I was lucky to have a preserved youth. My mom still lives in the house where I grew up. My room is pretty much the same as when I left it for college, chocked full of books and old toys. I remember being in bed at night and watching the shadows of the tree out back glisten in the full moon on my faux wood paneled walls. I’d count seconds in thunderstorms and hear the storm winds hush the cicadas.
It was a horse chestnut tree. Not the usual for the elm lined streets in my Chicago summer. The tree was magnificent tall. In spring, sticky shiny terminal buds blossomed into clusters of white flowers which turned into golf ball size spiked orb seed pods. Walking out to the car in the morning was an adventure, the husks of the seeds really were dangerous. Up to a centimeter long, the dense spikes could pierce your skin if a large seed fell. When the husk was peeled off, a shiny slick brown seed rested inside to the delight of the neighborhood squirrels. I’d shuck my own seeds, smelling the pith as I escaped the astringent seed to use as a wishing stone.
We had an old rusty yellow slide propped up against the trunk, we’d climb the slide, turn around and slip back onto the worn patch of dirt at the base.
I suppose the tree is important now because it is gone. Chopped down, stump removed. Goodbye leafy shade.
My eight year old summer, the tree had a wasp nest in the high boughs. Our neighbor, Mr. Steele climbed up in the tree and sprayed the nest that looked like the paper mache balloon pinata I had made earlier in the year. The nest broke when he knocked it down and you could see some wasps frozen, climbing out of the hexagon nest. Dead in their attempt to escape. I took the nest and put it in a plastic grocery bag for show and tell. I kept the nest in a cupboard in the pantry for the waning days of summer, it smelled awful.
We began a tree house on the first level of big jutting limbs where the tire swing swung, fixing two by fours in a square around the trunk. We realized soon that the trunk would occupy most of our interior and abandoned the project. The boards remained.
The squirrels sat high in the tree and shed the husks, eating the nuts inside. My father was sure that they would purposely aim the spiky shells at him and it became a fun game. The abundance of squirrels found names and eventually nested in our attic, the kits running laps in our gutters.
I don’t remember the day they chopped down the tree, only the bleak branches and the tree guy amazed that a horse chestnut had survived this long in the northern environs of Chicago. He said there were less than a hundred in Cook County and this had been the biggest one. His tool belt was frayed.
The tree is important for other reasons. All of our first day of school photos were posed next to the tree out front. Our smiles registered. Behind the fence, hanging above the roof was always our real tree. The tree we knew as our own. Every spring, some errant lost stashes of the squirrels bounded out of the soil. The lawn mower knocked most of them, but my sister and I coerced one sapling through three winters. We always had hope for growth under the shade of repose. None of the saplings could bear the harsh winters or contaminated soil. We still tried until the end.
This tree hid me. It gave me. The smell of the torn leaves, broken stems, the sticky buds for sharp husks consume. Just remember, that’s all.