There’s a big old gnarled tree on Broad Avenue. It sits outside our neighbor’s fence, with a grassy area between it and the street.
The tree has been there forever. It has lost branches, regrew branches, shed its leaves, and come back yet again in the spring, looking the same as the year before. Butterflies and birds used it as a resting spot.
My childhood best friend Carol and I used to use the tree as our own private mailbox. There were numerous knotholes and crevices in that tree. We’d leave notes in it for each other all the time. Top secret stuff.
It’s kind of funny to think about it now, because the tree was probably 50 yards from Carol’s house and about 100 yards from mine. But being kids, we thought it was exciting and secretive to leave notes in it for each other.
Then we grew up a little. We would ride our bikes down Broad Avenue at high speed, no hands on the handlebars, air rushing through our hair, right past that tree.
We’d lean our bikes against our tree to catch our breaths and deal with whatever scratch or cut or brush-burn we got while riding and often falling off our bikes. We would sit underneath that tree, talking about whatever pre-teens talked about. Carol had a transistor radio that we’d listen to while lolling in the shade of our tree. The neighborhood kids would meet up at the tree and decide what was on the day’s agenda. Would we walk to Woolworth’s, or swim at my house, or wade in the creek?
When we were in grade school, we decided that we would become hippies. We donned headbands and love beads, took our shoes off, and talked in hippie jargon.
We reclined under our tree, listening to appropriate music from Carol’s trusty transistor radio. Songs like “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” “Fortunate Son,” and “What’s Going On?”
We gave the peace sign to everyone who walked by. And the tree never laughed at us. When we were in high school, we’d run by that tree without a second thought, on our way to sleepovers or swim parties, and later, the movies or a friend’s house. The tree stood alone yet keeping watch over us and our shenanigans.
I walked by that tree on my way home from Carol’s at least a million times. The same with her. That tree was so deeply rooted, in the ground and in our lives.
After college, Carol and I drifted apart. We were no longer joined at the hip. We stayed friends, we stayed in touch, and we met for an occasional dinner. I got married and had kids, she got married and moved to Pennsylvania, and her parents moved out of that house. And the tree stood steadfast through all our life changes.
Then my husband George and I moved back to Ewing, in the house across the street from my childhood home. I could see the tree from our backyard.
I mourned when it lost a few huge branches during Superstorm Sandy. I was sure the tree was a goner. But no. There it remained, spreading its feeble branches over our old hangout among the wild lilacs and dandelions (and probably countless crawling insects), with the butterflies still hanging around the tree like Carol and I used to.
Years rolled by and it became my kids who rode their bikes down Broad Avenue in front of the tree. They sat under it to rest and catch their breath.
That tree is steadfast. That tree is non-judgmental. That tree is scarred and battered yet firmly rooted. Time doesn’t matter to that tree. That tree has always been there. Like my friendship with Carol.
When I see a bird perched on its branches, I think of you, Carol. When I see the tree swaying gently in the wind, I think of you. I foolishly believe that part of you still exists in that tree. And even though I know I’ll see you again on the other side of the stars, I’ll treasure that tree till I, too, am a butterfly in the breeze.
Ilene Black has been a resident of Ewing for most of her life and lives across the street from her childhood home. She and her husband, George, have two sons, Georgie and Donnie.