A few years back, I found myself a couple thousand miles east, sitting in a car,
in front of the house where I grew up. There was no one home so I stepped out into the street, sat on the fender and studied
It was strange to see. Although
it was the same structure, in the same location, few things were as I remembered. The concrete porch had been replaced with
a wooden deck. The old wooden screen I so often slammed going in and out all summer, was now a beautiful architecturally designed
The windows were custom, double pain replacements
and the roof was new and striking. The house, now surrounded by a cedar fence and bathed in a distinguished new color, looked
as though it could be featured in a design magazine. I counted the other houses to the end of the street to verify I was indeed
looking at the right one. I shook my head when I realized it truly was my former home.
At the end of our road, across Webster Avenue, was now a parking lot paved for the
expansion of the hospital that had seemed miles away and of another world when I was a kid.
As I studied the house, the one thing that remained constant was the maple tree in
the back yard. But now, forty years on, it was huge. The canopy covered the entire area. I marveled at how large the tree
had grown and as I remembered where it had come from, childhood memories flooded back.
When I lived in that house as a boy, although we were in the city, five houses north,
across the road, was “The Woods”. Nearly a mile further north was a hospital and when I was growing
up, the land they held for future expansion was undeveloped and covered in trees. The plot was about 3/4s of a mile deep and
a mile wide. It was wild and glorious. Every boy from the neighborhood spent our free time in “The Woods”
The area had lakes and a river running through it and it was filled with trees. Thousands
Looking back, the lakes were
actually low areas that filled with snow melt and rain and the river was a drainage ditch that ran South to North. To all
of the neighborhood kids it was a forest, a paradise that we lived near and fantasized about and a magic place where we spent
We gathered there after school,
weekends and all summer long roaming through the trees. In the winter, five of us, all 8 years of age, spent time hiking through
snow, traversing ice filled ponds and the river. We often came home with wet shoes and wet pantlegs. Our families got together
and told us that if we couldn’t stay dry, if we continued to ruin our shoes, we would each be grounded for a week.
That Saturday, we all made our way across the tundra of the woods until we came to
the river. The actual ditch was about four feet across and covered with ice. It ran the entire distance of the woods so rather
than take time to go around, I decided to negotiate the barrier. As I stepped on the ice, it splintered beneath my foot and
I got “a soaker”. I tried to catch myself and the other shoe broke through as well. Now, after all our warnings,
my shoes were both wet. Three of the other boys chose different areas to cross but each suffered the same fate. We knew we
would eventually have to face our punishment but decided we could avoid it if we waited until the leather dried before we
went home. One boy, Bud, decided to make a smarter choice and went to a small tree growing from the bank. He felt he could
use the branches to help him slide across the ice and prevent having to face his parents and the punishment we had all been
Bud reached across, took hold
of the tree and began to lift himself and skate to the other side. As he attempted to cross the ditch, the small tree bent.
He slipped; he fell. He landed full body. Bud broke through the ice and lay in the water.
We were doomed. Our futures awaited us. We held the same dread as though we would
be forced to face the electric chair.
we made a uniformed decision and each of us removed his shoes. In addition, Bud stripped out of his wet gloves, wet coat and
wet shirt. Then we all sat in the snow to wait. All five of us with damp stocking feet and Bud in dripping pants and t-shirt.
We waited while our things hung from tree’s branches to dry.
Since it was near freezing, the sun was going down, and Bud’s lips were turning blue, we had to
take action. After about fifteen minutes, we watched Bud put his wet clothes back on as we forced freezing shoes on to our
feet and we each returned home, like defeated soldiers, to face our executioners.
survived the punishment. Later that spring, my neighbor Mike joined me at my house. In the far corner of my backyard, there
was another tree. A twenty-foot Weeping Willow with a tangled mass of crossed branches that were great for climbing. They
were also very brittle.
That afternoon and we decided
to see who could get the highest by climbing the fastest. I was about half way up when Mike sailed past me toward the ground,
a branch in his hand. He survived but my Father decided after that, the tree was now off limits.
A week later, I found myself floating down to the ground with another branch in hand
and several additional broken ones that helped ease my fall. That day, although unhurt, I was told in no uncertain terms that
my days of climbing the Willow tree were over. I was both saddened and angry.
The following morning, I went down the street to the woods and found the perfect climbing tree. It had
a trunk that split into two a couple feet up with branches sprouting from each. it was small enough that I could pull it from
the ground with a bit of effort, so I removed it and took it home.
I explained to my mother that since I no longer had a tree to climb, I was going to plant the Maple
so mykids would have something to play on.
She smiled, went with me to the back yard and chose a spot away from both the house and the neighbor’s fence.
She retrieved my father’s shovel and helped me dig the hole.
Each year, from that day forward, I carved my initials and the date in the bark of that tree. When I
left home there was an annual record of my life at that house.
But some months after planting
it, on a lazy summer afternoon, I sat in the grass next to my tree with a friend from the next street. Phil and I talked about
it and decided we would create a business. We went to the woods and pulled up a dozen new maple trees. They were each two
to three feet tall. We intended to sell them door to door for 25 cents each. We knocked at every house on my block and then
went on to his. Although we felt the price was a bargain for an actual living tree, no one else saw the allure to our proposal.
Each of the neighbors, though pleasant, turned us down. An hour later we sat on Phil’s
front porch, dejected, with our trees. His five year old sister came out and asked what we were doing. She idolized her big
brother and when Phil explained our enterprise, she became excited about owning her very own trees and wanted to invest. Ten
minutes later, after retrieving her savings, his sister became the proud owner of a dozen maple trees. She’d only had
enough for ten but since she was buying our entire stock, we threw in the extra two as a bonus. Phil and I split her $2.50
between us and I returned home a proud and successful businessman.
An hour later, there was a knock at the door. It was Phil. Behind him stood his dad. Apparently, his
father didn’t understand the daughter’s need for a dozen maple trees. I returned my portion of the profit and
our business ended.
Twenty years later, I pulled up in front of the old house with my wife and two kids.
Our daughter was four and our son just over a year. I gathered my courage and went up the steps to the door. A woman answered
with a questioned look as I explained who I was. I assured her I didn’t want to impose and wouldn’t ask to enter
her home. I had just one request.
and lead us to the back yard. There stood my tree. The bark had become old and age worn. The records of my time there, carved
so many years before, were no longer visible. Those marks had long since become hidden and covered over by life itself.
My daughter looked in wonder as I told her she could climb up. While my wife gave
her a boost and I watched her climb higher, I raised my son and balanced him between two strong limbs He was guarded by my
wife while I stepped back to watch. My heart melted as I observed the scene as though I were still eight years
As we thanked the new occupant of the house, we
went to the car and I drove away that afternoon, I did my best to hold back tears. My childhood dream had been