Note: I've been thinking a lot lately about my childhood...so here's a short memoir recounting a memorable event at my grandmother's house.
"What in the hell are you two boneheads doing?" my cousin Jamison yelled to us with a swagger as Shany and I dragged pieces of cardboard to the front yard. Jamison is four years older than us and has always had a mouth on him reflecting his lower-middle class, industrial upbringing, but my cousin Shany has always been able to hold her own. "What does it look like we're doing, you nimrod? We're building a treehouse. Go get a hammer!" she shouted back at Jamison who stood on the small four by four stone stoop that jutted from our grandmother's house. Ignoring the banter between my two cousins--the most lively of the nine of us--I continued to haul scraps of cardboard from my grandma's basement--a basement of kids' dreams--mazes of boxes filled with clothes, National Geographic Magazines, and old electronics. But we discovered the jackpot of all boxes: empties.
Grandma's Birch tree that stood along her driveway was always a thing of wonder, so it's not unusual that we originally chose it for our treehouse. It's white trunk and thin limbs stood out among the more typical midwest trees--Cottonwoods, Elms, Oaks--that dotted Second Street in Columbus, Nebraska. As we began to pile our cardboard scraps at the foot of the Birch tree, Jamison, who I think respected his younger cousin Shantelle for her moxie, dropped the hammer at her feet, muttering as he walked off-- "You better think twice before you start hammering on Grandma's Birch tree." I stood at the foot of the Birch tree, looking up at it, my eight year old self admiring it's stark white bark that came off in thin strips. "He's right. Grandma would kick our assess if we tried to build the treehouse here," Shany yelled as she began dragging the cardboard pieces to a sturdier Cottonwood directly across from the Birch tree. We may have been naive kids, but we weren't stupid enough to mar the tree we knew our grandmother loved.
I'm not sure what sparked our idea to build a treehouse. It could've been something we watched in one of the many movies Grandma often had us watch to keep us entertained, but more likely the treehouse was spurred from pure childhood curiosity. With a hefty pile of flattened cardboard boxes, a hammer, and a few thumb tacks we stole from the hutch in grandma's kitchen, we got busy. Shantelle, who has always been braver than me, climbed up the tree with the hammer in one hand and a pocket full of thumbtacks. My job was to hand her the cardboard pieces. Shany crouched in the tree and swung the hammer wildly sometimes coming into contact with the thumbtacks. Working as a team, we began nailing up the walls of what would soon be our treehouse--an escape from our younger siblings.
"Too bad we can't find any wood for our floor," I shouted up the three feet to Shantelle who hammered the last of the thumbtacks into the final wall.
"We don't need a floor. There's enough branches to sit on," Shantelle said matter of factly. I nodded my head in agreement. Even though Shany is only eight months my senior, she always seemed to know more. It was a fact I accepted until we entered the seventh grade when suddenly her superiority and my budding hormones were too much to handle.
Once the four walls were in place, it was clear we needed a way to get up to the tree house that wasn't climbing since that's what all the treehouses in the movies had. A ladder was out of the question due to the absence of wood. Grandma's garage was typically off limits for the grandkids, but we knew it would have what we needed to make our ladder. The garage held grandpa's old white 1961 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88, covered with a large gray wool blanket and nestled among boxes. Grandpa had been gone for at least a few years, but his tools still hung on the peg-board nailed to the back wall of the garage. Grandma was busy making lunch--six separate meals since us six grandkids could not decide on one meal--so we used the opportunity. Shantelle stood with one foot in the garage and the other on the patio facing the back door that led from the kitchen to the outside of the house. "Just get in there and find stuff we could use to get us up to the tree house," she barked as I tip-toed in the garage and around grandpa's car afraid I'd fall into it and scratch it and be spanked into next week. I peeked around the boxes, looking at the floor and walls for anything that could be used as a ladder. "Hurry up!" Shantelle shouted at me. My eyes scanned the concrete walls and floor desperately hoping to find something--an old ladder or maybe even a rope. In the left hand corner of the garage, opposite of the Oldsmobile, I spotted a five gallon bucket and an old rope. Relieved, I grabbed the items and retreated to the backyard. Safely on the east side of the house away from any kitchen windows and out of sight from our grandma, I showed Shantelle my findings and explained we could tie one end of the rope to the bucket and throw the other end over the tree limb that cut through our tree house to be a sort of pulley system whereby one of us, who would have to already be positioned in the tree, pulled the other up. It clearly wasn't a perfect system, but that fact wasn't revealed to us then until I tried the process myself...
I stood with my feet planted in the crook of the tree's branches and leaned forward, my chest pressed against a thick branch. The rope and bucket were in position, and Shantelle stood inside the bucket and held onto the rope. "Ready?" she asked. "Ready!" I shouted in response. And then I tugged and pulled and heaved on the rope while Shantelle remained firmly planted on the ground. She shouted at me to keep pulling and to put some muscle into it. After an exasperating three minutes of pulling with no progress, I threw the rope down and shouted, "Well, maybe if you weren't so fat I'd be able to pull you up!" Convinced the plan would work, we traded places. I took my post in the bucket, and Shany braced herself in the tree to try and hoist me. "Well that was a stupid plan," she muttered after thirty seconds of struggle; "Just climb up here!"
I shimmied up the tree and joined Shany. We sat with our backs pressed against the tree limbs reaching out towards Second Street, the four walls pressed in on us. I sat with my legs straddling a branch; my feet dangled beneath me as I wiggled the tacks to make sure they were reinforced. "It's pretty nice," I mentioned looking around at our new space about three feet wide and three feet deep. "What do we now?" I asked Shany as she balanced--her legs stretched in front of her, ankles crossed, while her back rested on a branch. She shrugged her shoulders, so we just sat there enjoying the unusually cool summer weather perched in the Cottonwood, a picture of childhood innocence.
The treehouse fell down the next day as a result of a Nebraska thunderstorm and too-loose thumbtacks.Though we grew up in the same town only a few blocks from each other, my cousin and I drifted apart by the time we reached high school, and our relationship would never remain the same as it did the day we built the treehouse. We are no longer a team; we are now more like casual acquaintances--each with our own lives, our own houses, our own families. My grandmother is also gone--her body consumed by cancer's grips, and the house with all its trinkets and tchotchkes that stood on Second Street is now someone else's house in which to make memories. The treehouse may have been doomed from the start, but we built it anyway.