The tree was an oak. At least, that’s what I decided. Though it never adopted a specific botanical label during my childhood, the name seems fitting for its sturdy trunk, thick leaves, and unwavering natural peacefulness. It was, however, a bit of a runt. This tree bore no resemblance to the towering monstrosities that dot New England’s many forests and which stretch hundreds of feet into the sky and jut their myriad branches out into a vast, leafy abyss. On the contrary, my tree rose a mere fifteen feet into the air and emitted about as much magisterial wisdom as I did at the age of four.
But to me, it was perfect.
Two main branches split directly at its base at the optimum height for a pair of pudgy toddler legs no doubt scrambling from an imaginary pack of ferocious lions or to the crow’s nest of her pirate ship. The leaves, a striking emerald green in the summer, created a glowing umbrella around its spindly maze of limbs as sunlight filtered through the canopy. It was in this foliage cocoon that I proudly christened the tree “Samantha,” an act that I believed entitled me to full ownership of her leafy shelter.
I imagined the tree as a sort of sister, a silent companion to fill the void of a house without siblings. We seemed to grow in parallel to one another. With each spring bringing new changes, its young buds bloomed, just as I steadily learned to tie my shoes. Our hours together lengthened as I grew strong enough to reach the top branch, and my mother would stare at the heaps of dolls and toys I abandoned in our air conditioned living room for the company of a tree.
My childhood house sat atop a gradual slope of grass and overlooked an expanse of blacktop that formed our neighborhood cul-de-sac. This circle acted as a corral for children to flock together. It was the meeting spot, the watering hole, the boxing ring, and the racetrack, and from my perch in the branches of my beloved tree, I had a front row seat. Samantha stood perfectly positioned in the center of our front yard, with limbs just wide enough to allow for a clear glimpse of the action on the asphalt, as though planted specifically for my viewing pleasure. Nestled in the safety of her boughs, my eyes drank in the scenes before me: the tricycle crashes, the basketball tournaments, the halos of smoke that wreathed packs of teenagers. At times I was disgusted by what I saw, frightened by the mysterious ways of these older, alien children, but nevertheless I watched.
I imagined myself a sleuth, a detective gathering clues for her latest mission, a phantom of the cul-de-sac. From my roost I was a queen, a tiger, a watchman, and a hero, marching a fleet of stuffed animals into battle or leading Barbie on a tour of the savannah.
To my mother’s dismay, I loved to string my bounty of treasured beanie babies across the tree’s rickety outer branches, their timeworn little bodies decorating every inch of the coarse bark. I would step back to admire this bizarre Christmas tree of sorts, oblivious to the warnings that I would soil my fuzzy toys. In those days, it never rained.
Blissful hours in my tree melded into weeks, months, and soon years on end. My times there meshed into a blur of courageous rescue missions, royal tea parties, and afternoon snacks. But as the sunlight began to fade and my imagination grew exhausted, my attention would shift to the happenings of the cul-de-sac below.
With the exception of a few drooling infants scuttling about in their diapers, the children of the circle were older, alien beings. Fascinated, I eyed the girls with their colorful skirts and shining hair, rolling their heavily made up eyes at the antics of the hypnotized boys who sought to please them. There were dirt bikes, cigarettes, and bra straps, such contraband that I had only glimpsed in a few PG-13 movies before having my eyes hastily covered. Had these people known of my staring from those branches I might have been embarrassed, but I was invisible, content to remain an enthralled spectator to this mysterious world.
I watched the neighborhood children transform the cul-de-sac below, but I created my own playground under Samantha’s leafy canopy, safe from the watchful eyes of parents and peers.
This tree was my safe house, my home base, a solitary world where I was never lonely. I was hesitant to allow even my friends to invade this sacred space, and I winced at every delicate limb fractured under a sneaker or leaf shredded by grubby fingers.
Samantha was my window to the outside world but also to my own internal one. As I scaled her low-slung branches and left our yard behind, I emerged into a place where I was whimsical, emotional, and unequivocally myself. Still only five or six, my contemplation was somewhat limited, but what I lacked in reflection was compensated for in creativity. I could lean against her familiar bark and cry, sing, or simply daydream, basking in the warmth of the outdoors without the harsh glare of the world’s countless critical eyes.
Years later, I could see that, though her branches were a place of childhood, my times with Samantha laid the foundation for much of my adult mentality. It was in this tree that I learned that solitude is not lonesomeness, improvisation is the best kind of fun, and that comfort with oneself can be the ultimate solace in this busy world.
On weekends the neighborhood was often marked with the melodies of thunderous rap music, blaring from the bass of an adolescent radio. The usual culprit lived across the cul-de-sac, a gangly boy with tight jeans and combat boots, and his arrivals were far from subtle as he skidded into his driveway with the air of an escaped convict. My father had irritably dubbed him “Thumper” after his taste in music, and I would knowingly roll my eyes as the bass pulsed through the street, feeling as sophisticated in my feigned boredom as the girls that loitered in the cul-de-sac.
In the swelter of New England summers, our neighbors left their farmer’s porches for their living room sanctuaries. Air conditioners hummed in unison across the cul-de-sac, like the rhythmic breathing of a colossal bear napping lazily in the heat.
On these nights, when the children had retreated indoors and the street lay quiet, another side of the cul-de-sac materialized. My mother would admit me to the yard after dark if I promised to stay near the tree, where she could see me, and so I sat hunched in Samantha’s shadowy branches, and observed the nighttime world of my neighbors.
I watched couples argue through open kitchen windows, their muffled voices reverberating across the street like the angry rap songs that Thumper was partial to. Children screamed and hurled utensils against walls, dogs barked, and plates would shatter. Curses could be heard emanating from the neighborhood’s most wholesome mothers, and teenagers stealthily scaled out of bedroom windows for a night of rebellion. My tree seemed so tranquil in contrast to the lives of these people,.
Occasionally a boy across the street would emerge, his mother following closely behind; their shouts pierced the still night air. Though only about twelve years old scathing profanity that would spew from his mouth. Petrified, I watched as he would turn and drive the toe of his sneaker into his mother’s shin, kicking her again and again to stop the woman’s lecturing. After he had stormed back into the house, I could see her still gasping with pain, slumped against the door from her son’s furious blows. Apart from a few playground squabbles, I had never seen anyone attack another person, let alone one’s own mother.
Routines would resume as usual the next morning. I would see the same woman trailing behind her son as they marched to the bus stop. With lunch box in hand she chatted merrily with the neighborhood mothers about recipes and back-to-school shopping. The incident of the night before seemed so far away, so impossible, but I watched as the episodes continued well into the winter months.
I would look at my own mother toting my flowery backpack to the bus stop and vow that this boy would never touch her.
On my ninth birthday, my tree betrayed me.
Always tall for my age, my gangly limbs now shot out in all directions as I sprouted into the beanpole that my doctor had predicted. For weeks, my mother had been claiming that I had grown too large for the likes of Samantha, a notion that I neither considered nor tolerated.
That November afternoon I deftly scaled the tree’s lower branches and ignored the sagging groan of her limbs beneath my weight and the painful brushing of my head against the bottom of her canopy. I looked around, content, finally calm amidst the nature I knew so well.
Without warning, a thunderous crack split the silence. I felt my stomach disappear as I plummeted through the crisp winter air and landed with a heavy thud against the frozen grass below. My hip scraped against the broken stub of the severed branch. Looking up, I gaped with bewilderment through the last of the autumn leaves at my fractured tree, my guardian, my sanctum.
Peering more closely, I was suddenly aware of the deep cracks tainting her once shining trunk, the brittle texture of her upper boughs and her lifeless bark. Slowly, like the November frost creeping along my back, I was met by the sickening realization that our bond had ruptured; we were no longer in parallel. The tree had ceased to grow, but I had not. Caught in the rush of new school years, I had failed to notice my friend’s decay.
I looked around and soon became conscious of my neighbors’ curious eyes staring from across the cul-de-sac. In that instant, sprawled in the dirt beneath a broken tree, I felt naked, exposed. Then I rose shakily to make my way towards the safety of the house.
The next summer, we left the cul-de-sac. I waved a silent farewell to the teenagers and housewives, my eyes lingering over these people whom I had observed so intently, but who knew so little of me. This place would always hold my childhood. When the moving van rumbled around the bend, I watched Samantha, an ordinary tree once more, disappear out of sight.