From the beginning it had been his tree. His lookout. His headquarters high up in an enclave of waxy leaves that looked like little green canoes, and impossibly white bowl-sized blossoms. Every day after he got off the school bus he ran down our street up our driveway toward his tree. By the time the rest of us walked up the driveway he would be high up in the shiny green leaves nearly hidden, looking out on the world below. The best possible vantage point a seven year old could possibly have.
The tree was a magnet for Ralph. Whether we were going out to play in the yard, arriving home, or heading out we ended up calling Ralph down out of his tree. At one point hoping to curb his tree climbing habit, I got the chain saw and sawed off all the lower branches. He just learned how to pull himself up to the available limbs. And he grew taller.
We worried that he’d fall. And he did several times. We worried that he’d break the branches. And he did break several of them.
I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve called out “Ralph, get out of the tree!”
The tide turned in his favor one day when Dina was scolding him and calling him down out of the tree. He told her something that stopped her in her tracks and changed the course of the matter from then on. “Mom!” He said matter of factly, “I’m a boy. I have to climb trees!” I don’t know where he got that, but there is something true and beautiful in his logic.
In the summers we inhaled the sweet honeyed perfume of the magnolia blossoms. In the fall we collected the tan velvet “fairy jackets” that peeled off of the fading blossoms. And in the winters we watched for the faceted seed pods that would slowly dry out and reveal their blood red kernels, as hard and smooth as polished stones.
Last night we got 6 or so inches and heavy wet snow that froze and accumulated on the trees. A lot of trees went down and many people were without power. The weight of the snow and ice snapped the trunk and main branches of the magnolia. The sad sight greeted us as we looked out our windows for the first time this morning surveying the winter wonderland. The tree covered with white snowpile was reduced to half its height. Long yellow daggers of exposed heartwood poked up forlornly through toppled masses of magnolia leaves and branches. The tree had three or four main trunks. All but one of them broke about halfway up.
“That was my tree!” Ralph cried as he looked out the window. Through tears he told us what a special place it was for him. “I have so many memories there and now I’ll never be able to climb up there again!” We all hugged him and he told us how from the top of the tree he had once spotted a birds nest and watched the mama bird bring little seeds clutched in her feet, and fed them to her baby birds.
Later that morning I took the same chain saw and ruefully cut up the fallen branches. I saved one. Its graceful twists and turns made me realize there was an opportunity here. I trimmed it up and put it in the garage to dry for a few weeks or so. By this summer, with a little shaping and finishing, it will make a perfect walking stick for Ralph. A part of the old magnolia tree – a lifelong companion.