Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"The Gathering Place"

     I’ve been home alone this week, trapped by snow and ice, and without electricity, like so many others here in the Charleston area.  I’ve had some unexpected quiet time, broken only by the sharp crack of limbs breaking and falling in our back yard. Made me start thinking about how much I love trees.  And one in particular.
     In previous generations, kids in small towns such as ours gathered in sand lots to play pick up baseball games, unencumbered by the watchful eyes of referees or coaches.  Playing long into summer evenings and running home to supper when the sun began to set.  And maybe, once they were driving age, those same kids gathered at the local drive-in, where they compared cars and clothes and ate ice cream under warm summer skies.  These days my teenager and his friends gather at the local high school gym in the evenings to shoots some baskets, and probably discuss the same issues as so many before them.  The gym is their “gathering place.”
     Young kids and old men have a tendency to gather and visit.  I think the rest of us, hurrying from place to place and activity to activity, could learn some lessons from them.
     To get back on track, my brother called recently to tell me he was cleaning up around our old home place and planned to cut down the big tree in the side yard.  He knew he should call.  He knew I would want to know.  He knew I would be sad.  And he was right.  That tree was the “gathering place” of our childhood.
     We were country kids, raised almost seven miles from town.  We rode an old bus to school and back every single day, an hour each way, through winding dirt roads. With dust blowing in through the lowered windows, sweating in the summer and freezing in the winter, it felt like seven hundred miles instead of seven.  I don’t remember my parents worrying too much about our comfort in those days.  I think they worried more about our character.  Riding that school bus taught me many things.  Some good and some bad.  I suffered a little.  But I think now my parents had the right idea.  Suffering just a little bit as a child taught me many good and enduring character traits.  Makes me worry a little for the generation we are raising now.  Afraid they are entirely too comfortable.  Don’t think they are spending much time climbing leafy trees or riding hot buses.
     Anyway, the point is, we didn’t have a ball field or a gym to enjoy.  We didn’t have a drive-in anywhere in Vesta, USA.  What we had was a tree in the yard.   And a lot of boredom.
     It wasn’t just an ordinary tree.  It was perfect as far as trees go.  The trunk was several feet around, solid and sturdy.  It split about four feet off the ground into several thick low limbs that were perfect to get a first foothold, then continued up for forty or fifty feet, horizontal limbs branching off in all directions.  I think God planted that tree as a special gift to Cody and me when he plotted out the blueprint of the world.  Our world was small, and some days never expanded any farther than those cool, leafy branches.
  When we were really young, dad poured us a sand pile.  Oh, the excitement!  There was no frame except for the thick tangled roots of the tree standing proudly above, and no expensive pesticides to keep away the tiny bugs, which we caught and kept for pets.  We buried broken toys we found at the city dump, and old pennies we shined up, then dug them back up, over and over again.  We built elaborate miniature houses from rocks, and used sticks to form long, curving roads and deep lakes, which we filled with muddy water.  We fashioned various schools and churches (although at Cody’s insistence, the schools stayed closed year around).  We tried unsuccessfully to grow plants in our sand pile, transplanting grass cut by the lawn mower and watering it faithfully.
     After many years that load of sand was swallowed by the damp earth underneath, and there remained only a trace of what had been.  Our sand pile was gone forever.
     At some point in those early years, my brother decided he would grow up to be a professional bull rider.  I don’t remember anyone ever telling him it was unlikely.  In fact, my dad hung an old rusty barrel from the low branches of the tree and he commenced to practicing!  I spent countless long hot hours pulling on the four ropes that suspended it, making his “bull” turn to the left and right, bucking and twisting the barrel until he landed in the left over sand pile, standing quickly to throw his hat in the air and wave to the imaginary crowd that cheered wildly.  Those who were surprised that he actually grew up to earn a good living in the Professional Rodeo world were not with me under that tree all those hot summer days.
   I, for one, was not surprised at all.
     On the other side of the tree, we had an old tire swing that was never still.  We were not the only ones who made good use of it, as we often tied unsuspecting farm animals in against their wills, naked broken baby dolls, and even an occasional adventurous adult!  The rope had to be replaced periodically due to use and abuse, as we would sometimes load it down with three or four neighborhood kids at one time and swing high, stretching the tire to the ground, where it would hang and rub in the smooth dirt below until dad climbed the tree to loop the rope over the branch a few more wraps.
     Many summer days found us eating grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking kool-aid under the tree while pretending we were far away from home on a fancy picnic.  We attempted to ignore that fact that mom was delivering discreetly from her kitchen fifty feet away.
     As we got older, we had family birthdays and country church picnics under the sprawling branches, resting afterward, spread out in the shade, slices of garden fresh watermelon resting in our laps, sticky juice dripping from our chins.
     Years later, I grew up and got married, gave birth to my first child, and took him straight home from the hospital to live in our old home place.  I had the satisfaction of seeing him play under the old tree, just as we had a generation before.  It was starting to droop a little, not producing as many leaves.  But it still had the strength to host one more group of children playing happily beneath it’s sheltering branches, puppies and mud puddles close by.  I’m so grateful for that.
     My kids are grown and married now, and many years have passed.  I’ll have my own grandchild next summer.  But I think often of my time as a child, playing under that tree.  It was a simpler time.  A time when “busy” lived somewhere seven miles away in town, and our vivid imaginations ruled our simple country world.  
     When my brother called recently to say it was time to cut it down, I knew in my heart he was right.  It had been leaning slightly, with rotten branches slowly splitting, for several years.  It was becoming a danger in it’s old age.  It was time to let it go.  And so we did.  But it felt like we had lost an old friend.  Some might not understand.  Some might point out that it was “just” a tree.  But they would be wrong.  It was the “gathering place” of a happy childhood.  And gifts like that aren’t easily replaced.  Good memories seem harder to make these days.  Long carefree summer afternoons are fewer and far between.
     I am thankful for the gift God gave us all those years ago.  The seed he planted and nurtured.  I am thankful for those sturdy familiar limbs where we whispered secrets and dreams.  I am thankful for parents who didn’t structure our time and energy, but turned us loose to explore and imagine.  I am thankful that I learned the seasons of life not from a book in the school library, but from vivid changing colors of an old oak tree that allowed me to nap often in its leafy branches, under a calm and clear blue sky.  I am thankful that I got my first glimpse of what heaven may be while lying in the limbs of that old tree, watching clouds drift lazily by, far above my little world.
     I am thankful, most of all, for the gathering place of my youth.  Thankful for the lessons it taught me and the adventures it gave.  My tree is gone now, like it never existed at all.
     But always, always…my sweet memories remain.


  1. Trees, memories!! Brought tears to my eyes. I loved every word of this.

  2. Still as moving as the first time I read it.