I look at the ten-inch bolts I purchased. They are heavy, rust-resistant steel rods with a screw on one end and a square head on the other. I wonder if they are strong enough to hold the four-by-four-inch posts that protrude past the back end of the two-door Jeep Cherokee. The vehicle that delivers the children to hockey practice, playdates, church, school, and baseball is unique. It is one of the last Cherokees made with a manual transmission.
I walk the two acres of wooded area past the clearing where the house was built thirty years ago. I step over fallen trees, rotting trunks, tons of leaves dead from countless seasons of winter. I search for rocks, boulders really, large and heavy enough to use as a base to prevent the posts from shifting once they are set rigid and strong. I find them, one by one, and place them in the wheelbarrow I purchased when I first bought the house. Every homeowner needs one, I figured, just like a lawn tractor, power washer, hedge trimmer, and a host of various garden tools. Suburban living encourages cautious jaunts into agriculture, forestry, and conservation, all supported by house accounts with Home Depot and Hollandia Nurseries.
I am building a playground from scratch. I don’t want the prepackaged, precut set available to be delivered and installed by a professional. I want permanence, a claim to settlement, a stake in destiny.
I am building a presence of my fatherhood.
I slide the sheets of exterior plywood that will become the subflooring of the tree house from the Jeep. I unload bags of quick dry cement that will form the pilings into which the posts will rest. I cut sailcloth canvas in triangular shapes and tie them to available branches of the three swamp maple trees that will form the outside perimeter of the treehouse. I drill holes into the posts to accept the bolts, pour mixed cement into the holes I had dug earlier to fit the posts, level and secure them with temporary lean-to supports until the cement cures. I place the heavy boulders at each post, making sure they rest against them to secure their move even more. I secure two-by-six boards on the sides near the tops of the posts to form a box ten feet high. I add more joists and lay down the exterior plywood sheets. Once I can stand on the new floor, I secure a rung ladder for access to the floor. I add more exterior plywood sideways to create a barrier where my son and my daughter could peer out safely. The canvas canopies move as the swamp maples bow to the wind, but the treehouse stands, rigid and strong.
I dig a trench from the back deck of the house to one of the posts of the treehouse. I lay a PVC pipe across the length of the trench and thread electric cable through the pipe. I connect the cable to the outlet near the deck and install an exterior outlet on the inside wall of the treehouse. I place exterior, waterproof floor lamps illuminating upwards, lighting the canvas and providing ambient light.
My son and my daughter play in the treehouse for years. They hide and seek, fight imaginary wars, have a thousand picnics, sleep a hundred nights in sleeping bags with their friends. I spend more time commuting to work than living with my family, and those work days provide a comfortable living for them. I am not at home enough, but the treehouse becomes my presence while I am away at work. It gives them adventure, invention, creativity. They imagine, they playact. On those summer nights when I have an opportunity to spend time on the deck, I hear them laugh and talk in their hideaway with their friends, the warm light casting the shadows of their movement against the canvas above them. Then I hear them squeal when I switch off the power of the treehouse lights. Sometimes, that is how they know I am home.
There are no fences between our properties. Many houses are built on two- and three-acre plots, and the space is enough for neighbors and children to walk past the natural berms holding boxwoods and azaleas. Forsythia sprouts around remnants of stone hedges that mark ancient property lines. Baseballs from past generations are found just beneath the crevices of the hedges.
When the children are older, I add a tire tied to a gym rope and secure it to the largest branch of one of the swamp maples. I cut out a hinged opening of the side wall of the treehouse so they can swing off and land on the lawn below. They play for hours. The backyard is a true playground, a workshop for child play, and they busy themselves well into the late summer nights conjuring up scenarios, enacting situations, planning strategies.
The treehouse is their sanctuary. It watches over them, allows them to explore, but in a way that protects them. If they fall from the upper level, they land on soft ground. I make sure the ground near the structure is free from rocks, branches, sharp edges. I install a barrier fence around the perimeter of the treehouse. I insulate the power source from their touch. I pad the interior walls, the floor. The distance from the back deck to the structure is about fifty feet, and there is a full view of the yard from the kitchen, so a periodic watchful eye can monitor the goings-on. Beyond the back edge of the treehouse is the remaining wooded section of the property, where my children and their friends conduct expeditions through the murky woodlands into the next clearing of the neighboring houses.
The treehouse is the gathering place for the children of the area. At times there are as many as ten of them climbing, playing, peering out like sea pirates. I never worry about the treehouse’s durability. It remains, rigid and strong.
I place a metal bench on the front porch under an imposing maple swamp tree that stains the roof shingles every spring. Decisions, reflections, random relaxation occurs here. It is the seat from where I view an expanse of lawn before the road and watch my son fuss with his car, where my daughter decides her Halloween costume, where my father-in-law asks me for advice about intimacy issues with his wife.
Most of the lawn is in front of the house, a hundred feet from the road. I mow that lawn, cocktail in the cupholder, taking in the fragrance of fresh lawn and surveying the stately, gentleman manorship of a modest ranch home built in 1951.
Years later, my son begins to mow that lawn. He is careful, methodical. He attempts designs, spends hours cutting linear arrangements into the landscape. He spends less time in the treehouse and more on the rider mower and homework. My daughter and her friends take charge of the treehouse. Worms and frog trays are replaced by tea service, paintbrushes, and illustration boards. Goldfish cracker lunches sustain their energies.
Both love to catch a baseball. I settle in one of the Adirondack chairs on the front lawn, only to be invited to pitch variations of a fastball, curve or sinker. I throw carefully and evenly. One to my son then one to my daughter. I am always aware of fairness, of equal treatment. My son could throw faster, but my daughter could catch with her right hand.
Now my daughter mows the lawn. She drives the rider fast and recklessly, taking curves that tilt the machine like a muscle car.
Years pass, and the treehouse loses its occupants, but I keep it there, just in case. Just in case we want to go back to our innocence.
My son enters high school and joins the hockey team. The ice rink has an overhead cover, but no walls. I spend cold nights watching him play and watching my daughter run the length of the bleachers at the highest level with her friends, who are the sisters of all the boys playing hockey. The shiver is comforted only by the fireplace at home, and we spend time warming up and taking in the aroma of burning cedar. Warmth comes over us as we watch flames eating up the cold discomfort in our toes and hands. Spats, a black cat with white paws, joins us and curls up at the hearth.
Outside, the treehouse, growing green with moss at its concrete base, its once-bright canvas triangles threadbare and yellowed, stands, still rigid and strong, survivor of rain and snow and wind and cold. It is now worn, abandoned, except for the cat, who finds it a perfect perch from which to survey squirrel, opossum, and raccoon. The occasional visitation by a wandering deer forages the outcroppings from the large rocks at the base of the treehouse now firmly embedded into the ground.
I suspect a change, like one feels from the first chill in the wind of a fall afternoon. I sense a loss of innocence, righteousness, simpatico with the world. Inside, the fireplace is comforting, an oasis of contentment, a primal affirmation of good and right. I want my son and my daughter to be here always in this moment of living, secure and safe in this primitive comfort by fire. I wonder how many times this will happen. I wonder how long this anomaly will last.
The treehouse is now worn and green and abandoned.
My son goes off to college. His bedroom is empty of its occupant and filled with the things of his life as I knew it. But they are of a baby, and a child, not a young man. But we take the back way and meet him at Pepe’s, where I celebrated his birth after he and his mother fell into their first joint slumber on the seventh floor of Yale New Haven Hospital.
My daughter is growing, too, and she adds to the things of her life. It is now her turn to play hockey, as a goalie, but now in a rink that is heated and enclosed. The family unit is still there, strong as ever, just with a longer tether.
We still return to moments of connection. When I inspect the freshness of the fruit bowl, I discover an overripe orange or apple. My daughter wants me to pitch the fruit to her so she can swing at it and watch it disintegrate upon impact. We giggle at the sight of the spoiled fruit exploding into the air. I remember that sense of abandon, of perfect freedom, living and loving unabashedly and passionately, savoring the joy of my own children. It reminds me of when I would turn out the lights in the treehouse and generate screams and squeals of surprise, only to hear laughter when I turned the lights back on. I think of how much control I once had in and of their world, their well-being.
And every day, I feel less able, less capable, like the aging treehouse, slowly witnessing its own demise, but still visible, still rigid and strong.
My son and daughter are now working, functional adults. The tether of fatherhood is now in a text, or in a weekend in Washington, where my son lives. My daughter is soon to leave on her own.
But there is no one left in that home made by the heart, by the tenacity to create something from scratch, to build from sticks and hardware carried in an old Jeep. I think of selling the house. I know this is the right thing to do. I think, I delay, I wait another year.
The treehouse’s side walls are beginning to warp. Some eyelets on the canvas triangles have ripped away from the corners, making the canvas flap in the wind with more ferocity, as if they are releasing their restriction and are pulling violently and repeatedly to free themselves from the ties. The cement is revealing cracks from shrinkage. The posts could use a creosote application.
My daughter wants to leave home. The stuffed animals she has collected throughout her childhood are still in her room. My son’s room has not changed. Trophies line the shelves, high school memorabilia medals, sashes, awards — the stuff of esteem-building at a time of severe inferiority complexes — adorn every available section of the walls. Bits of college material, at least the stuff he was willing to share, are placed in this room that has not seen its occupant for a very long time. My children are adults, and the little affections of childhood, the burgers and fries at the Corner Pub that embraced us with a secure and warming confirmation of things being right with the world, can no longer provide comfort. This is not so much because they have changed.
It is because they have grown, and I haven’t.
It is because my stake, my security, my comfort has been being a father. I am a father to the charges of my job. The actors and dancers whose workplace I manage I treat as sons and daughters. I am a father in advice, in direction, in decision, in dependability. I pitch the ball when needed. I lock the door at night. I change the tires that are worn. I take out the trash, screw the bolt that is loose, check your room at night, one last time. I pick my children up when they are tanked up at a secret party in a parentless household that resembles a small mansion, or stranded because of two flat tires, or unconscious because of a seizure, grateful that there is no barrier in our relationship does not make me their first choice in calling when they find themselves in a dangerous predicament. I stand, rigid and strong, when they need compassion as well as reprimand.
I sell the house. The new owner has grandchildren. She is divorced, but her intimate friend is a builder, and he will refurbish the warped walls of the treehouse, replace the swing rope and the tire, clean up the moss and mold, replace the canvas sailcloth. He comments that it is overbuilt, but that is probably why it lasted all these years. I am pleased it has a new life.
My son announces that he has met the love of his life and will marry soon. I meet her. She is warm, engaging, attractive, intelligent. There is nothing I can find or see or feel about her that does not make me think she is the perfect match for him. And him for her. I think of what I need to do, how I can continue this new take of father to this new person. I wonder how my relationship changes with my son. I prepare a speech, one that will not be embarrassing to him or his new wife and their friends. I begin to write.
I say they have shown, in every moment together, how perfectly suited they are for each other. I mention that their togetherness aspires to serve things they have yet to imagine. I hope their love is unspoiled by requirement, unedited by condition, impervious to doubt. I say their love is perfect, because it is by choice, rigid and strong.
I say the most telling significance of their commitment today is in how many people they have affected by their actions, how overwhelmingly proud and happy they have made two sets of parents, how they have joined two families who likely would have never met and now who hold each other’s friendships with affection, basking in the celebration of a match made truly in heaven.
I proclaim joy that what they have created for all of us today, their friends, their relatives, her brother and his sister, and especially their parents, is so extraordinary it will take a lifetime to enjoy the pleasure of seeing them both in a forever embrace of each other. I feel I have made a good fatherly impression without making a fool of myself. I hope I am right.
I remind my son that I once saw him tuning his guitar with a computer app. I told him one string was flat, assuming he could hear it. But he, the mechanical engineer, preferred to use the computer to assure its tone.
I believe that somewhere between physics and faith, a plane that flies is still a miracle. Yet when I ask my son why the tips of wings are turned up, he provides an hour-long dissertation on aviation design methodology. I am interested and floored by his response and his knowledge. Somewhere in the middle of my creative spirituality and his practical process lie the genes we share as father and son. I cherish those genes. They are rigid and strong.
I tell him of the moments I wished we could have been together more often, and when I did have moments with him, the worry that I was not spending them wisely enough. I look at the man he has become. I tell him while I happily wander in my soup of unfettered inspiration, he speaks a language of creativity that soars high above any random or exploratory artistic conceit. I reassure him his creativity serves others. His reaction makes me confident. He has character, integrity.
My daughter laments about a rejected job opportunity. I reassure her it is their loss, not hers. A pizza at Pepe’s, the place I introduced her to as a child twenty-nine years ago, soothes her frustration and elicits a dismissal with laughter and good memories. She mentions the time when she brought the pizza up to the treehouse and forgot the last uneaten slice overnight. I remember the cleanup the next day. I say she is lucky the raccoons were hungry. Her laughter, revealing her resilience, is rigid and strong.
There is not enough I can do to hold on to the fatherhood in me. It is my center, my hunter, breadwinner, midcentury peculiarity — an integral part of my being.
I pass by the house where we once lived. The treehouse is gone, replaced by a manufactured playground system with three swings, a trapeze bar combo, and a wavy slide that leads to a trough of water no more than two inches deep. It is constructed with a heavy-duty resin, covered in primary-color vinyl plastics that promise low maintenance, and is crack, chip, fade, rot, and warp-resistant. All the hard edges are rounded to minimize injury and the corners are covered with soft plastic caps, while the chains have rubber grips to prevent pinching.
It is a safe space, without adventure. It is fatherless.
The giant swamp maple that stood by the front porch, staining the roof shingles, and threatening to land a massive branch onto the master bedroom with every major nor’easter, is no longer there. The metal bench remains. I remember sitting there, watching my son spend hours installing and fiddling with the sound system in his car. I remember watching my daughter shoot hoops before she went off to college. I remember scraped knees, jammed fingers, bruised cheeks, hurt feelings.
I remember the treehouse and the lessons learned from adventure, memories rigid and strong.
John spent a career in the theater on tour, on Broadway, at Radio City Music Hall, and many places in between. His articles have appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Inspired Living, Poor Yorick Literary Journal, and Senior Outlook Today. He will complete his MFA in the Creative and Professional Writing Program at Western Connecticut State University in 2019. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.