When I was growing up, my siblings and I frequently perused the pages of the World Book Encyclopedia, devouring articles that told of far-away places and intriguing science experiments. One of my favorite sections was one on the five senses. Time and time again, I would read the chapter, staring at the examples of optical illusions and sampling foods with my eyes closed.
We all know that our senses are strong- a familiar perfume, a sip of a drink, the softness of a favorite pair of jeans- senses can set off myriad memories and transport us to days that have hidden in the archives of our memories since we were young children.
Last Saturday, I had one of those sensory transports as I visited my sister Martha-Jean at her country home in Northwood. It was a beautiful day and as we sipped iced coffee on her deck, I watched the breeze ruffle the leaves of the silver maple tree in her back yard. The fluttering leaves sang a familiar song and immediately my mind went back to the house where we grew up- the house at 30 Green Street.
The house at 30 Green Street was an old New Englander, built as housing for foremen who worked at Ellis Mills, a textile factory that produced rich and luxurious wool fabrics. I was a child during the end of the woolen mills era. The mill was a mighty giant that sat at the foot of Dye House Hill- big, strong, and to me, a little scary. At night its windows lit the sky with a pale industrial glow as its walls echoed with electrical hums and rhythmic banging. During the day my siblings and I stood on the bridge across from the mill and watch as the fabric dye cascaded into the Chicopee Brook. It seemed to me that the sleepless giant would always be there, but when synthetic blends wooed textile consumers away from expensive wools, the mills closed. The whirring and banging were silenced and the darkened night sky snuffed the glow from the windows.
In the back yard of our house was a large silver maple tree, and when the sounds from Ellis Mills ceased, the rustling of its leaves whispered a lullaby that drifted through my bedroom window. The tree’s shelter created a stage for Martha-Jean to act as Pied Piper in her wonderful imaginations. Under its branches, we created a pirate ship where we made Robin and Scott walk the plank we had fashioned from wooden boards found in the garage. We tied Teri to the trunk, declaring her to be our ship’s pet monkey, and served bread and water to the crew- neighbor kids who brought sticks to use as oars.
Under the tree we built a doctor’s office and made poultices from mashed catalpa tree flowers, rubbing them on each other’s mosquito bites, convinced that the sap would stop the itching. We spread blankets on the ground and played with baby dolls, sprinkling real talc upon their plastic bottoms and pinning cloth diapers that we stole from our baby brother’s bassinette.
When he was eight, my brother Scott climbed the silver maple. He sat in its swaying branches, higher than the house roof while my mother stood below, yelling that if he did not fall and kill himself, she might just do the job herself. And it was under the silver maple that Kevin and Eric were caught having sword fights with two-foot long barbecue skewers, and were subsequently grounded for most of the summer.
In the winter I would lie on my bed and stare at the bare branches of the silver maple, looking for the twining tendrils to outline shapes against the frigid sky. Here was a castle, here an old man’s hat, and there a horse’s head. The shapes disappeared with the wind, and then reappeared when the branches stopped dancing in the breeze, creating endless distraction from my homework.
In the spring, the helicopter seed pods would flutter from the tree to the ground. We split the seeds in half, keeping them attached to the blade, and placed them on our noses like the horns on a rhino. And in the fall, when the October winds turned inky black and smelled of bonfires and pumpkin, the bare branches of the tree moaned warnings of witches and ghosts, urging me to quicken my steps when it was my turn to take the trash to the back yard burn barrel.
“That tree is driving me crazy!” Martha-Jean observed, shaking me from my reminiscence. “It’s so messy.”
“Oh, I like it. It takes me back,” I sighed. I wondered if the silver maple at 30 Green Street was still standing, or if it, like Ellis Mills, had outworn its usefulness. The whisper of the tree’s branches were suddenly sad to me- a swan song announcing the end of yet another era.
“C’mon, let’s go pick some strawberries,” she urged.