Life is a series of good-byes. When you leave something, the most memorable – the ones you keep in your heart forever - are those you have shared with someone else. People, places, and even trees have something to give. A child is too busy perfecting the world she is in to realize this. It takes several good-byes until the lesson is learned.
It was in the ‘50’s when we lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in a house perched on a knoll above a road. I had two brothers, both younger than I. Actually the youngest brother was born while we lived there so he was the baby, not having reached the form of a brother yet. I had already experienced the obstinate nature of a brother, and much preferred the baby.
Below the backyard and to the left of our house was woodland protecting a magical bubbling brook at the bottom of the hill. My brother and I were forbidden to go down to the brook. Its’ lure was sometimes too much to bear.
There was a tree in our backyard that helped make up for the temptation of the brook. It was the mother of all trees with drooping fallen branches providing a haven of camouflage for forts and twiggy huts. Whenever we were told to “Go out outside and play,” it was here to my secret shelter that I spent hours creating stories about the members of imaginary families. The generous tree gave shade to them all.
We lived in our house for almost three years. My father was in the Navy, so three years had been a long time for my family to remain in one place. My bedroom was perfect. It was big enough to accommodate twin beds, a dresser and mirror, and all of my dolls and furniture, including a make believe stove. I think it was yellow. My dolls had personalities and needs that I tended to, for I loved each of them the same.
The room had a large closet with a door that shut with authority, hard wood floors, and a window at the end of my bed that looked out at that magical tree. There was also a fireplace. Evidently the room had once been used for grown-ups. I never thought of myself as a child in that room. I made it my home where I was Mother. My life there was complete.
One year my cousin came to live with us. I was nine and she was ten. She was always ahead of me, and it was not fair that she got to be ten when she was staying with me in my room when I was only nine. Her family had broken up so her mother thought it best for her to be separated from the turmoil for a while. So she sent my cousin to my house. To share my room.
My cousin was tall and thin; I was frumpy and chubby. She had short curly hair, which I envied because my mother insisted I wear long boring braids. My cousin also sang like a bird, was a whiz at arithmetic, and quickly became the fourth grade Teacher’s Pet.
I on the other hand, could not even whistle a tune, froze at the sight of an arithmetic workbook, and feared the day I would have to face Mrs. Cheek, the matriarch of the fourth grade. She wore her white hair back in a strict bun and she took no Funny Business, which would mean trouble for a fluff ball like me. Once my mother called me Fluff Ball right in front of my cousin.
I had to move my doll family and furniture to the closet to make room for my cousin’s toys, which were pretty much all books and board games. She usually didn’t like to play house, and definitely not make-believe. I never invited her to my secret huts among the branches of the great tree. She wouldn’t know what to do there, and she’d probably mess things up. The twigs were pretty fragile. Besides, she didn’t deserve it.
Sometimes my cousin was in a bad mood or she’d get whiney. For some reason my mother let her have what she wanted. She didn’t have to clean her plate at dinner, while I had to sit at the table until my peas were gone. I got so jealous I’d kick her bed when she wasn’t in my room. When I could, I escaped to the comforting boughs of my tree and cry. But first I slammed the back door hard.
Naturally everyone thought my cousin and I would have wonderful memorable times together, and all the kids thought I was so lucky to have my cousin “sleep over” for a whole year. Since she was the Popular One (being ten and all), she completely overshadowed me. A month after her arrival, I wanted her to leave. Every so often she would get a letter or package from her mother and you’d think it had come straight from the North Pole she would be so excited. No whining then. Why didn’t her mother just come get her and bring her back to her own family?
I despised her presence and I wanted her out. She did not belong with us. She was everything I was not and she had invaded my refuge. Yet my cousin remained with our family through fall, winter, and spring.
When it snowed, the tree generously provided crannies in her knurled roots that were as big as elephants’ knees, into which we built our igloos. It was weird, but you could almost hear the tree laughing when we hid behind her massive barked trunk and pummeled each other with snowballs. I’m sure the sound was only the wind howling.
When all of the trees’ spring buds burst into lush leaves almost overnight, my brother and the kids in the neighborhood played war on all sides of her sprawling arbor. Hyped up with Spring Fever, they played too rough. Having no place to go, I watched from a distance, but not from my bedroom window where my cousin was reading, sprawled on the other bed.
Finally the year ended and my cousin left. It took me little time to reclaim my territory. Begging my adoring attention, my baby dolls were dressed in their prettiest clothes and put back on their bed where they belonged. I dragged the buggy from the back of the closet and rolled it by the bedroom door for walk to the “Mother Tree”, as I secretly called it. In front of the fireplace, I put the rocking crib and bassinet so the dolls could feel warm again.
I cleaned my room with a vengeance, wiping away the intrusion and concealing my horrid guilt with newly placed knickknacks and dollhouse arrangements. With everything back in place the way it had used to be, I folded my arms at my chest and hollered for Mom.
Oh, how smug I felt when my mother came to the bedroom. I may not have been able to sing, but I sure could put a house in order! When she came to the doorway with the baby in her arms, I just knew she would promise never to let anyone intrude again.
“We are moving next month, you know. The packers will be here in two weeks. ” My mother’s announcement was a sentence of doom. Her face did not have the smile I had expected.
Sure enough, as had happened many times before and would dozens of times again, everything we owned was packed up and shipped to another town far away, and our house was empty. My bedroom was as vacant as my imagination. Every doll I owned was in a cardboard box on a truck. The stark room had no purpose anymore.
Our Ford station wagon was packed solid with suitcases, blankets, pillows, paper bags, and the baby’s playpen in the rear, where he napped and played while we traveled. Dad hollered, “Hurry up! Let’s get on the road!” It was time to leave.
Before I turned away from the door to my room for the last time, I glanced at the window where my bed had been. There, waving merrily was my tree. She stood strong and powerful against the blue sky, her summer adorned boughs reaching outward, as if to to embrace any child who needed a magic home. Tears burned my eyes when I realized it was too late to play with my cousin beneath her.