This morning my husband went on the Internet and printed out detailed plans for building a tree house. There was a quick discussion on cost–I heard “about four hundred dollars”–but what concerned me most was that the tree house would be finished, not left incomplete in our backyard as a visual sign to the world: “The Agodons Do Not Finish Projects.” An in-progress kayak has remained hidden for seven years in our basement; the washing machine covers a half-finished floor in the laundry room; and in the bathroom a strategically-placed toothbrush holder conceals missing wall tiles. But the tree house will be one of the first things you see as you open the garden gate and walk to our front door. If it isn’t completed, it will be the oversized and un-finished welcome wagon we’ll be rationalizing to guests for years to come.
My fear of incompleteness expands: I imagine my daughter at sixteen standing in our backyard; there behind her is the unfinished tree house, the one she was never able to climb. We will start her a therapy fund instead of a college account so she can talk about her childhood’s unfulfilled hopes and dreams. And there’s a part of me that would understand. After all of our googling for tree house plans and our talks about how to do this, when my husband walked into the garage to find his chainsaw to trim down a space for the tree house I thought, “No kidding, this is seriously going to happen.”
I always wanted a tree house, but my father was a sort of Ward Cleaver dad, magically appearing at night for dinner, then, just as quickly as he arrived, disappearing into the bedroom to go to sleep. When I awoke the next morning, he was already back at work, a phantom dad who smoked a pipe, had an office, and left a check for my allowance under my placemat every other Monday. I realized this year that my memories of times with my father were so clear because they were so infrequent. In second grade he took me to my first Mariner’s game on a school night. They played the Kansas City Royals. I brought my mitt. I wore my Mariner’s shirt and red baseball cap. We walked up the slope of Seattle’s Kingdome to look out over the city–my dad and me at a ballgame.
One night my dad brought me home a Styrofoam replica of Boeing’s new 747. One night he came home with a guitar for me. Another time, it was a cockatiel. I had never asked for all these strange gifts, or even known I wanted them. But this was my father: a sort of eccentric Republican who arrived occasionally with surprising presents. To thank him, I would buy him soap on a rope at Christmas time from our Avon lady, and with this I considered us even. I remembered so many distinct interactions with my dad because in my life he played the part of the mysterious stranger who moved through the house like a shadow.
As I considered all these memories from my dad, I wondered why I didn’t have any particularly strong memories of my mother. Then it occurred to me: my mom was always there. She was the comfortable beige chair I never noticed, always available and open to have me sit with her. I don’t remember my mom as much because we were always together. Just as surely as I can’t remember when the common freckle on my hand appeared, I know I received the unusual scar on my leg when I accidentally impaled myself with a pair of scissors while cutting out a photo of Scott Baio and watching Lawrence Welk with my nana. It’s easy to remember the exception or the freak occurrence, and my father was more of that uncommon element. He was the shiny white agate on the beach, not the common gray rocks that were my life.
So as my husband revved up the chainsaw this morning to cut down any parts of the cherry tree that didn’t say “tree house,” I was returning to my own childhood. My daughter and I stood in the yard with our safety glasses on and when we heard the chainsaw roar, a sound I imagine could compare to a T-Rex ready to kill its prey, we raced into the house to watch from the bathroom window. We would return to the carnage of branches and splinters later.
When the roar quieted, we went outside to see what my husband had done. I saw huge long limbs of the cherry tree laying across our lawn and I felt a little weepy. Not because I was the tree hugger who cried when our neighbors cut down four beautiful evergreens from their lot (and were forever nicknamed “The Tree-haters”), but because this was really happening. We would be the owners of a tree house, a mini-condo under a cherry universe. I realized that our daughter would experience what I never did, a place of her own above earth in the limbs of another world. But more than just a tree house of her own, she would experience a father who would be there for her in the details of life, not a mysterious stranger who appeared after work with gifts or tickets. As she looked up into the space where her tree house would be, I realized that she will know herself better because she knows him.