Nancy Arey Cohen stood in Portland’s Monument Square on Thursday watching with wonder as the city’s Christmas tree was hoisted into place. Her mother’s dream had finally come true.

“She just wanted one of her little trees to be there and give people joy,” Cohen said.

Nancy Arey Cohen watches as workers set up Portland’s Christmas tree in Monument Square on Thursday. Her mother, Edith Arey, planted the tree 35 years ago and always hoped it would someday become the city’s Christmas tree. Arey died in June, and a few days before she did, she talked about how she regretted that one of her trees had never made it to Monument Square, her daughter said. “And now it has,” Cohen said. “It’s a Christmas miracle for me, it really is.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

That little tree – now a 48-foot, 3,400-pound balsam fir – was planted some 35 years ago by Edith Arey, who grew fir saplings around her North Deering home in hopes that one would someday be the perfect Monument Square tree.

Arey, who died on June 4, five days before her 95th birthday, never had the chance to see her tree in Monument Square. But her family calls its presence there a Christmas miracle in a year marked by sadness.

The story of the tree’s origin, and Arey’s longtime wish, were unknown to the city when forestry supervisor Lucas Lermond spotted the tree this month. He was out with a crew cleaning up a nearby tree that had blown down during a windy storm when he noticed the fir that was towering over a house on Florida Avenue, “a signal that a once small tree has outgrown its space,” city arborist Jeff Tarling said.

Tarling left his contact information at the home in hopes the city had found its annual holiday tree, and the homeowners, Hilary Carr Shorey and James Shorey, agreed to donate it. Plans were put in place to cut it down on Thursday and drive it across Tukey’s Bridge to Congress Street.

Cohen, who grew up in the home and now lives in Scarborough, knew nothing of the plan until Wednesday, when she came across a Facebook post from Portland Downtown that read, “This year’s tree is coming all the way from Florida … Ave in Portland!”

Cohen knew it had to be one of the trees her mother had planted in the yard of the home that Charles Arey built as a surprise for his wife 59 years ago.

Edith and Charles Arey at their 50th wedding anniversary in 2005. Photo courtesy of Nancy Arey Cohen

Charles and Edith Arey married in 1955 and their daughter was born the following year. Charles Arey worked in real estate, but was better known as a musician with the Presumpscot River Bottom Boys. Edith Arey worked at the Loring, Short & Harmon store in Portland before opening a nursery school in South Portland. She later became a nurse and worked for years at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf.

The family enjoyed going on Sunday afternoon drives in northern Maine. Whenever Edith Arey saw a cute little sapling on the side of the road, she’d stop to dig it up and bring it home to plant in her yard at 96 Florida Ave. She kept a chart of where she found each sapling and the spot she had planted it.

“We always told her she was a criminal and she’d get arrested for digging up trees,” Cohen said. “We teased her about it all the time.”

After Charles Arey died in 2007, Edith Arey offered a tree to the city as a tribute to her husband. She hoped it would stand tall in Monument Square and bring light and joy to the people of Portland. But the city declined, saying there was a backlog of trees that people had offered to donate. That tree, far too big for the yard, had to be cut down.

A year later, Edith Arey moved to Park Danforth, where she lived happily until March, her daughter said. Just before the building was closed to visitors because of the coronavirus, Edith Arey moved to Cohen’s house. They spent endless hours together on the sunporch talking about their lives.

“She had so few regrets. One of hers was that her tree hadn’t made it to Monument Square and she always hoped it would,” Cohen said. “Before she died, she commented that it was too bad it hadn’t happened because the trees were so beautiful and could bring so much joy. She was imagining all the children’s faces looking up at it.”

Arey’s grandson, Robbie Cohen, spent his childhood visiting his Grammie Edith’s house on Florida Avenue, where he would help her plant tomatoes and potatoes in the garden. She was known for her green thumb and love of Christmas and it didn’t surprise him that she would plant “the perfect Christmas tree for the city,” he said.

“She loved growing and caring for things. She loved Christmas. She loved Portland,” he said. “I can’t imagine a better sendoff to honor her than to have the tree go up in the city this year.”

On Wednesday, Nancy Arey Cohen drove to her childhood home to take photos of the tree in the spot where her mother planted it decades ago. She plans to bring a branch from the tree to her mother’s grave at Riverside Cemetery in Yarmouth.

As Cohen watched the tree go up in Monument Square on Thursday, she realized it would stand right between her dad’s office and the upscale toy store where her mother once worked.

“It’s a Christmas miracle for me. My dad’s office is right there and my mom’s tree is right here and I feel like I’m with them for Christmas,” she said. “It was going to be a tough first Christmas and now it’s a celebratory first Christmas because she got what she wanted.”


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