If I have any lingering regrets from raising my first son, Alyosha, now a young man of 19, it is that I never built him a treehouse.
It really is a great pity, because there is a big old silver maple growing along the banks of the Penobscot River, right in our backyard, which has the appearance of having been crafted for that very purpose.
There it is, perfectly framed by the window through which I look out. When silver maples get their feet wet, they rise from the earth with multiple trunks, looking like bouquets. And they can be massive - so high and wide that their branches become pendulous, like willows, sweeping the earth to and fro during summer storms.
Alyosha was not immune to the seduction of this maple. Many times when he was little, I watched him scurry up his choice of trunks. He'd find a comfortable place to recline and face the river, his feet braced against another trunk that angled off before him. There is something about a child and a tree, as if the tree were made for the child, and the child for the tree, attracted to its twin virtues of beauty and utility.
Often when I saw Alyosha suspended in the embrace of the silver maple, I thought: "I must build him a treehouse." But it never came to that. Summers turned to falls, and falls to winters, and Alyosha turned from grammar school to middle school and suddenly - poof! - there was a young man walking up the aisle of the high school gymnasium to receive his hard-earned diploma.
However, life is remarkable for its abundance of second chances. Looking back, I realize that there have been precious few dead ends or points of no return.
Just as quickly as Alyosha had outgrown even the consideration of something so juvenile as a treehouse, another little boy came into our lives. When we adopted 5-year-old Anton and he saw our tree, well, he didn't let out a Tarzan yell, but he did set hands and feet to branches that dipped down as if inviting him for a ride. Off he went, ascending into the inner sanctum of the maple with skills that would give a chimpanzee a run for its money.
Recently, while browsing in a bookstore, I came upon a lovely coffee-table volume about treehouses. The designs were spectacular, the product of imaginations far more creative than mine. But as I looked at the flourishes, fine joinery, and one with a gabled roof, I realized that even in the world of treehouses, there is such a thing as too much. Were these structures intended for kids, or were they simply celebrations of the creators' whimsy?
After perusing the book, I suddenly knew exactly what I was looking for. A child doesn't need his treehouse to be made of maple, ash, or cherry. What kid even knows what these woods are? He doesn't need a balustrade or a roof with a venting skylight. All he needs is a place off the ground that can make him master and commander of a little piece of sky.
Robert Frost, in his poem "Tree at My Window," described a tree he was observing as a "Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,/ And thing next most diffuse to cloud." In other words, trees are not just things, but whole realms that speak of dreams and possibilities. To tell the truth, whenever I've read this poem I've always been slightly disappointed that Frost didn't complete the picture by adding a wry gloss, such as, "could there be a finer place for a house among the boughs?"
At this moment, here in Maine, spring is little more than a suggestion, the slowly swelling buds a promise - but a promise kept in seasons past. The silver maple I have my eye on for Anton's treehouse is still transparent: I can gaze right through its branches at the coursing river beyond.
As for the river itself, this time it is doing its bit to help me make good on my intentions. As its initial spring rush ebbs, it is depositing a flotsam of old planks and other assorted lumber in my backyard, right at the foot of the silver maple, as if saying, "Here. Look. Now you have what you need. No more excuses."
This time there won't be. I hammered in the first board yesterday.