There are three old apple trees behind our house. They look tough. I've cut some dead branches back, but now probably half of the remaining branches are lifeless with dried bark peeling away.
This spring these three elderly neighbors pulled off an amazing stunt. The branches that still run sap exploded in thousands of blossoms. Pink, white, and red burst forth, sweet scent of apple-blossom filling the orchard. It was a testimony to "hanging in there" and "giving it one last shot."
Some years ago Pam said to me, "Those apple trees are dying, you know." I denied it, saying they just needed some trimming up. I was temporarily right; they have given us a few more years of fruit crops. Of course Pam will ultimately be righter.
I don't want to admit to their decline. These trees were sentinels to my youth, and, well, you know what it means if they are fading.
The three were planted around the time of my birth. My mother told me that she bought them from a travelling salesman. Two are the same with good mid-season apples. A single tree off to the northeast has fabulous late-season apples.
They were young trees when I was young. I spent a lot of time as a kid under, in, and around them. They are placed such that they made bases for eternal kickball games that my brother and I played. I remember sitting on the ground under them listening to Twins games on our transistor radio.
Later my own kids befriended them. By then they were full grown trees and perfect for climbing. Some years ago, my wife engaged a friend to do a painting of our children which hangs in our living room. In the painting, my daughters stand next to the middle of the three trees while my son looks mischievously on from one of the branches.
He is frozen in time in that painting, five or six years old. Out here, off the canvas, our son will turn 18 tomorrow.
Thirty-two years ago we brought our oldest child home from the hospital. I remember after a day or two a sense of melancholy settled over me. I told a friend that it seemed daunting and a little overwhelming that for the next eighteen years I would know where this child was, what she was doing, and who she was with every single moment.
And I did. That eighteen year "sentence" passed for me plus two more. This summer finds our three children in three different states, and I only know vaguely what they are doing. Our days of raising children are over even as our days of being a parent go on.
Looking back, our farm has seen three different eras when children ran across the yard. I'm a little vague about the early years of this place. My great grandparents bought it in 1896, and several families shuttled on and off for a while.
My parents, Sylvester and Alyce, settled here after marrying in 1934, and soon had five children who grew up mostly in the '40s. Fifteen years later, they had my brother and me who grew up in the '60s. Pam and I moved here when our first child was one and watched ours grow up over recent decades.
The first batch was grown when I came along. I only know their childhoods in stories. Their stories became the stuff of legend to me, like the plane my brothers built out of a wagon and boards that they tried to fly off the granary. This was before Sesame Street, before any TV when kids had nothing to do but their chores and whatever their imaginations could conjure up.
The second group was my brother and me. I know that era through the memories of a kid. The third set was my own children, and I know that through the eyes of a parent.
You can certainly tell a place where kids live, whether it is a house and a yard or a whole farm. There are sounds and sights that one only finds where children traipse. Often it comes with messiness: toys, bikes, balls scattered about. And there can be messiness of sound, too: crying, fights, screaming. But there is laughter and giggles that can invigorate as surely as the scent of apple blossoms.
Adults are better at putting things in order. This summer, I won't trip over one toy or clean up one dropped popsicle. But as Tracy Adkins' country song informs me, "I'm gonna miss this." We're better at order, but not nearly as good at spontaneity. There are a lot of things we don't do as well as kids: playfulness, skipping, jumping for no reason.
The three old apple trees that grew with me will be gone in the next few years, cut and stacked for cremation by campfire. That will leave an empty space in the orchard. Pam and I have started to talk about what we might plant in their stead. Whatever we plant there will be a nod toward the future; we won't see those trees grow old.
I've started to think about that future and this place. Will there be another wave of children? Perhaps grandkids will visit some day. Beyond that, who knows?
A couple Sundays ago, we got a reminder about what a child offers to a place. A six-year old daughter of a friend came to visit. Hailey lives in the Cities and has never been on a farm. Upon her arrival, she leapt out of the car, ran to play with the dogs and never stopped running till she fell immediately to sleep on the car ride home several hours later.
She jumped on the trampoline, set up "house" in one of our out-buildings, went for rides on the 4-wheeler and horse, spun on the merry-go-round, sprinted everywhere, barely seeming to take a breath in between. To a city kid, our farm was a big park.
The best part was the effect Hailey had on the big people. She had our soldier-son playing with her. My wife was her "child" for a while in her "house." Sometimes a kid can bring out the kid in older folks. And they can be briefly young again. Like old trees putting on blossoms.