There were many times my father provided the shoulders that carried me.
My earliest memory was this Miller Place memory that I’m sharing from my memoir Thinking of Miller Place: A Memoir of Summer Comfort. That was a literal carrying. Other literal carryings – learning to dive at Woodhull Landing beach by standing on his shoulders and flopping into the water, or being lifted up onto his shoulders to reach a light switch not yet within my grasp.
Over time the concept of shoulders changed. My Dad carried me up to that point when I didn’t need that “ride” on his shoulders. It happened when he gave me permission to NOT ride on his shoulders.
“You’re going to college. My work is done. Now I’m like your manager, not a parent.” Maybe he didn’t actually so it in so many words, but I got that message and I knew I was ready. You make your decisions now.
“I’m sorry you’re having money problems. You have to handle this.”
“This is a hard time for you. No, you don’t have to/need to come back and live with your mother and me. You know what you have to do.”
His words gave me permission and confidence to step out on my own in work, relationships, and in making and standing by moral and ethical decisions.
Allan Erickson March 27, 1918 – July 24, 1998
The story: The Sunday Climbing Tree
Sundays were special. It was church day.
The summer I was eleven, I just wanted to stay home on Sundays and play in the crabapple tree by the driveway. About once a month, Finn and I were left behind and spent church time in that tree, and so we called it The Sunday Climbing Tree.
“Please, Mom, I had a bad dream last night. I’m so tired. Can’t I just sleep a little this morning?”
“No. Get up.” No arguing when Mom used so few words. Off to church.
Several Sundays after that Finn and I concocted a more elaborate plan.
“Tell Mom your stomach hurts and you have to sit in the bathroom too long to be ready for church,” I urged my Finn who did like to spend time alone. Sometimes the bathroom was the only place to find that solitude.
“No, you tell her,” Finn’s muffled voice came from behind the closed door. She’d participate in the hoax but didn’t want to be too upfront about it.
“Mom, Eileen is still in the bathroom, and I didn’t even get in there yet. Can’t we just stay home? We’ll help Grandpa.” Offering to do chores was sort of a shortcut to heaven, and to make the offer for Grandpa always held extra merit.
A sigh from my mother. “Oh, alright. But stay on the property.”
All went according to plan. My grandfather gruffly allowed that we could stay with him while my mother, father, and older sister went to church. A chore exchange was involved.
“Take the dust brush and get all those cobwebs off the gliders.” Grandpa tested me to see if I’d cringe at the thought of spider webs.
I grabbed the wooden brush from his hand and ran back into the house. Grandpa’s acceptance of being the substitute parent usually ended as soon as my parents were out of sight, because so was he.
“Finn. Come out. It worked. We have to get the spider webs off the lawn chairs. Then we can go to the Sunday Climbing Tree.”
The Sunday Climbing Tree—heaven itself bordering the driveway, its branches cutting up into the sky above the peach, pear, and cherry trees. A small V nook way up near the top swayed with a delicious scariness on a breezy day. There was a limb extending out over the garden near the bottom. Finn and I both fit side by side on a great long branch that stretched out over the driveway.
Finn’s digestion problem solved, we dusted off the furniture and ran up the driveway. We were at our driveway branch outpost about five minutes after my dad’s blue station wagon had disappeared up the drive on the way to church.
“Let’s stay up in the tree until they get back from church.”
The Sunday Climbing Tree was most often a towering ship, the grass was our stormy sea, and the fallen apples other shipwrecked boats and passengers. It was easy to spend an hour in the tree, never touching ground. I rescued drowning passengers by hanging upside down by my knees on the garden limb. From there I scooped up one, two, or three grateful, crabapple survivors.
That Sunday, I climbed up to the tippy top to scout for pirates. It was easy going up.
Right hand on the knobby branch, left foot up, left hand reaches up to the branch, and pull up. I felt like I was on top of the world.
“Ahoy down there, scout,” I called back to Finn. “Any sign of land? Looks like a storm a-brewing ahead. But we’ll be safe here in the harbor.”
This was better than church. I must be closer to heaven than anybody sitting on those hard pews.
When I looked down, I realized I was on top of the world, at least the highest my world had ever been. Too high. I felt like one of those statues in the Davis’s cemetery up the road—turned to stone. My arms and hands clenched the branches. I knew I needed rescue.
“Finn! Eileen! I can’t get down. I’m scared.” I couldn’t even turn my head to look at her. “Eileen. Help me!”
“I can’t come up that high. I just can’t. Hold on.” She kept talking to me. “Just hold on.” She sat on the tree limb way down below. “I am looking up at you. You look like you are okay.” My rescue ship appeared up over the rise in the driveway—a light blue ship that looked vaguely like our Rambler station wagon.
It was not a hearty “ship ahoy” that greeted the blue car on its return from church but my twin sending out an SOS for help. When you are eleven, the best hero is Dad, Pops, or in this instance, Daddy.
Rather than climb down and leave me, my Finn called and called.
“Daddy! Ethel’s stuck. Daddy, come get her down.”
“Okay, I’m coming,” came Dad’s deep, even voice.
I heard his voice below me but still couldn’t look down. “Come on, Peanut, this will be just fine.”
I don’t know if he climbed up the tree or stood way down at the bottom and guided me down, but I do remember I had the best shoulder ride back to the house, with my hands around his whiskery chin and him saying, “No more climbing in the Sunday Climbing Tree on Sundays.”
Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she’s writing to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it, and sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling Tucson Tellers of Tales, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic.