Author’s Note: I am the 4th generation to grow up on our family farm. As the house and surrounding land hasn’t changed much since the house was built in the late 1700’s, my childhood was wonderfully unique. Stories about my amazing family and our adventures will always begin with, “Stories from My Childhood.”
We live in an age of helicopter parenting. We don’t let our children ride their bikes down the street, we send them to school with cell phones and watch them out the window when they are in the yard. We fear what will happen to them if we aren’t forever vigilant, but the sad thing is that we are ruining their childhoods in an entirely different way; we have taken away the freedom that used to coincide with growing up.
My parents gave my brother, sister and I a lot of freedom as children. Living on our family farm that was built in the 1790’s, I’m guessing that they just had so much to do to keep the horse-hair plaster walls from falling down that they figured we could entertain ourselves. As long as we could hear them when they hollered or rang the bell on the porch for dinner, we were in the safe zone and the outdoors was ours.
My brother has always been resourceful. Even as a young boy, he could take things apart that were broken and put them back together and make them work. He was pretty handy even at the age of eight, so when he decided to build a tree house, my parents gave him the go ahead. Or maybe I’m remembering it wrong; chances are he didn’t even ask and the tree house was half built before they noticed. Either way, he decided that he needed a tree house, gathered up the tools he needed and went at it. My dad had sheds full of every tool you could imagine and piles of wood all used to keep the farm running and the house standing, so taking a few planks and a hammer didn’t cause any alarm.
I wasn’t as handy as my brother, but I could hold a board or hammer a nail. I’m also a year and a half older and I was still taller than him, so I could reach higher up the tree. I was a bit of a gopher; I didn’t mind fetching snacks and tools and offering decorating advice that he ignored. It seemed like we worked on the tree house for months, but it was probably just a week or two. My brother put in much longer hours than I did; I think he was actually lobbying to sleep out there, but there were too many wild animals howling at night so he chickened out. The tree house was really his creation, but when I remember it, I like to pretend I had a lot to do with it.
We didn’t grow up in the era of constant picture taking, but I do wish my mom had taken a photo of that beauty when we were done. We built that magnificent structure on the largest pine tree in our yard, and despite the fact that sap oozed out of it every time we hammered in a nail, it was the perfect spot. We were covered in sap for most of that summer. It was a drought year, and we already weren’t bathing all that often because the well was going dry, so we went down to the stream a lot to wash up. I’m fairly certain that the ice cold water just solidified the sap to our skin though, and I smelled like Pine Sol until my freshman year of high school.
In my memory, the tree house was about twelve feet in the air. Except perhaps it was only about five, because my dad would only let us use the short ladder and not the extender that he used to paint the house or fix shingles on the roof. He used words like, “untrustworthy” and “irresponsible” and “unsafe” and left us with our bucket of rusty nails and the disappointing short ladder that was only high enough to get the basketballs out of the net when they got stuck.
We nailed mismatched boards up the trunk to climb on and there we were, covered in sap and up in a tree high enough that we could see when cars were coming down the long lane before they got to the house. I can’t remember if my dad pitched in; he must have helped at least a little bit, but in my mind we did it all ourselves. If we did have help it was minimal, and I think it was less of a tree house and more of a tree platform, but it was something and it was ours. It was a magical triumph.
Although my brother and I are close in age, our sister is six years younger than me, five years younger than my brother. That summer, she would have been four and of course, a major obstacle in our tree house building scheme. We were flying below the radar, not bothering our parents, staying out of trouble unless she wanted to play and ratted us out for not including her. For our own good, we decided to get her on up to the tree house to keep her quiet. It was all fine on the way up. My brother was ahead of her in the tree house with his arms extended, and I was behind, pushing her scrawny little body up the rickety ladder. Then. Oh, then. What happened next is a story that has been told over and over by my traumatized mother and was even part of the toast I gave at my sister’s wedding.
My sister wanted to get down, but she was afraid of going down the ladder backwards, so my brother came up with a plan. Remember, he was like a miniature Macgyver, and had already rigged up a pulley system so that he could get what he needed without having to climb up and down the ladder all day. So, we used what we had to solve the problem.
We had been using a burlap sack for snacks and tools to be raised up to the tree house using the pulley, so we simply put her inside the burlap sack. She fit in nicely (she was fairly small for a four year old) and I climbed down the ladder to meet her at the bottom as my brother lowered her from the pulley at the top.
It was going pretty well until my mom looked out the bathroom window and saw a wiggling sack with two tiny hands sticking out of the top (probably hanging onto the rope) being lowered out of a tree and knew that her youngest was not, in fact, playing in her sandbox like she thought she was. We had lowered my sister down out of a tree in a burlap bag and my parents have never let us forget it. It was worse than the time that we weren’t watching her and my mom found her under the rabbit hutches sitting in bunny poop. It was worse than the time that she scratched her eye on her fingernail because we put her on a cot mattress and sent her down the stairs in a flying carpet experiment. She was fine, but we treated her with no more care than a bag of flour and my poor mother was just relieved that we hadn’t dropped her.
My dad was relieved that he had trusted his judgement and kept us far away from the big ladder.
All story telling aside, I’m grateful for parents that gave us freedom and real tools and allowed us to have adventures. It must have driven them insane when they realized that we were building a tree house in a pine tree, but they never interfered or tried to help us come up with a better plan. My dad might have helped us make sure that the structure wasn’t going to fall down and kill us, but short of that, he kept his distance. They didn’t offer to take us to Home Depot to get a pre-fab model, or forbid us from doing it all together. My mom didn’t stand at the bottom of the tree shouting warnings of, “Be careful!” “Hold on!” and “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” They just stood back and watched from a safe distance and let us explore, cover ourselves in sap, and in the process, they raised three resourceful and interesting children.
My sister came out of it all fairly unscathed (I think) or at the very least she has the best stories to tell at parties about how her siblings accidentally and repeatedly tried to kill her all in the name of fun.
To this day, when I think of tree houses, I think of pulleys. When I think of pulleys I think of burlap sacks. And when I think of burlap sacks, I think of my brother and sister and our amazing childhoods and I smile.