I grew up in a neighborhood full of children. Most of the families had 1 or 2 kids, what one would consider a small family. The two large families consisted of mine, with 3 children, and the family at the top of the hill with 4 children, all boys. It was a lively neighborhood, and we all played together on the tree lined street called Juneau. I remember vividly the change of seasons and the joys of those early days of my life.
Fall would have us donning our Halloween costumes to trick or treat throughout the neighborhood. It was a time of innocense, when there were no poisoned candies, no apples filled with razor blades. Our apples were covered in caramel, and the candies had every type of sugary, delicious filling in them. We went from house to house without any fears; large bands of kids in costumes of all kinds. I can remember being a fierce tiger, a skeleton and a ghost. But the thing I remember most was the joy of being with my siblings and friends. The wind blown leaves racing ahead of us as we made our way from house to house.
Being in Texas, our winters were mild, but they always brought at least one or two snow or sleet days. Days when we would wake up with a feeling of wonder as we pulled back the curtains to see a landscape covered in white. My brother and I would run down the hall and stand staring out the back windows at the ever so rare scene. The newness of it would have us making one track of footprints through the dazzling white snow so as not to destroy the beauty of it. We would walk through this one trail until we could no longer resist the temptation to throw ourselves into the powdery perfection.
On those beautiful winter days, we would hike through the snow, dragging our sleigh behind us, the 2 miles to the golf course to find some snow covered hills to slide down. In the evening, we would head home, the sun setting brilliantly on the glittery whiteness surrounding us. We would warm ourselves by a roaring fire built by my father in the stone fireplace that made up one wall in the den. The fires would be so hot, you could not sit near them. We would place marshmallows on sticks, and stretch our arms out into the heat of the fire and watch them cook. My brother liked to brown his, but I liked mine charred. I would let them catch fire, then blow them out and peel the cooked outer part of the marshmallow off and place it in my mouth. My father would sit in his chair and watch us, sometimes telling us stories about his life as a boy in Wisconsin.. There was the time he and his uncle found the arrowheads in the newly plowed field on his grandparents farm, or how he used to walk to school in the snow and ride his bike 15 miles every Friday to the farm to help out over the weekend. Years later, sitting at his funeral, I would thank God that I absorbed every word he said.
Christmas would descend upon us in a flurry. My mother would bake cakes, cookies, pies and a whole host of treats for us. On Christmas Eve, being that my mother was Italian, we would have a traditional midnight Italian dinner complete with pizza pie, spaghetti and manicotti. My grandmother would roll out the pizza dough and spend the entire day in the kitchen. Oh, the smells would make your stomach rumble. All of my parents close friends would attend, and I would struggle to stay awake to hear them talking into the wee hours of the morning.
One Christmas, my brother decided to stay awake and hide so he could catch Santa Claus. He was apparently unsuccessful, as in the morning I would find him tucked snugly into bed. He claimed that Santa brought him there from his hiding place under the coffee table. Who knows, maybe he did. I can now look back and imagine the loving arms that lifted him and carried him down the hall, placing him gently into his bed. I have felt the weight of my own children in my arms, much like my father did that Christmas Eve.
In the morning we would leap from bed and run into my older sisters room and wake her. Oh the wonder of running out to see the presents under a tree that reached to the peak of our 15 foot ceiling. There would be stuffed animals that my father would claim came alive in the night, dancing and playing and we would find footprints made of ash going from the fireplace to the tree and back again. I can still recall following behind my mother later in the day as she vacuumed them up.
One Christmas, I remember waking at 5a.m. and going out to the den with my brother. He was around 12 then, and he told me we could not open presents, but I could pick up the little animal family that was sitting out unwrapped for me from Santa. Jack made a palate by the still burning fireplace, put another log on the fire, and we fell back to sleep with the lights from the trees in our eyes. He was a precious brother to me.
Spring is a blur in my memory. I recall how the Easter bunny would actually hide our baskets, and on rousing Easter morning, we would race through the house looking for them. He was a tricky fellow, and would fake us out by puffing out the curtains to look like a basket was behind them. One year he hid my brothers basket so well that one hour later, we still could not find it. We woke our parents to tell them, and they helped him find it. It had been tied to a string and hung behind my mothers art easel in the den. The baskets would be filled with chocolate footballs, a big hallow chocolate bunny, jelly beans, peanut butter filled eggs and a whole host of other assorted Easter candies. When we were very young, he would also bring a stuffed animal or toy.
Those seasons were wonderful, but our time to shine came at the end of spring when school let out. Summertime sticks out in my memory like no other. It was time for catching fireflies in the big backyard with my father, the smell of grilled steaks, rolling down the hill next to our house, and sleeping in the backyard under the stars on the carpet of St. Augustine grass so well cared for by my parents.
All of these things are so vivid to me, but the thing that I remember most about summer is the creek.
The creek was where my friends and I basically lived all summer long. My first introduction to it was at a very young age. I slipped out of the house one day following my brother and his friends down to the place that is etched in my very being. It was filled with giant oaks, towering high up into the sunlight. Small streams flowed throughout its massive acreage, filled with fish, reptiles and amphibians of every shape and size,. Tall grasses bent in the breeze, growing as high as they like without the management by mankind.
It was a glorious place, full of mystery and danger, and I traveled its trails and streams from the tender age of 5 up to adulthood. My brother was my idol, and where he went, I went, no matter how hard he protested and made it difficult for me.
“GO HOME” Jack yelled at me through his clenched teeth. I stood my ground, and did not turn back. I knew he was too gentle and kind to ever hurt me. That is why I never listened to his threats.
“I am telling you, if you don’t go home you will have to do everything that we do. Including climb the old Oak”, Jack threatened. The old oak was where he and his friends had continued building a tree house started by the older brothers of several buddies. It was a massive tree, easily 200+ years in age. The first platform that was built in the tree was about 15 feet off the ground…..a long way for a 5 year old to fall.
“I don’t care. I can do anything you can do. Doesn’t matter that I am a girl and smaller” I spat back. Jack turned on his heels and started trotting in the direction of a dead end in the road. We lived about 6 blocks from the beginning of what we called the creek. It was several thousand acres of forest that had not been developed as of yet, and the neighborhood kids ruled over it.
I ran as fast as my legs would carry me. At the end of the road, there was a metal road block, and I climbed over it and entered the dirt trail that led down among the trees to the old oak. Upon arriving, Jack and his friends had already climbed its trunk and were sitting on the first platform of the tree house.
I shielded my eyes and gazed up at them.
“If you want to be with us, you have to at least learn how to climb up to the first platform”.
I started for the massive trunk, and reached up to grasp the first rung of the ladder. The rung was placed high so that small children could not climb the tree. “Stupid boys” I thought. It was a primitive ladder, nailed there so many years ago by boys eager for adventure in the limbs of the massive oak. I pulled myself up, swinging my foot to the next rung, only to miss it and drop to the ground.
“See, I told you that you are too little. Maybe in a few years….”
“NO” I screamed at him. I reached up again and grabbed the rung. With every ounce of strength in my little body, I flung my weight upward and my foot snagged the aging piece of wood. I pulled and struggled, scrapping my bare knees on the bark of the tree, and the next thing I knew, I was standing on it, and clutching the second rung of the ladder. I heard a collective sigh of exasperation from my 10yo brother and his friends. I ignored them and started the effortless climb up the rest of the ladder. Up, up, up I went, until the ladder ended at an enormous branch that extended to the right like a fork in a road.
The branch was huge. So big I could not get my arms around it. It extended about 10 feet out, and that is where the boys, along with a few of their older brothers, had built the first platform to play on. The trickiest part of climbing this tree was not getting up the ladder. It was getting from the ladder to firm footing on the large branch. You had to extend your upper body away from the trunk, lean your chest across the branch, then let your feet swing off the ladder and hang precariously, 15 feet off the ground. Which is where I found my tiny self, before my brother could yell at me to stop. I knew instantly that terror had seized me and I was frozen on my perch for the rest of my life.
I started crying and said “Go get Dad”
“No” Jack calmly said as he inched out onto the branch. “Just don’t look down. Now, pull yourself up onto the branch and straddle it.” He reached out to grab my arm and I cried, “Don’t touch me, I’ll fall”. He backed away.
I whimpered and struggle to inch my body away from the trunk so I could crawl up and straddle the branch. My shorts snagged on the bark, and I had to reach down with one arm and pull them lose. My remaining arm held a death grip on the tree. I then inched my body up onto the branch and found myself laying perpendicular to it, with my arms and legs wrapped around it. Okay, now what.
Jack had eased himself back toward the platform
“Okay. Now stand up and walk across the trunk to the platform”. Jack stated with authority.
STAND UP??????? What was he talking about. I couldn’t fathom ever getting back down the tree, let alone standing up and walking across the limb, with the ground so far below.
“What if I fall?” I cried.
“You won’t. The limb is huge. It is harder to inch worm across it than it is to just walk.”
First I sat up, my legs gripping the branch in a vice. I reached back and used the trunk to steady myself as I slowly eased myself into a standing position. I still remember looking across the length of the branch at my brother and his buddies, vowing in my mind that I was just as brave and strong as they were. I took the first step, still balancing with my hand on the trunk. The next step had me on my own, walking across the rough surface of the oak like a acrobat on a tight wire. I recall that it took about 10 steps that first time on the tree. Later, when I was 12, I would bound across it in 3 steps.
The last step I lunged forward and grabbed onto the platform and crawled on top of it. I sat up and could feel the branch swaying just a tad. I looked around at the boys, and my gaze fell on my brother and I recall a mixture of relief and pride on his face. We sat and talked for a bit, and then it was getting dark, and we heard my fathers shrill whistle calling us home.
Getting down was more terrifying than the trip up, but the boys went first, and my brother guided me down, lifting me off the last rung of the ladder and setting me solidly back on the ground.
When we got home, I was in for it. My mother just about had a fit that I took off without her knowledge, and forbid me from ever going to the creek again. She would have died straight away if she ever knew the lengths that I would go to follow my brother, her only son, wherever he went. That was only the beginning of my adventures with him, but it was a wild start.
My brother is now 46 years old, and I am 41. He is a missionary, at times living in places like Tunisia and Morocco, Africa. At present he is settled down in the US with his wife and 2 children.
When I look back on my life with him, I am constantly reminded of that day at the old oak. It is no wonder that the green oak is top on my list of favorite trees. It is such a majestic, seemingly wise tree.
The oak, like most trees, is made of both heartwood and sapwood. The heartwood is in the center of the tree. The sapwood, which provides nourishment to the tree, surrounds this inner strength. All wood starts out as sapwood. It is with age and growth that the sapwood becomes heartwood. Broken limbs, insects boring into it, fire; they all threaten the heartwood. It is amazing that some trees are hundreds and even thousands of years in age, and yet they stand.
A few years ago, progress came to our old neighborhood. All of those beautiful acres of forest were turned into housing developments. The metal road block where our creek began was removed, and asphalt was laid down over the trails I walked as a child.
The Old Oak, having towered over its spot by the side of a creek for more than 200 years, was cut down. A house stands in its place. For the life of me, I will never understand the ignorance of this. Its wood did not fail it. People did.
Like the oak, my relationship with my brother will always stand strong. We grew up together, loving and encouraging each other; nourishing our relationship like the sapwood does for the oak. As time passes, age will strengthen us.
Like heartwood, only stronger.