Thursday, September 15, 2011

Up a Tree

"You've never climbed a tree before? How are you 14 years old and never climbed a tree before?"

"There's a lot of things I've never done."

The new brother and sister duo in my neighborhood, who had just moved into the "old lady's house" at the very top of our street (that "old lady", as it turned out, was their grandmother), could not believe it as I stood under the big maple tree in their front yard, watching them ascend into the thick, leafy branches. I had never climbed a tree. I had used my friend Denise's plum tree as leverage to shimmy over her back fence, but Mike and Annie, the newest members of our gang, assured me that did not count.

Climbing a tree was just one of many childhood joys I had never experienced. I was a cautious child with an even more cautious mother who saw mortal peril at every turn. I had never built a snowman, for too much time in cold air could cause my fragile lungs to become pneumonia-ridden. I had never played outside in the rain, for damp air could cause a chill. I had not camped outside, set off a bottle rocket, gone fishing, ridden on a recreational vehicle. Among a neighborhood of tomboys and thrill-seekers, I was certainly an anomaly.

"It's easy," Mike said. "Stand on the lawn chair, put your foot on the big crook, and pull up by the big branches."

My hands shook, for what's easy for a fearless boy can be terrifying for a timid girl with no upper body strength. My friends' eyes peered down on me from dangerously high branches; being branded as a chicken, as it turns out, is scarier than the thought of broken limbs.

I stood on the chair Mike and Annie had dragged around to help everyone step into the massive crook in the ancient sugar maple. That tree had seemed huge to me when we first moved onto Liberty Street when I was three, and now it overtook the top half of our road. I felt reassured by its sheer mass as I looked up into its high, sprawling branches, most of which were as thick as my skinny little legs. Surely it could hold my weight.

Don't look down, don't look down, don't look down...

I pulled and stepped, each tentative step pushing me higher and higher from the safety of the shaded lawn. Finally I found myself as high up as my friends, who told me they had tested all those branches and deemed them safe.

"There," Mike said, as I settled my rear onto a branch close to his, hiding my trembling hands, "you made that look easy."

I looked out. Or tried to. I thought the whole reason for climbing a big, old tree would be the view. But all I could see were branches and leaves.

"Now what do we do?"

"Absolutely nothing."

Annie had taken a book with her up into the branches. As big a bookworm as I, she sat quietly, with her back against the trunk, reading. Mike, all boy and older than Annie but not nearly as mature, threw small sticks at us and blamed it on Annie to try to start a war. Rosi dangled her legs for a while and then inched out to try to find higher sturdy branches. I just sat, wondering what, besides the danger of the climb, made this so special.

Then the wind blew.

It felt both powerful and intimate. The wind was all around me and rattled the leaves in a gentle roar. The branch beneath me swayed but rather than scaring me, it felt reassuring and comforting. Almost like being rocked to sleep. For the rest of that fall, that tree was the only place I wanted to be.

Most days after school found me climbing the tree, seeking cool shade and tranquil breezes either with friends or solo if they had other mischief to get into in the yard. We told our best dirty jokes to each other one afternoon, cackling at each other through the limbs. When Mike and Annie went away for the weekend, their parents gave me $5 and unlimited tree-climbing in exchange for checking on their house every day and feeding and watering their cat. By then most of the leaves were gone and I needed a coat, but I didn't care. I suddenly realized why every kid wants, nay needs, a tree house in the yard.

When the weather turned too bad to climb the tree anymore, my freshman attentions turned to more pressing matters. Our class started selling soft drinks out of the concession stand every day after school and I could escape my home life there for a few semi-supervised hours. When I wasn't selling Cokes and smiles for 50 cents a pop, there were blood-thirsty volleyball games between the choir kids and the band kids; talk about your grudge matches. I got a part as Amaryllis in The Music Man in the spring and life became about afternoon rehearsals and set decoration. I outgrew such childish things as tree climbing.

Years later, I was driving down the street and saw linemen for both the power and phone companies parked at the top of the street under "my" old tree. Men in cherry pickers with power tools were clearing massive old limbs away from the lines. To do so, they practically had to remove the entire middle of the tree, including most of the branches we used to sit on and swing on. I worried that my old retreat was in danger, that it wasn't going to survive such an impressive pruning.

I felt a sudden desire to knock on Mike and Annie's door and ask them to join me in the old maple one more time. But they were both, like me, "grown up." We could drive, we had jobs, we went on dates. Who I was friends with was no longer dictated by who lived within a short walking distance. I put away childish things. I was an adult, and my tree-climbing days, short though they were, were behind me. There was no time for such foolishness.

That didn't make me want one more afternoon up in a tree any less. I had an epiphany, there on the eve of my high-school graduation: I missed childhood. Maybe more so than most, because I had really just started to enjoy it before it was gone.

I can't drive down my mom's street anymore without looking at the old tree, which is still standing and has been pruned many times. Mike and Annie's parents, like all of our parents in the old neighborhood, still live in our childhood homes. Sometimes when I drive past, and it's a beautiful afternoon, I see an old lawn chair pressed against the trunk. When I see that, I know to look up; one of my old friends' own children, who go to their grandparents' after school, is in the tree. They don't go as high as we did, but I see them there all the same.

Childhood is fleeing, sometimes lasting just one season. There are worse ways to spend it than doing absolutely nothing in the branches of an old maple tree.

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