Memories of the Big Tree

It is right there on the screen in front of me: dark green and voluminous. I could be a bird flying above it’s fully loaded branches. Instead I am 2,879 miles away, sitting at my desk computer. As I entered my parent’s old address on GoogleMaps, I fully expected to see it long gone and replaced with some structure. A smile crossed my lips and I leaned forward in my chair. It’s still there! How about that! Modern technology transported me across the country and back in time to a special place in my heart. The image stored in my vault of memories stared back at me. The Big Tree.

Time can sometimes shrink objects or places. When we are young some of the things we see appear very large, then as adults we return and realize they were not so big after all. Like the halls of my elementary school. That’s not how it is with this tree. It was huge when I was growing up, and from the image I am seeing on GoogleMaps this tree is still quite large and robust. The green blob of it from the aerial view on my screen shows its circumference almost as large as a house that sits across from it. I called my mother, who lives on the other side of town, to ask her about the Big Tree. She guessed it to be a Pistachio tree. She remembered it having beautiful, flaming red leaves each fall. I do not recall any red leaves nor any pistachios. I definitely would remember if there were pistachios falling from the tree. But she may be right. The pictures that come to my mind are mostly from the innards of the tree.

My arms could reach around the trunk with fingertips barely touching. I think may have attempted this hug measurement every time I visited the Big Tree. There were no branches hanging low enough for me to simply stand on the ground to grab ahold of and climb. That did not stop us for making many jumping attempts, running, standing, swinging our arms and bending then stretching. Too high. I needed the help of a friend boost to me up, or the banana seat of my bike to stand on. If the goal was to hang by my hands, it wasn’t so hard. My dangling feet could hold the bike steady while my friend joined me on the branch. We’d hang as long as we could until the skin on our palms and fingers pulled painfully. Landing with a thud on the hard dirt ground, our feet tingled like needles from hanging so long in mid air.

If the object of our play was to climb, we had to be a bit more strategic. One of us would first hold the bike while the other grabbed onto the branch (like we had before), then hold the banana seat steady as the other grabbed hold of the branch. Then like monkeys we had to take turns curling our legs around and pulling ourselves up into a straddle position over the knobby hard branch (The thought of sitting like this now makes me wince). Next we had to wiggle over to the larger crevice in the center of the tree trunk. The successful feat of ascending up the Big Tree felt like a huge accomplishment, and called for a rest on the coveted perch. We could easily sit in the Y, or make our way higher into the tree on other thick branches. The best part was being hidden behind branches thick with leaves. We watched cars drive by, heard dogs bark, telephones ring, or distant mowers. Sometimes it was so quiet we’d just listen to the breeze ruffle the leaves in the tree. Aside from the bikes laying at the base of the tree, nobody had a clue to our whereabouts.

Many afternoons were spent at the Big Tree. Climbing, hanging, or meeting up with a friend. “Meet cha at the big tree” we’d say on the telephone. It was only about 1/2 a mile down the street from my house. In those days we could wander the neighborhood without an actual designated destination, my mom always encouraged us to go out and play. Just be back before dark. Our springer spaniel, Lucy, was given that same freedom to explore. Sometimes she’d follow me down to the tree and just to lay in it’s shade. If she grew bored or thirsty, she’d meander back to our house. She was a sweet dog, who never bothered anyone. Unlike the Mayes’ dogs. They stood guard in front of their driveway which was a couple houses beyond the Big Tree. If I wanted to ride my bike to my friend Emily’s house, I had to bravely and quickly ride past those dogs. Sometimes they weren’t out front, or were not close to the road. Those are the times I hoped for, for then I had a chance to race by without being chased and barked at. I cannot remember whether there were 2 or 3 or what breed they were (might even have been yellow labs), but I’ll never forget my heart racing out of my chest as my feet pedaled as fast as they could, and I yelled “Go Home!” With a shaky voice that tried to sound tough but revealed my fear. It was almost worse when I didn’t see the dogs, as the anticipation of them darting out from the tall hedge baring their gnarled teeth scared me more than seeing them in the distance. There were times that the pass-by had been so scary for me that when I was ready to come back home, I called my mom and pleaded with her to bring the station wagon to come pick me up. Perhaps the stress of passing the Mayes house is why I usually only ventured as far as the Big Tree.

I had other natural hide-outs where I liked to play. One was the dark cave inside the dense Oleander shrubs lining our driveway. This was where the neighborhood tough guy once held a half-smoked un-lit cigarette butt and dared me to put it to my lips, then threatened me with something like “You tell anyone? And I will beat you up!” My other escape was high atop the overgrown Juniper bushes that bordered the back of our property. From my secret spot, I would watch my mother watering her flowers with the hose. I spied on her as I laid flat and invisible on the scratchy canopy of Juniper. I don’t know why I had such a desire to be unseen, but the best spot for being out of sight, was back in the field behind our house. The undeveloped land was just acres of grass that would grow so tall that I could simply lay down and disappear. Never worried about bugs or snakes, without any blanket under me, I laid on the long soft bed of dry grass. Above me stretched the blue sky with an occasional bird. If there were clouds, my imagination created images from their shapes. I’m not sure how long these moments lasted. Time was irrelevant. Summer days and weekends were long. I never wore a watch. My decision to return from my hide-aways was prompted by hearing my name called out by my mom or dusk approaching. Or like my dog Lucy, hunger or thirst.

The shrubs, bushes, and trees around my house and neighborhood hold so many memories for me. Living there for twenty years, I can still picture every plant, rock bed, brick wall, and fence. Physical details were etched into my mind. From a spot I hid crouched in during a game of hide and go seek, like behind the laundry room where the garbage cans were kept, or where I crossed-over during a Brownie ceremony next to our fish pond. I remember it all.

As an adult, I now simply gaze at shrubs and trees. As a child, I would be exploring those same shrubs and trees by crawling under them, or climbing up into them, just to see whats hidden behind the leaves. My arms were covered in scratches, hands and knees darkened with dirt. Bruises and scrapes also came from my time in the Big Tree. One particular day, I was hanging along a high branch with my legs wrapped on one end and my arms wrapped on the other. I do not remember what cause it, but I fell flat on my back. I gurgled and couldn’t move. I don’t remember how my parents found out, but they raced to my aid and took me to see Dr. Cook. That’s when I learned what kidneys are. Instead of saying I hurt my back, I’d tell people that I fell from a branch at the Big Tree and hurt my kidney. That did not stop me for too long. My days continued to be filled with visits to disappear in my secret hide-aways in the nature around my house. Including the Big Tree.

*This is a piece I wrote several months ago in my memoir writing class. I chose to share it here on my blog because I am brain dead from a long day of house repairs and puppy corralling. Also because remembering my sweet dog Lucy from my childhood makes me smile, and I needed to smile.

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