Growing up, we called it The Happy Tree. The strong oak stood rooted in the fertile soil of the Santa Clara Valley, its silvery gray limbs reaching for the brilliant blue sky as they shaded one end of our carefully tended back lawn. Prickly oak leaves fell year round; brown and sharp against bare feet, they formed a rustling pillow beneath the blankets we spread for summertime picnics.
“Yum,” my dad always said, biting into a saltine cracker slathered with butter. “Squooshed caterpillars for lunch!” He bugged out his eyes, and my mother—her long slender fingers cool and beautiful—laughed and called him handsome.
Giggling, my sister, brother, and I repeated, “Squooshed caterpillars!” and shoved crackers into our mouths, the rich crunchy buttery goodness smearing our tongues and lips and coating our hearts with joy.
After lunch, drunk on butter fat and family love and speckled with cracker crumbs, we three kids raced out into the color-drenched California sun and tore around the acre-and-a-half garden. Our imaginations blossomed, green and full. We mounded pine needles into low-walled rooms for play forts. We raced as horses in thundering herds across the lawn. We were schools of fish darting along the garden paths, and magicians wielding thick magnolia bud wands. We played store, trading hedge leaves for lemons. We leapt through sprinklers like fairies leaping waterfalls, threw ourselves belly-down like fat dolphins to slide the wet length of the plastic Slip-and-Slide, and crept like spies deep within the dark dense bushes around the perimeter of the yard.
Always, in the end, we returned to The Happy Tree, ships to anchor, and lay exhausted and exhilarated in its protective embrace.
Trees, so many trees in that garden: oak, pine, liquid amber, magnolia, birch, lemon, eucalyptus. As we grew, the trees grew, until the oak overshadowed the house and eucalyptus branches cracked and fell into an enormous mass onto the ground and I crawled into the center of that nose-tingling pile and spent hours telling myself strange Pollyana-esque stories of living alone in the trees.
Thirty years later, when I bought my own house, I chose it for the trees in its garden: apple, orange, lemon, peach, nectarine, plum, all tall and mature and full of fruit. And I planted trees of my own, the first among them an oak, whose sturdy branches today bustle with squirrels and sparrows and from whose crown crows and blue birds call.
Happy Tree, Too.