many years—decades, even. So, too, have many of the Christmas ornaments and pet toys dangling among the pictures that imbue the Tree with a festive air despite the sorrow revealed by closer inspection. The overall effect, as one visitor described it, is “heartbreakingly beautiful.” 

The Tree is a Hinoki False Cypress, sometimes mistaken for a Northern Aborvitae—aka Tree of Life, for its various medicinal properties. And as appropriate as that moniker would be for a tree celebrating the all-too-short lives of our closest companions, perhaps arbor amor—Tree of Love—would be more accurate, because there simply couldn’t be any greater display of the only unconditional love most of us will ever encounter. As Smurph the Boston Terrier’s human wrote on his photo, “How could so much love fit in one so small?”

Visitors of all types turn up at the Tree. There are those who are out for a walk in the woods and stumble upon it for the first time. They likely hear it before they see it, a distinctive fluttering sound created as the laminated photos twist and turn in the winter wind. Curious, they approach and smile as they realize that the objects hanging on the Tree are mostly all pictures of dogs and then tear up when they realize the dogs have all passed. Then there are those who have heard about the Tree and are happy to have finally found it. They spend a long while slowly making their way around, studying the photos and reading the inscriptions, tenderly taking each one to heart. Lastly, there are those who arrive bearing a handmade memento of a beloved pet who has transitioned from this life to the next. Their eyes well up as they search for the perfect branch and tentatively add their keepsake. They step back and snap a photo, tears falling. If you’re there, you want nothing more than to put your arms around them and tell them: You know.

Everyone who spends any time at the Tree has their own reason for being there, but there is one thing they all have in common, one question they all ask: How did the Tree get started?

The origin of the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree is a New York story, and the very best kind of New York story at that, in which history, mystery and serendipity intersect to spark an annual Christmas miracle in the heart of Manhattan.

Mystery No. 1 is the Tree itself. It’s the only Hinoki False Cypress—Chamaecyparis obtusa, native to Japan—listed in the database of Central Park’s 18,000 trees. It may be the only one growing naturally in New York City. That improbable distinction offers a clue to its humble beginnings: Most likely, someone planted it. But who? Why? And where did it come from? In Japanese culture, the Hinoki is both renowned and revered: Renowned for its aromatic and durable wood (Japan’s Buddhist Temple of the Flourishing Dharma, the oldest wooden structure in the world, dates from 711 A.D. and is built of Hinoki) and revered in the Shinto religion as a symbol of purity and healing. Might those connotations reflect its raison d’être? There are so many questions that may never be answered.

What we do know is that the Tree was planted in the early 1970s on a small patch of bare earth deep in the Ramble, the Park’s labyrinthine woodland of winding paths, flowering meadows and rocky outcrops. There, in the shadow of several tall trees, the Hinoki seedling sent roots into the moist soil and a few scaly sprays skyward.

Flash forward about 10 years, to the early 1980s. The Tree, then six or seven feet tall, caught the eye of Lela Rolontz during weekend romps in the Park with her rescue dog Cleo, and later Noelle, both a mix of German Shepherd and Golden Lab. Rolontz, Publicity Director at William Morrow Books, had begun her career at 18 as a professional figure skater who performed on Broadway in the 1940s in several “musical icestravaganzas” presented by Norwegian Olympic Gold Medal Figure Skater turned actress Sonja Henie. 

“My Aunt Lela used to come by my family’s apartment at Lexington and 92nd every Saturday and Sunday morning when I was 7 or 8 and ask if I would like to go for a walk with her and her dog in Central Park, specifically through the windy paths of the Ramble,” recalls her nephew, architect Morgan Rolontz. “The culmination of our walks was a coffee for my Aunt, a hot chocolate for me and a dog biscuit for my Aunt’s dog—Cleo in the 1970s or Noelle in the 1980s—at the Boathouse.”

In the Ramble, Lela would let her dog off-leash to run free and play fetch in a large meadow. At the eastern end of that meadow, she took note of a small evergreen, a rarity in the Ramble.

“As Christmas approached in 1986, my Aunt decided the tree deserved some decorations,” says Morgan. “So she picked up a couple of boxes of inexpensive ornaments from the five and dime and hung them on the tree.”

The specifics of what happened next are lost to memory and time. When Lela returned the following weekend, however, she was disheartened to discover that many of her ornaments were gone but then delighted when she realized that, in their place, were photos of dogs—photos inscribed with words of love and the dates of lives lived. Deeply touched, she intuitively understood the intentions of the mysterious strangers who had hung the photos. What better place to memorialize beloved animal companions than the Park where they had roamed and played? 

Lela didn’t know at the time that two fellow dog lovers—the mysterious strangers—had stumbled upon her handiwork a few days earlier. Casting director Jason Reddock and actress Nicki Gallas were walking their dogs—Beau, a Golden Retriever, and Gittel, a toy poodle—in the Ramble when they spotted something hanging on a small tree in the distance. They stepped over the low fence lining the path, approached the tree and were taken aback by what they saw.

“There were Christmas ornaments hanging on the tree,” says Nicki. “And dog toys!”

The pair were instantly charmed.

“Of course we loved it,” says Jason. “There was an element of mystery about it, to come upon something so endearing yet so incongruous out in the middle of nowhere.”

What Nicki and Jason did next started a tradition that would continue far longer than either could ever have imagined. The following day, they returned with ornaments of their own. Nicki added photos of her dogs, both passed and present, and Jason added big red velvet bows (“the kind you used to get at CVS”) on which he had written the names of his own dogs.

“Nicki had pictures of all of her dogs, even from childhood,” says Jason. “Being in showbiz, she tried to position them front and center together. It was the funniest thing. She also bought a laminating machine to encase her pictures in plastic so they wouldn’t fall apart in the rain.”

That’s the scene that greeted Lela the next weekend and prompted her to add a photo of Cleo to the tree. What remains a mystery are the dog toys that Nicki and Jason insist they saw, the dog toys that inspired them to add photos of their dogs in the first place. Morgan, Lela’s nephew, can’t say for sure whether his Aunt, an ardent animal lover, hung any dog-inspired ornaments but he allows that it’s possible. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter.

“To me,” he says, “what matters most is that my Aunt saw this tree, it happened to be in a meadow she always took her dog, ’tis the season, and she got some ornaments and put them on the tree. I’m filling in some of the blanks, but I believe that drew attention to the tree and dog people saw it as a place to memorialize their loved ones.”

Lela passed away in 2004 at 78. Her love of animals outlives her and continues to inspire every new memento hung on the Tree.

“She started a lovely tradition that brings comfort and pays tribute to the loving bond between pet owners and their pets,” says Morgan. “What a beautiful legacy. She was a special person.”

Nicki and Jason never met Lela, but they wholeheartedly accepted the baton she passed and became the Keepers of what they dubbed the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree. As the days went by in December 1986, the ornaments and photos on the tree invariably attracted the attention of fellow animal lovers who quickly began adding photos of their own dogs. Photos of cats and other animals soon followed. In January, when people take their Christmas trees down and pack up their ornaments for another year, Nicki and Jason decided to do the same with the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree. On Three Kings Day, January 6, 1987, they removed all of the remembrances from the Tree and packed them in a shopping bag.

“I volunteered to hold onto the bag until the following December because I lived a lot closer than Nicki and I had more room in my apartment,” says Jason.

Nicki lived in a small rent-controlled third-floor Hell’s Kitchen walkup with a bathtub in the bedroom—the kind of flat that not only certifies any occupant as a quintessential New Yorker but solidifies the love/hate/love relationship and should-I-stay-or-should-I-go debate that every real New Yorker has with the City. If Central Park is the heart of New York City, and the Tree is the heart of Central Park, then Nicki Gallas epitomizes the beating heart of the Tree like no other. And so the Story of the Tree, Act II, takes place far from the madding crowd.

“It was a terrible apartment but it was my home for fortysomething years and now I miss it desperately,” says Nicki, who somewhat reluctantly moved to a family cottage in Saugatuck, Michigan, in 2021, after both she and Jason retired from their careers and from tending to the Tree for nearly three decades. “I left New York because I had to climb nine to 12 flights of stairs a day. It was only three flights but I would go out three and four times a day. All those stairs! Carrying kitty litter! When you’re 20, you don’t think anything about stairs. Oh, who cares! But I shouldn’t have left. I don’t know why I left. To tell you how bad my apartment was: When I was packing to move, I took my canopy bed and headboard down and I put a mattress on the floor. Well, I’m lying on the mattress and a big, huge chunk of plaster fell on my face. The headboard had been holding it up! Oh, it was an awful apartment. And I hated the landlord. He was just the worst landlord in the world. There were no services at all in the building and my kitchen ceiling leaked for nine years. Water’s pouring in and they don’t care. But I miss that apartment. I never thought I’d ever say such a thing. But I do. It was my home.”

It was also home to Maisie, Nicki’s 16-year-old toy Parti poodle (black on top with some gray underneath), named for her favorite part in her favorite show, “The Boy Friend.” Maisie went everywhere with Nicki.

“She went to movies, restaurants. She never stayed home. She rode a moped everywhere all over the city. And, oh, my goodness, she loved it so much. She wore a little pink helmet and goggles. I didn’t wear a helmet. You’re supposed to but I didn’t. One day I’m on 42nd Street and all of a sudden I hear a siren and a cop was stopping me and I thought, ‘Oh, shoot.’ The cop lept out of the car with his camera and said, ‘Can I take your dog’s picture?’ He didn’t care that I didn’t have a helmet on. Maisie did! And then one day I was stopped at a light and one of those tour buses pulls up beside me. I look up and everyone was hanging off the top of the tour bus taking her picture. Oh, she had her picture in the Times more often than I can count. She was always in the paper.”

Maisie even accompanied Nicki to Broadway shows. 

“She went to every Broadway show,” says Nicki. “I bet she’s been to more Broadway shows than you have because, at Actors Equity, we get free tickets. I had this black bag—my mother made it—that fit in my purse. I would put Maisie inside the bag and then I would put that bag inside another black bag and then I put other things around it. When security guards at a theater searched the bag before a show, they didn’t see a dog—all they saw were the other things.”

If it were not already apparent, to describe Nicki Gallas as an animal lover would be an understatement of astronomical proportions. She has had pets of all kinds her entire life. Always dogs, which her mother adopted from local shelters. Also cats, rescued from a life on the streets. And also turtles, homed after being abandoned in unsuitable habitats. In New York, in addition to dogs and cats, she had two pigeons (“My favorite bird!”) in her apartment for eight months while she nursed them back to health after they were hit by cars. In Saugatuck, she has two formerly feral cats, Meadow and Grayling, and a box turtle, Adelaide (adopted from the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society and named for Nicki’s role in “Guys and Dolls”). She also feeds several deer, who recognize a soft heart when they see one, and a posse of raccoons who visit the porch of her cottage every day like clockwork. She has some prior experience with the latter.

“We had a raccoon for six years when I lived at home,” she says. “We didn’t own a cage. She sat on the couch and slept with my parents.”

For as many animals Nicki has had the pleasure to know, however, it never gets any easier to say goodbye. Her beloved Maisie made the move with her to Michigan in 2021 but sadly passed just two weeks before Christmas 2022, leaving an enormous hole in Nicki’s enormous heart.

“I’m devastated,” she says, her voice catching. “She was my best friend. I’ve got my two kitties—and I love my kitties!—but they’re not your best friend. Your dog is your best friend. I have never driven in a car without my Maisie. Oh, to get in that car now is just brutal. It’s awful. When I was leaving home today, I said to the kitties, ‘We’ll be back,’ and then I realized, it’s not ‘we.’ It’s only me. And I said, no, I guess it’s just, ‘I’ll be back.’ ”

Nicki believes that even though Maisie is gone, she’s only gone from her earthbound life.

“I talk to her a thousand times a day,” she says. “I know she can hear me. I know she can. Because she loved me more than anything in the world. Just the fact that Meadow is being so nice to me. That’s not Meadow. Meadow is sleeping on you? Oh, my goodness! I know Maisie has told her, ‘Mommy’s going to be very upset and you’ve got to take care of her.’ So, I know she’s still around. I know she is. And I know we’ll all be together again. I’m counting on that Rainbow Bridge.”

Until that time, Maisie is back in her beloved Central Park, along with fellow members of Nicki’s menagerie: Toy poodles Lulu, Gittel and Miranda and Eastern Box Turtles Sherman and Tuck, all together on the Tree that Nicki tended with Jason for 30 years.

“I mailed a picture of Maisie—two pictures, actually— to Marianne. Maisie will be happy to know that she’ll be at the Tree because she loved it so much. I told Marianne to make sure all of my animals are together and she said she would definitely do that. I wish I could be there to help with the tree! Oh, dear God. I miss it an awful lot. It was fun. I loved doing it. I really, really did.” 

Among all the remembrances on the Tree is a message of thanks addressed “To The Anonymous & Kind Keeper of Memories.” The current Keeper is artist, interior designer and, yes, animal lover Marianne Larsen, the Marianne to whom Nicki mailed pictures of Maisie and to whom Jason and Nicki passed the Keeper mantle when Jason was no longer able to make the long walk to the Park and Nicki moved to Michigan.

“I met Jason because I wanted to introduce my dog to his dog, who was always barking at us, back in 2004,” says Marianne. “We ended up becoming friends, walking in the Park with a group that included Nicki. We would all get together and sit on a bench near the Tree, not just at Christmas but all summer, and it just sort of became a chatting spot. When Christmas came around, Jason brought out all the ornaments and I volunteered to help hang them on the Tree. Everybody was there because it was a fun thing to do. I started taking the ornaments home a few years ago and getting them laminated at a print shop because I thought it was so sad when they literally just fell apart sometimes. There were so many that I eventually just bought my own laminating machine.”

“Marianne’s dog Coco and my dog Shane were best friends,” says Jason. “She had the keys to my apartment and she could drop Coco off any time she needed. I was glad for Shane to have a buddy.”

As recently as 2021, Marianne tended to the Tree on her own. Shortly after Thanksgiving of that year, she carried several large plastic storage bins stuffed with ornaments and a small ladder from her home on the Upper East Side to the Park and spent hours hanging hundreds of remembrances by herself. The cavalry arrived when she went to take everything down in January 2022. Several people saw what she was doing and volunteered to lend a hand on the spot. What would have taken three hours to do took only one. She kept in touch with everyone and, later that year, they all returned to the Tree to help hang 427 ornaments (she counted them) on a soggy December Saturday. Marianne had told everyone “rain or shine,” and, true to her word, the Tree went up as the rain came down.

“We walk our dogs in the rain,” she says with a shrug.

For decades, the location of the Tree has remained a secret known only to a select few, and only those who need to find it ever do. “I was guided there by my angels,” said one visitor. In recent years, however, as awareness of the tree has grown, it’s not uncommon to see a half-dozen visitors at a time. Marianne is fine with that, fine with people knowing about the Tree as long as they don’t broadcast its location. 

“If you go online, you can, unfortunately, find people giving directions, which I discourage,” she says. “I think low-key is better since the Park is being kind even allowing us to do this. No one else gets to display or decorate anything in what is supposed to be a strictly natural setting. I wouldn’t want to lose the privilege with tour groups coming through. Maybe that’s just me, I don’t know. It’s not like there are rules… other than the ones I make up!”

The Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that cares for the Park, has no official stance on the Tree.

“They either ignore the fact that it’s there, or appreciate the fact that it’s there,” says Marianne.

Either way, a friendly Park Natural Areas Manager now loans her a 10-foot ladder when she and her volunteers put the Tree up and take it down so they can reach the higher branches. He also opens the fence near the Tree to allow easy access for visitors. 

Still, the Tree’s exact whereabouts remain undocumented. As “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville wrote, “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

Though that approach has worked remarkably well and the universal attitude toward the Tree is one of reverence, being off the grid is no guarantee that the wrong person won’t find it. In 2016, Marianne, Jason and Nicki discovered that someone—“An idiot,” says Jason; “A crazy person,” says Nicki—had ripped all of the remembrances off the Tree, cut a lot of them up and scattered them all around. 

“What kind of person would do that?” asks Nicki. “It was terrible. We salvaged what we could and started over.” 

In a testament to the power of the beautiful loving bond between pets and their owners, to the light that dispels darkness, the Tree was soon covered with new remembrances. Among them, Marianne’s three dogs: A senior rescue named Hattie, a Border Collie mix named Coco and a Jack Russell named Bamse (“It’s a Danish endearment that means teddy bear and also darling, which did not fit his personality but I like the name”).

Marianne currently shares her life with Ulla, another rescue. She’s never without a dog, which explains why she cares so much about the Tree.

“I’m a dog person. You know, one of those people a lot of people talk about in a somewhat disparaging way. ‘Oh, you’re one of the dog people.’ We talk to the dogs on the street. We never know the owners’ names but we know the dogs’ names. Yes, I’m a dog person. And that’s why I love the Tree. Why wouldn’t you want to have this? How many psychiatrists deal with people grieving over the loss of their pets? It’s a significant part of many people’s lives. My own included. When you lose a pet, it is devastating. They love you unconditionally. They help us live through breakups, broken bones and sadness. And they’re happy to see you every time you come in the door. And then to just have them pass away and not recognized except to yourself on your mantel? It’s kind of nice to share them. I guess that’s why I do it. And I love Christmas. I love the idea of decorating trees. So, I guess it all comes together in a kind of lovely way for me.”

For animal lovers, pets are people, loved no less than family members, best friends and significant others, and often even more. In a world that can be cold, confusing and lonely, pets are warm, understanding and always there. Until they aren’t.

It’s a given that we will almost certainly outlive our pets. We know that. We know that with every passing year of our lives, our dogs and cats age several more until they are, in human years, much older than us. We know from the moment they wriggle their way into our hearts that we are much more likely to say goodbye to them than they are to us, whether they succumb to old age or one of a litany of all-too-human infirmities: cancer, cardiac disease, kidney failure. And yet, we still do it. We still bring them into our lives. We don’t even hesitate. Why? Because love outweighs everything. Because seven or 12 or 20 years of unconditional love beats just about anything else life has to offer.

You could say that forewarned is forearmed. Well, yes and no. The loss of that love isn’t diminished by the knowledge of the inevitable. The loss of that love, of that furry, loyal, irresistible bundle of unbeatable love, can be equal to the loss of anyone, human or otherwise. As Oreo the Shih Tzu’s human so eloquently wrote on the back of his photo, “I loved you for your whole life and I’ll miss you for the rest of mine.” And as Baby the Yorkie’s human wrote, “If my love alone could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”

Nicki knows the feeling all too well.

“It’s awful,” she says about saying goodbye to Maisie. “There’s nothing worse. It’s just terrible. And I feel really guilty. This woman I know, her husband died this year, and this man I know, his boyfriend of 44 years died, and I feel like I shouldn’t feel as bad as them and I do and I feel like it’s wrong. And I can’t help it. Because I loved her as much as they loved their people, you know?”

For those who know, the Tree provides a place to cry, to grieve and to say goodbye, a place to remember, to honor and to say I’ll see you again. A place to meet others who understand and feel the same. There are, at last count, 1.1 million pets in New York City—600,000 dogs and 500,000 cats—but there are no pet cemeteries, no safe spaces to express the overwhelming sadness that accompanies the loss of what Edith Wharton so deftly described as “a heartbeat at my feet.” The final resting place for most City pets is a beautiful urn on a bedroom dresser, or perhaps Central Park itself, where their ashes are spread across their favorite former stomping grounds (along with more than a few humans). Enter the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree.

“The Tree is a great comfort,” says Jason, who now shares his life with Zane, the latest in a long line of Golden Retrievers that includes Beau, father and daughter Redggie and Fiona and Shane. “In this huge city, where you can feel so alone, the Tree brings people together at a special time of year and reminds you that you’re not alone, that love goes on.”

Marianne concurs.

“I hope the Tree serves the same purpose that I assume people get from visiting their family graveyards, where you can go and you can talk to the person or the dog and you’re happy to have that connection again,” she says. “And if you’re from New York, you will remember all those great times you had walking and playing with your dog in the Park, and recognizing all their friends who are hanging on the Tree. I think it’s just a lovely sentimental moment for people.”

The parents of Lucy, a black and white mixed breed, would agree. They’re the ones who left the message on the Tree addressed To The Anonymous & Kind Keeper of Memories:

“With much gratitude, we want to say, thank you. Thank you for this gift. We loved walking our dog in beautiful Central Park for 14½  years, and always visited this memorial tree, knowing with tears, one day, she too would reside there. And so, last year we added her photo with heavy hearts… Fast forward to this year… With tears of joy, we find her photo again on the tree!!! You kept her and brought her back to The Ramble—She’s back in the Park–Thank you for this tradition–Thank you for the Tree.”

It’s safe to say they speak for everyone who has ever had the honor to have loved an animal and been blessed to be loved in return. They speak for the moms and dads of Buzz the Boxer, Benny the Bulldog, Bomber the Westie and Bento the horse, for the families of Chihuahuas Dino, Arnold, Spunky and Cinnamon, for the best friends of Josie the Pussycat, Dust Bunny and Milo the black Lab, who was “A very good boy.” 

As each of the remembrances on the Tree attests: Aren’t they all?

Larry Closs is an award-winning writer and photographer who lives in New York City.

©2024 Larry Closs. All rights reserved.

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