When I was a little girl, it seemed gigantic. I didn’t think I’d ever grow big enough to climb up in it or get back down without assistance. Usually my sister or one of my female cousins would put me up on their shoulders and push me off to the lowest branch and someone already up there would grab my arm and pull until I was able to straddle it. Once in it, climbing to the tree top was simple. You only needed to have a little monkey in you which each of us had abundantly. And then there was the time that I trusted one particularly mean male cousin to help me up there and left me by myself to twist my foot when jumping out. It might have helped if I’d had my eyes open, but it was just so high in the air that I couldn’t watch myself crash.
For a while we had some wood piled up to help us reach the first limb. Sometimes, we snuck a wooden ladder to the tree. Eventually, there were pegs nailed up the length of the trunk that made climbing up and down a breeze.
This was the old apple tree at my grandparent’s house. It was located across from the barn and an old shed and at the edge of the massive garden that separated the pastures from the homestead. It was just far enough away that we kids could get into mischief without the adults seeing what we were up to. Yet, it was close enough that from the high branches we could see all activity in the yard, first or second level porch, and all the action near the chicken coop, outhouse, or old kitchen.
We often picked apples for our grandmother to fry up with Sunday dinner. I don’t remember the type of apple, but I remember how my mouth would pucker when eating that sour fruit. It was sort of a rite of passage among the cousins. You were not a big kid until you could eat a whole one without whining, making faces, or claiming you were too full to finish it. It was also a challenge because the adults told us not to eat to many of them because we’d get tummy aches and diarrhea since they were supposed to be cooking apples. I think it was just a threat because I don’t remember anyone ever getting sick.
Of course, there were also many apple wars. We divided into sides and battled. We’d run from each other. We’d hide and sneak up on each other. And when we aimed to hit, we put every ounce of force we could muster behind it. That one mean cousin really hit hard and used to bruise me fairly badly at times. I remember once he offered to let me be on his side and he was going to take on everybody else. I thought this was really awesome because he always won. I also thought it would be great for a change not to have the dickens beat out of my body by apples. Well, Mean Cousin was a jerk and while everyone was running from him, he turned on me and pelted me. I cried and cried. And this time revenge was sweet. The many, many girl cousins whooped the tar out of him. I even recall someone (probably my sister,Peg, since she was famous for not letting anyone mess with her little sister. She saved that delight for her alone!) smushed a rotten one all over his face and made him cry.
Eventually, I grew tall enough to climb up there by myself. The tree fort of mischief gave way to becoming a place to listen to our transistor radios without the older people complaining about our music. Then, finally we girls were told we should be acting like ladies instead of tomboys. On occasion, my cousin and I still climbed it as teenagers, not so much of a challenge any more but more of an ingrained part of our bonding that ran deeper than blood and into the levels of real friendship. By that time the tree was starting to weather.
Even after having children of my own, the tree still stood. It even continued to bear fruit. I let my boys eat the apples and warned them of tummy aches and diarrhea, not because it ever happened to me but because I was continuing the tradition. I let them climb and swing from the dying, breaking branches.
Every time I visited, the tree became smaller. It wasn’t that my perception differed as an adult. Time and nature had taken a toll on my childhood monument. It had transformed into an old man hunching over with limbs becoming gnarled. Eventually the green didn’t come back one Spring, and it no longer bore fruit. The branches continued breaking and the trunk started to hollow out.
To my dismay, my uncle cut down the old apple tree of my childhood. It made good kindling for the wood stove in the old home place. I hope it ignited many a hot and roaring fire. I’m sure the fires that burned from that tree kept everyone in the house as warm and snuggly as the memories of that tree keep me.