A sweeping, majestic willow tree has always been the focal point of our wonderfully welcoming backyard, even when our backyard wasn't as wonderful or welcoming.
When we moved into our current home, our oldest son, Stross, was two-years-old. I remember that our relator was pleased the previous owners had left behind a backyard swing set for him. However, I also remember wishing it away. The metal monstrosity painted a painful picture of what lay ahead for our family.
Stross, born without the capacity to walk, required parents who had the capacity to make life accessible for him. That included our backyard. Any childhood memories we hoped he would experience there were ours to create; any playful moments in our backyard had to accommodate him and his specific abilities. A standard issue swing set wasn't going to cut it. We needed a custom tree house - one with ramps that would allow him to go wherever his cousins, neighborhood friends and future sibling wanted to go.
But that would require planning and researching and saving money for materials. So, for the first few years, we simply took Stross outside with us to enjoy being in the shade of the beautiful willow tree. But two years later - after the arrival of twin cousins and a baby brother we named Skye - Mark and I felt pressure to start building the tree house of our dreams for him. Stross needed a backyard that he could enjoy in equal portions to other children - especially his baby brother.
When Mark began the actual construction, one goal rose above all others: The tree house had to be fully accessible, able to be used by both our sons equitably. That meant long switchback ramps that rose off to one side of the willow tree's impressive trunk. It also meant a deck area brimmed by built-in benches (with an opening for the tree's trunk) so Stross and friends could play on a wheel-friendly surface. And to reach the second story? An enclosed climbing tower built of recycled decking material that does not splinter, so that, after parking his wheelchair at the tower's base, Stross could crawl, level by level, to very the top.
To bring the dream to life, our sons' grandparents built alongside us - their mom and dad (mostly dad); and board by board, the tree house grew until our sons had a place to grow together.
Soon, more equally wonderful things occurred because of the tree house's welcoming presence. Our backyard became a place for our entire family to create memories - birthdays, barbecues and backyard chats. When Stross turned 7, the tree house became a pirate ship; when he was 8, it was a castle. Skye's tree house birthdays were magical as well, including one where his invited guests blasted off to space aboard a tree-tower rocket ship.
Scores of college-aged boys and girls have tree house memories too, because each fall, our backyard is the place where freshmen congregate for part of their college orientation. Those who have declared communication arts as a major gather under the willow to meet one another and to learn what is involved in studying communications at our local college. Then, each spring, those who are just about to graduate linger in her shade to share memories just before sharing good-byes.
Because she is such a welcoming place, the tree house hosts seniors from the nearby nursing center several times a year. They talk with each other and with students from the college's Wellness class, while enjoying refreshments. Then, one by one, each man or woman is assisted on a trip up the ramps in order to pretend to be the "captain of a ship" or "the pilot of a steamboat" once again - or to simply get a better view of some beautiful flower beds. Not every tree house can claim to have - in the words of one visitor's relatives - "given mom the last 'best day' at the end of her life."
Both our sons are young men now, but not too old to play night games with friends using the tree house as home base; and, not too old to help their parents host a picnic for new faculty or a farewell for friends. Our family still has decades of birthdays to celebrate; bunches of barbecues to enjoy; handfuls of first dates to experience; and hundreds of afternoons to sit in the tree house, under the willow's canopy, and simply "be."
A sweeping, majestic willow tree has always been the focal point of our wonderfully welcoming backyard. I'm counting on the fact that it will be for many years to come.