On the dividing line of the front yard of the house where I grew up and that of my grandparents’ and next-door neighbors, straddled a crabapple tree. Botanists and anyone with an interest in landscape specifics would refer to its kind as a sentinel. Upright, vase-shaped, maxing out at about 20-feet high.
It wasn’t an expansive tree but because of the way crabapple trees grow, it provided hundreds of climbing options for the three boys—and their friends—who lived with it. It also added a remarkable amount of bright pink and white to the neighborhood when in bloom, coupled with a pleasing fragrance that you could smell from a block away. That smell was the signal of spring, which meant that summer was just over the hump, which meant that its fruit would soon be ripe for plucking and chucking at your brothers and friends.
The tree was the centerpiece of the Himmel family in Flossmoor, Illinois. I was never sure whose property line it actually lived on, ours or my grandparents' because, for one, growing up next door to your grandparents means that you essentially have two yards—front, back and sides—to call your own and do with as you please, and two, since my brothers and I were often responsible for cutting the grass of both yards, the tree as an obstacle was just part of the chore. As an adult now, I can tell you that the tree belonged, technically, to my grandparents. But the activity that surrounded it belonged to all of us.
Crabapple trees grow in peculiar ways. The main trunk splits off into any number of other trunks where thick, low branches extend outward and upward. When we were short enough, there was one branch that shot straight out, parallel to the ground, and my brothers and I—and our friends—would hang from it, swing from it, jump up to it and pull ourselves up onto it in a reverse evolution sort of way. Those multiple trunks created a nesting spot in the middle, which was perfect starter footing for scaling any of the trunks in order to ascend to the higher branches and, when the season was right, hide among the blossoms as a way to win a game of hide-and-seek.
As years went by, either because of age or illness or too much boy-weight, our organic parallel bar had to be removed. Our grandfather sawed it off and painted the open wound with tar as a way to prevent insects from infesting the fresh wood. It left a black stain on the tree that, even in my youth, signaled the passing of my youth.
In 1990, and again in 2007—and I assume before, though I wasn’t alive to witness it—during the 17-year cicada infestation, that tree was ground zero for the winged beasts. They lived below its shade, deep in the dirt among its roots and when they emerged, they swarmed it, feeding off of it and using it as a singles bar to meet a mate in preparation for the next 17-year surge. While we’d find the the occasional exuviae of the bugs with wonky internal clocks every summer clinging to the tree, in 1990, when I was 11, it was as if the tree’s bark had been replaced by the crispy, discarded exoskeletons. And once we fought through the swarm, we would pluck them and sneakily attempt to place them on the clothes of each other, our friends, our mother, father and grandparents. The adults were not fans of this game. Neither were the girls we liked.
Where the tree was usually a source of tranquility among its flowers and shade and climbable branches, as the hub for the cicadas, it was tranquility's nemesis. The screaming of the horny males traveled farther and with more sonic potency than the flowers’ fragrance could ever hope. It was nearly deafening and we had to shout to hear one another when standing on our driveways. Cleaning up after the cicadas was a steady gig. Their dead bodies and their windblown exuviae strewn across the yards. In 2007, when they were last here, my brother collected all the husks into large construction buckets. On my grandmother’s birthday, he used them to build an inches-thick, massive ‘83’ on the driveway. It was the most repulsive art ever produced.
Still, it was sweet. And we had the crabapple tree to thank for it.
Really, the tree was a bit of a mess every year, even without the cicadas. The blossoms, when discarded, would drop into the gutters of our grandparents’ house and coalesce, which meant more chores for me and my brothers as we had to climb the ladder and pull the gunk out. What had once been gorgeous and symbolic of new life then resembled hideous, soggy decay. Those flowers that didn’t make it into the gutters landed on the driveway and plastered themselves to it so that only the harshest of push-broom efforts could break them free and ready them for dustpanning. But even then, only just barely. Dad eventually bought a power washer.
The power washer combined with the little crabapples to throw at one another added a new level of fun in the Himmel yards. Surprisingly, this activity never sent anyone to the hospital but it did send us to our rooms without supper a few times. Gas-powered aquatic weaponry is frowned upon by Flossmoor adults.
Our dog, Max, a Brittany spaniel who refused to heel and would take off for the biggest mud puddle, burr patch and animal shit pile the moment he was free from his tether or the house, spent hours and hours under that tree with a long chain wrapped around one of the trunks and leading to his collar while we played basketball, four square and completed yard chores.
Max loved our grandparents. On the day he died, as he was slowly making his way around the houses, getting in his last sniffs and delivering his final markings—too old and sick to bolt for the burrs and mud—we gathered between the two houses under the tree and its dwindling bloom watching him with love and sadness.
He made his way over to us and laid himself on to the ground, under the tree where he had sat and lain all those years before, enjoying the shade and the smell, as every other Himmel had done. It was his last stop on his farewell tour. We knew it. He knew it. Under the crabapple tree was where he loved to be best because it was outside and halfway between our house and our grandparents’. This was where Nonny and Poppy said goodbye to him and where he said goodbye to them. With a pat on the head from Poppy and a “You’re a good boy, Max,” and a kneel and almost tearful, “Who’s going to eat all those Milk Bones I just bought, you silly thing,” from Nonny, Max basked in the love. We all did. And so, again, as was often the case, we had the crabapple tree to thank for that scene.
In the years since, the tree got sick. Bit by bit, Poppy cut more rotten branches from it. And then a trunk here and there. When Poppy died, Dad took over the amputative pruning. In an effort at being cute and to help dress up the poor thing, in the way someone going through cancer treatment may invest in colorful head scarves to cover their bald head, Dad installed a wooden bear on one of the trunks. But soon enough, even the craftily whittled bear couldn’t disguise the tree’s illness.
It didn’t produce any flowers this year. And on Monday, July 17, 2017, our Himmel family tree was pulled out of the ground. Dad looped Max’s old chain around the two remaining trunks, hooked the other end to his Dodge minivan and hit the gas. It splintered at the base and fell with ease. It’ll become firewood now, I imagine. My dad loves a good fire in the cooler months. So does my grandmother.
In a way, this crabapple tree is a lot like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree. The one difference being that we didn’t abuse it and take it for granted the way the little boy did in that story. The prick.
Dad broke the news to my brothers and I through text message. He sent along two photos. The first was of the sad, remaining two trunks and the second of those trunks lying on the ground with the words: “It died a slow death. You guys climbed it a lot.” And then, as my dad is wont to do, he dropped other disturbing news on us with no kind of cushioning to soften the blow. In the same message, as a follow up sentence, he wrote, “Oh yeah, Nonny has a broken ankle.”
Nonny is 93 years old. And wouldn’t you know it? She broke it trying to climb the family tree one last time.