The day we almost frightened our mother to death started out very much like today, a morning with a sparkling sky, so blue that it looked like it had just been painted and left to dry. I’ll always remember it as the day Dad’s hammer disappeared. It was his new hammer, the red-headed one that reminded me of the woodpeckers who lived in our pine tree.
“You play in the yard today,” Mother said to my brother and me. “I don’t want to go searching for you if I need you.” She was nine months pregnant with my sister, Karen, and who knew when she would need to rush to the hospital. My sister was past due and Mother didn’t like to be alone while she was waiting for her to make her appearance. My brother and I had spent the entire month of June playing in our yard while our friends were at the beach.
That particular day we had run out of things to amuse ourselves, and that’s what got us into trouble. Actually, it was my brother who got us into trouble while I stood by and watched. I was afraid to try new adventures, especially if they held an element of danger. My brother, on the other hand, was fearless.
“How about building a tree house?” my brother suggested. “I’ve always wanted one.”
“But I don’t know how to build anything and I can’t climb trees,” I protested.
“I’ll do the building, and I’ll even make you a rope ladder to climb up with. All you have to do is watch and keep me company.”
I was good at watching. It’s what I liked to do best when I was with my brother. Besides, where else was I going to go? So I watched. I watched him survey all the trees in the yard until he decided on the pine tree in the back corner. I watched him go into the garage and emerge with Dad’s red-headed hammer, a handful of nails, and one sturdy board. I watched him start to climb the tree, and half an hour later, I watched him finally make it to the top.
Before I go any further, I should tell you something about this tree. It was the tallest tree in our yard, towering over the largest maple. In fact, I’m sure it was the tallest tree in our neighborhood. That is why it took my brother so long to get to the top.
“Hey, Susan, I can see the ocean from here!” my brother called. The top of the tree began to sway under his weight as he shouted excitedly.
“Are there any whitecaps?” I yelled back, longing to be at the beach. It never occurred to me that my brother was in danger at the top of that old pine tree, clinging to the thin trunk as it swayed back and forth.
“No, no white caps. It’s low tide because I can just make out the sand bar.”
Mother had been in the kitchen washing the breakfast dishes and singing. The singing abruptly stopped when she heard my brother’s hollering. His voice seemed so far away. And how could he possibly see the ocean when our house was half a mile away?
“Where’s Mark?” Mother asked as she waddled out to the yard.
“He’s in the pine tree,” I said.
Mother searched the tree, shading her eyes with her hand. “I don’t see him.”
“He’s that little dot way up there at the top.” I pointed.
“Mark, you come down this instant!” Mother said, grabbing her bulging stomach, her voice rising in panic.
Our neighbor, Mr. Benson, came running over. “Don’t yell at the boy. You’ll only make him nervous,” he said. “Mark, you come down slowly. Take your time, you hear?”
Half an hour later Mark was standing back on Earth, empty-handed, my mother’s arms around him, first shaking him, then squeezing him, then back to shaking him again. My brother and I didn’t mention the tree-house project, so Dad never connected it with the disappearance of his hammer, a mystery that perplexed him for years after that. That was fifty-five years ago, but, unless someone has made it to the top of that old pine tree, there should still be one red-headed hammer up there, waiting for a boy to build a tree house.