Life Lessons Learned At the Top of an Apple Tree

Yesterday afternoon the insistent banging of the brass whale knocker on our kitchen door heralded the ritual, almost daily arrival of Jenny, our five-year-old (just) granddaughter. I opened up the door a crack and attempted to affect a frightened voice, asking, ''Who's there?''

Disregarding the question, perhaps because it is my stock recognition of her knocking, she breathlessly asked, ''Grampa, wanna see me climb a tree?'' To which, I, now in the role of a doting grandfather, immediately responded, ''I surely do. Let's go!''

Jenny was still a bit winded from her run through the woods along what she calls her Indian trail, a short footpath of about 100 yards through a beech grove connecting two main wood roads. Jenny had left her parents and small sister far behind as they walked over to visit us. They lived at the far corner of our 15-acre wood lot.

I followed Jenny, as she dashed out to our small orchard beside the house, to what she called her favorite climbing tree. It was a young apple tree, well supplied with small but sturdy branches that attracted Jenny the way a bee is attracted to honey. Scrambling up the main trunk, she used small, supple side branches to work upward.

When a foot slipped she held on tight, feet seeking new footholds. She was remembering well my instructions: ''Whatever you do, don't let go with your hands!'' Sometimes she would slip and end up abruptly straddling the trunk; without comment, she would hang on until another firm foothold was found.

Larger branches along the way slowed her upward progress. Jenny found them ideal for swinging. Her announcement of ''Watch what I can do!'' meant she was ready to launch into space. She'd hang by her hands for a few moments, feet hanging free, and then let go. Pride in her achievement increased in direct proportion to the height from which she dropped. Then it was back into the branches, and upward again, ever higher.

From me she had learned to hang on when bending birches along our woodland trails, where there are many young, slender saplings. On our frequent walks along the trails I would boost her up small trees as far as I could reach. After some rough starts, she learned to hold on tightly as I let her weight slowly bend the trees over until she touched the ground. She would then let go, and the tree would swish back upward.

At times her weight was not enough to carry her down all the way, and she would hang in space, kicking and yelling until I pulled the tree down for her. Now she was on her own, in her own ''climbing tree,'' without my hands to provide security, and she had remembered well.

It has been said that history repeats itself. It surely was doing so now. Jenny's climbing tree is so like the apple tree we had on our property when I was a small boy more than seven decades ago. There is even the limb running parallel to the ground, just the right height for young arms to reach and still provide swinging space.

Standing beneath the tree, watching Jenny scrambling among the branches, I was torn between wanting to keep cautioning her to be careful or letting her work her own way out of predicaments that might arise.

It worked out well, as she always found satisfactory, although sometimes precarious, solutions.

Holding on firmly, she resolutely climbed upward. Finally her head, bright blue eyes flashing and blonde hair flying in the wind, was above the last wizened leaves of late summer. And then came her cry of exultation: ''Look at me now, Grampa!''

Perhaps lessons like ''hang on and don't let go if you slip,'' will be applied in the years ahead, when challenges must be faced and slips must be accepted as lessons to be learned, not reasons for accepting defeat. As I watched Jenny playing among the branches, I fervently prayed it would be so.

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