My dad and I built the Taj Mahal of tree houses sometime in the 80s, constructing two levels: stairs ascending to the first and a ladder reaching to the second. An enormous oak stretched its cool shade over both stories and the tire slung from its branches.
Two swings would hang from the underside of the top floor, one plastic safety seat for my toddler siblings and the other a traditional PVC one in which I would swing so high I’d experience blissful half-seconds of weightlessness. Monkey bars extended down one side of the structure, with galvanized rods that left blisters on my hands as I tried to cross them.
We put many hours and a great deal of effort into completing that project. Carefully, I carried condensation-covered plastic stadium cups filled with ice water or lemonade out to our worksite, and I hammered nails into the pressure-treated lumber. I dangled my legs off incomplete platforms, feeling safe even without the railings because my capable dad was supervising our work.
I say all this as if I did something more than just talk my dad’s ear off as he toiled away at the project.
The finished structure was an excellent place to play. Later in my childhood, I could retreat up the ladder into the leaves of the oak, to hide from enemies, be they imaginary or simply imagined (teenage years before having a drivers’ license can be a tumultuous time). I recall reading books up there and climbing over the top railing onto the top of the monkey bars, balancing precariously, tempting fate.
My best friend and I once pulled an elaborate caper where we suspended an orange plastic lawn chair between the tree and the tire swing. I volunteered to be the test lounger. That didn’t end well: I think my parents picked tree bark out of my back for three days. My friends and I spent hours winding up the tire swing until the rope suspended the large, hollow black rubber cylinder (Watch for wasps!) three or four feet off the ground. Then we’d climb aboard and spin until we were ill. Five or six popsicles and a good 45-second spin on the tire swing could do that.
Inevitably, years passed and safety swing became a traditional swing, then the swings came down altogether.
A few weeks ago Mom mentioned in a phone conversation that Dad took down the tree house.
I’m not sure what it was about the news that tore my heart out of my chest. I shot off a distraught text to my childhood friend who had masterminded the lawn chair escapade. She, now a responsible parent, wrote back and said. “Well, Stephanie, it was probably a safety hazard.”
OK … I get that.
But still, I think the demolition of the tree house was upsetting because it was a tangible sign of an era ended. The structure, however dilapidated, had been a visible reminder of time well-spent with my Dad. Some of my earliest memories of his strength as an engineer and planner were coupled with its framework. He got to do his thing (design and construct) and I got to do my thing (talk and imagine), and together we built that tree house.
I live 500 miles from my parents’ place now. I visited the other week, and there was a bare spot where the tree house had been. The monkey bars still stood tall, though not as tall as I remember. Before I had a chance to mourn the tree house’s absence, I headed out to the deck where Dad sat, overlooking the yard. I walked out on the porch in a baggy blue T-shirt with messy hair and no makeup, and he turned and said to me, “Wow, you look very pretty.” I thanked him, and we sat on the porch, talking about not a whole lot for a while, just spending some time together. He explained the design and construction of the backyard fire pit in progress, and I ruminated aloud over some imaginings.
These are the new types of tree house memories, and for them I am thankful.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad!
Do you have any vivid memories of your dad’s presence? Or maybe someone in your life who was like a dad to you?