I recall two trees from the house I grew up in until we moved the summer between fourth and fifth grade. In the front yard we had a crabapple tree that was great for two things: climbing and producing crabapples. It was an easy tree to get into, and I can remember effortlessly finding my way from branch to branch, each increasingly thinner, until arriving at its peak. The crabapples were good for a variety of things, excluding eating, though I’m sure I tried them a time or two. I can still see the street in front of our house blanketed with them as my friends and I waited for cars to run over them, erupting with excitement at each “crunch.” I can’t imagine the neighborhood being too thrilled at the apples rotting along the curb weeks later, but I assume it saved my dad from having to clean them up, so some good came out of it.
In the backyard was a much larger tree. They only way to get into that one was by climbing the fence that separated our yard from the neighbors’. In fact, it was not in our yard but belonged to the neighbors. Still, I remember standing in the V of its trunk and enjoying the view. Then one day a neighborhood friend had the idea to put my younger sister’s blue and red Little Tikes slide into the crook of the trunk. Once it was “secure,” we strategically placed his inch-thick, blue and grey wrestling mat on the ground (safety first, friends). From our fence you could reach the plastic three wrung ladder, and, after making the ascent, slide into midair just before crumbling onto the wrestling mat below. I don’t know how many launches we executed before the neighbors called my parents and sought to eliminate their risk of being sued, but it was fun while it lasted.
I have two distinct memories associated with my sisters and our childhood wagon. It was not a typical, metal, Radio Flyer wagon. The seating area was wooden and painted red, bordered on all sides by a lightly stained wood rim. There were six fence-like rails that could be put up on the outside of that rim, with two on each side, one at the front, and one at the back, all held in by two metal brackets for each. This all combined to make it a pretty versatile toy. The six detachable rails were used as much as bases for kickball or baseball and to mark off soccer goals as they were used to keep children from falling out of the wagon. I can also remember taking all of those guards off, which turned the unit into a surfboard on four wheels, perfect for coasting down the slight hill of our blacktop driveway while steering with the handle bent towards me. It always worked better in my head than in reality.
That driveway hill factors into memory number one of my sisters and the wagon. It begins at the bottom of that hill with the wagon on its side and my sisters on the ground. I’m not sure why I remember this so clearly, but I leaned that day that you can’t pull a wagon full speed down a hill and make a ninety-degree turn onto the sidewalk at the bottom. Lesson learned, and surely lovingly reinforced by my older sister.
My other memory happened further down that sidewalk. There’s not much to it – I just remember pulling the wagon in front of a car as it was coming out an alleyway. My passengers screamed. I stopped. The car stopped. It probably wasn’t as dangerous as it sounds, but it certainly felt like it was at the time, which is probably why it’s burned in my brain.
I don’t think those memories have anything to do with it, but our kids don’t have a wagon.
Coffee was a constant at my grandmother’s home. It was as much a part of the house as the carpet on the floors or the paint on the walls. Some things were often there; you could often expect the scent of peeled potatoes or a yellow cake with chocolate frosting waiting on top of the refrigerator. Depending on the time of day, you might anticipate walking through the back door to be welcomed by the sounds of General Hospital in the living room or country music on the kitchen radio. But you could guarantee that there would be coffee, and if it ever ran out, the Bunn-o-Matic’s speed made sure that the drought didn’t last long.
With the promise of coffee came the certainty of conversation – of stories from the past or arguments in the present or predictions about the future, all discussed with mug in hand. Strangers were welcomed, not simply to the house, but to the discussion with the loving command, “Have a cup of coffee.” Sometimes those conversations were as hot as the Folgers that fueled them. The ones I remember most, though, made you time your sips carefully, always aware that laugher and a mouthful of hot liquid don’t mix well.
There’s a Corel mug from my grandmother’s house that sits on the top of the cupboards in our kitchen, bedecked with bright flowers. It’s one of the few things I truly wanted from her house after she died. I think I’ve used it once. I don’t know that there’s any philosophical reason it remains empty. Maybe I’m scared I’ll break it, which is always a possibility for me. Maybe it’s because of all the other mugs I have. Used or not, it reminds me of grandma’s home – a place where coffee and conversation mingled. A place where everyone held a mug-shaped ticket that earned them a seat at the table and the chance to listen and be heard.