"I am building a presence of my fatherhood."
I look at the ten-inch bolts I just purchased. They are heavy, rust resistant steel rods with a screw end with octagonal nuts and a square head on the other end. I wonder if they are strong enough to hold the four by four posts that protrude past the back end of the two door Jeep Cherokee. The vehicle that delivers the children to hockey practice, playdates, church, school, and baseball is unique. It is one of the last Cherokees made with a manual transmission. One of the last vehicles that celebrates the indomitable character of adventure.
I walk the two acres of wooded area past the clearing where the house was built years before me. I step over fallen trees, rotting trunks, tons of leaves dead from countless seasons of winter. I search for rocks, boulders really, large and heavy enough to use as a base to prevent the posts from shifting once they stand rigid and strong. I find them, one by one, and place them in the wheelbarrow I purchased when I first bought the house. Every homeowner needs one, I figured, just like a lawn tractor, power washer, hedge trimmer and a host of various garden tools. Suburban living encourages cautious jaunts into agriculture, forestry, conservation, all supported by house accounts with Home Depot and Hollandia Nursery.
I am building a playground from scratch. I don’t want the prepackaged, precut Gymboree available to be delivered and installed by a professional. I want permanence, a claim to settlement, a stake in destiny.
I am building a presence of my fatherhood.
I slide the sheets of exterior plywood that will become the subflooring of the tree house from the Jeep. I unload bags of quick dry cement that will form the pilings into which the posts will rest. I cut sailing canvas in triangular shapes and tie them to available branches of the three swamp maple trees that will form the outside perimeter of the treehouse. I drill holes into the posts to accept the bolts, pour mixed cement into the holes I had dug earlier to fit the posts, level and secure them with temporary lean-to supports until the cement cures. I place the heavy boulders at each post, making sure they rest against them to secure their move even more. I secure two by six boards on the sides near the tops of the posts to form a box ten feet high. I add more joists and lay down the exterior plywood sheets. Once I can stand on the new floor, I secure a rung ladder for access to the floor. I add more exterior plywood sideways to create a barrier where my son and my daughter could peer out safely. The canvas canopies move as the swamp maples bow to the wind, but the treehouse stands, rigid and strong.
I dig a trench from the back deck of the house to one of the posts of the treehouse. I lay a PVC pipe across the length of the trench and thread electric cable through the pipe. I connect the cable to the outlet near the deck and install an exterior outlet on the inside wall of the treehouse. I place exterior, waterproof floor lamps illuminating upwards, lighting the canvas and providing ambient light.
My son and my daughter play in the treehouse for years. They hide and seek, fight imaginary wars, have a thousand picnics, sleep a hundred nights in sleeping bags with their friends. I spend more time commuting to work than living with my family, and those workdays provide a comfortable living for them. I am not at home enough, but the treehouse becomes my presence while I am away at work. It gives them adventure, invention, creativity. They imagine, they playact. On those summer nights when I have an opportunity to spend time on the deck, I hear them laugh and talk in their hideaway with their friends, the warm light casting the shadows of their movement against the canvas above them. Then I hear them squeal when I switch off the power of the tree house lights. Sometimes, that is how they know I am home.
When the children are older, I add a tire tied to a gym rope and secure it to the largest branch of one of the swamp maples. I cut out a hinged opening of the sidewall of the treehouse, so they can swing off and land on the lawn below. They play for hours. The backyard is a true playground, a workshop for child play, and they busy themselves well into the late summer nights conjuring up scenarios, enacting situations, planning strategies.
The treehouse is their sanctuary. It watches over them, allows them to explore, but in a way that protects them. If they fall from the upper level, they land on soft ground. I make sure the ground near the structure is free from rocks, branches, sharp edges. I install a barrier fence around the perimeter of the treehouse. I insulate the power source from their touch. I pad the interior walls, the floor. The treehouse is the gathering place for the children of the area, the starting point for expeditions conducted through murky woodlands into the next clearing of the neighboring houses. At times there are as many as ten of them climbing, playing, peering out like sea pirates. I never worry about the treehouse durability. It remains, rigid and strong.
Years later, my son begins to mow that lawn. He is careful, methodical. He attempts designs, spends hours cutting linear arrangements into the landscape. He spends less time in the treehouse and more on the rider mower and homework. My daughter and her friends take charge of the treehouse. Worms and cricket trays are replaced by tea service, paint brushes and illustration boards. Goldfish cracker lunches sustain their energies.
Both love to catch a baseball. I throw carefully and evenly. One to my son then one to my daughter. I am always aware of fairness, of equal treatment. My son could throw faster, but my daughter could catch with her right hand. Then it is time for my daughter to mow the lawn. She drives the rider fast, taking curves that tilt the rider like a muscle car.
Years pass, and the treehouse loses it occupants, but we keep it there, just in case. Just in case we want to go back to our innocence.
Growing green with moss at its concrete base, its once bright canvas triangles threadbare and yellowed, the treehouse stands, still rigid and strong, survivor of rain and snow and wind and cold. It is now worn, abandoned, except for the cat, who finds it a perfect perch from which to survey squirrel, opossum, and raccoon. The occasional visitation by a wandering deer forages the outcroppings from the large rocks at the base of the treehouse now firmly embedded into the ground.
I suspect a change, like one feels from the first chill in the wind of a fall afternoon. I sense a loss of virtue, righteousness, simpatico with the world. Inside, the fireplace is comforting, an oasis of contentment, a primal affirmation of good and right. I want my son and my daughter to be here always in this moment of living; secure and safe by this primitive comfort by fire. I wonder how many times this will happen. I wonder how long this anomaly will last.
The treehouse is now worn, green with moss and abandoned.
My son goes off to college. His bedroom is empty of its occupant and filled with the things of his life as I knew it. But they are of a baby, and a child, not of a young man. My daughter is growing too, and she adds to the things of her life. The family unit is still there, strong as ever, just with a longer tether.
We still return to moments of connection. When I inspect the freshness of the fruit bowl, I discover an overripe orange or apple. My daughter wants me to pitch the fruit to her, so she could swing at it and watch it disintegrate upon impact. We giggle at the sight of the spoiled fruit exploding into the air. I remember that sense of abandon, of perfect freedom, living and loving unabashedly and passionately, savoring the joy of my own children. It reminds me of when I would turn out the lights in the treehouse and generate screams and squeals of surprise, only to hear laughter when I turned the lights back on. I thought of how much control I once had in and of their world, their well-being.
And every day, I feel less able, less capable, like the aging treehouse, slowly witnessing its own demise, but still visible, still rigid and strong.
My son and daughter are now on their own. The tether is now in a text, or in a weekend visit. But there is no one left in that home made by the heart, by the tenacity to create something from scratch, to build from sticks and hardware carried in an old Jeep.
The treehouse sidewalls are beginning to warp. Some eyelets on the canvas triangles have ripped away from the corners, making the canvas flap in the wind with more ferocity, as if they are releasing their restriction and are violently pulling repeatedly to free themselves from the ties. The cement is revealing cracks from shrinkage. The posts could use a creosote application.
My children are adults, and the little affections of childhood, the hot cocoa at the Corner Pub that embraced us with a secure and warming confirmation of things being right with the world are no longer attainable. This is not because they have changed.
It is because I haven’t, and I don’t want to.
It is because my stake, my security, my comfort has been being a father. I am a father in advice, in direction, in decision, in dependability. I pitch the ball when needed. I lock the door at night. I change the tires that are worn. I take out the trash, screw the bolt that is loose, check your room at night, one last time. I pick my children up when they are tanked-up at a secret party in a parentless household that resembles a small mansion, or stranded because of two flat tires, or unconscious because of a seizure, grateful that the confidence they have in our relationship does not make them fear calling me when they find themselves in a dangerous predicament. I stand, rigid and strong, when they need compassion as well as reprimand.
We sell the house. The new owner has grandchildren. Her husband will refurbish the warped walls of the treehouse, replace the swing rope and the tire, clean up the moss and mold, replace the canvas sailcloth. He comments that it is overbuilt, but that is probably why it lasted all these years. I am pleased it has a new life.
My son announces that he has met the love of his life and will marry soon. I meet her. She is warm, engaging, attractive, intelligent. There is nothing I can find or see or feel about her that does not make me think she is the perfect match for him. And him for her. I think of what I need to do, how I can continue this new take of father to this new person. I wonder how my relationship changes with my son. I prepare a speech, one that will not be embarrassing to him or his new wife and their friends. I begin to write.
I say that the significance of their decision is not that they have shown, in every moment together, how perfectly suited they are for each other. How they complement each other’s needs and desires and hopes. How seamless they are as one vibrant entity without losing their individuality. I mention that their togetherness aspires to serve things they have yet to imagine. Their love is bigger than the two of them and that love, unspoiled by requirement, unedited by condition, impervious to doubt, is what binds them. Their love is perfect, because it is by choice, rigid and strong.
I say the most telling significance of their commitment today is not in them but from them. It lies in how many of us are here today, fully knowledgeable of the joy of their proclamation to live as one, for life. The value lies in how many people they have affected by their actions, how overwhelmingly proud and happy they have made two sets of parents, how they have joined two families who likely would have never met and now who hold each other’s friendships with affection, basking in the celebration of a match so rigid and strong. I feel I have made a good fatherly impression without making a fool of myself. I hope I am right.
I believe that somewhere in the process of physics and the hope of spirituality, a flying plane is still a miracle. Yet, when I ask my son why the tips of wings are turned up, he will provide an hour-long dissertation on aviation design methodology. I am interested and floored by his response and his knowledge. Somewhere in the middle of my creative spirituality and his practical physics lies the genes we share as father and son.
I tell him of the moments I wished we could have been together more often, and when I did have moments, the worry that I was not spending it wisely enough with him. But somehow, the generosity, the sweetness, the goodness in him assuaged my fears. I tell him he was always reassuring, never unreasonable and always appreciative.
I look at the man he has become. I tell him while I happily wander in my soup of unfettered inspiration, he speaks a language of creativity that soars high above any random or exploratory artistic “statement.” I reassure him his creativity serves others. His reaction makes me confident he has character, integrity.
My daughter laments about a rejected job opportunity. I reassure her it is their loss, not hers. A pizza at Pepe’s, the place I introduced her to twenty-nine years ago, soothes her frustration and elicits a dismissal with laughter and good memories. She mentions the time when she brought the pizza up to the treehouse and forgot the last uneaten slice overnight. I remember the clean up the next day. Her resilience is rigid, and strong.
There is not enough I can do to hold on to the fatherhood in me. It is my center, my hunter/breadwinner/midcentury/mania I hold to be an integral part of my being.
I pass by the house where we once lived. The treehouse is gone, replaced by a Playskool Play System with three swings, a trapeze bar combo, and wavy slide advertised “to provide kids with hours of outdoor play.” It is constructed with a heavy-duty steel alloy, but one would not know this from looking at it because it is covered in primary color vinyl plastics that promises low-maintenance and is crack-, chip-, fade-, rot-, and warp-resistant. All the hard edges are rounded to minimize injury and the corners are covered with plastic caps, while the chains have rubber grips to prevent pinching.
It is a safe space, without adventure. It is fatherless.
The giant swamp maple that stood in front, staining the roof shingles, and threatening to land a massive branch onto the master bedroom with every major nor’easter, is no longer there. Underneath that tree, on a wood bench placed on the front porch, I remember helping my son spend hours installing and fiddling with a sound system in his car, an old M3 with a hundred thousand miles on it. I remember playing basketball with my daughter before she went off to college. I remember scraped knees, jammed fingers, bruised cheeks. I remember lessons learned from adventure.
The bench, a memory of those moments, is still there, rigid and strong.
John Bonanni’s new memoir is a rip-roaring look at life in show business. His work is in Adelaide Magazine, San Antonio Review and the Raven’s Perch. He received his MFA from Western Connecticut State University.