Looking out my dining room window recently, I watched a towering old oak tree come tumbling to the ground — and with it, a chunk of my kids’ childhood. Before long, several men, imposing chainsaws and powerful equipment churned the big old tree to pulp almost in the blink of an eye.
That thick tree with the outstretched branches once seemed as solid as the ground it stood on, as certain as the pack of children that roamed freely over its roots. Now, there’s a big bare spot where it stood. Similarly, the stampede of growing feet that used to traverse the worn path around its trunk has faded.
When we moved to our rowhome neighborhood just inside the county line almost 20 years ago, my two children quickly adopted as an extension of our own backyard the acre or so community space that abutted the alley behind our home. They took their first wobbly steps on the grassy meadow that neighborhood residents affectionately call “The Green.” There, they made their first friends sitting at old, splintered wooden tables eating popsicles or trading baseball and Pokeman cards in the summer. Sometimes they jumped off the edge of the tables, pretending to fly and ignoring their parents’ warnings against it.
The big old oak tree played the part of passive witness to the neighborhood kids’ follies. Almost every year, some ambitious tyke would try to erect a rope swing in its branches. They rarely succeeded, as even the lowest limbs remained out of reach to the small hands attempting to lasso a homemade rope around them. The tree marked foul territory during countless games of Wiffle ball. The kids picked their own teammates, made their own rules, served as their own umpires. And although they probably spent more time arguing about balls and strikes, fair and foul, than actually playing the game, it taught them the basics of negotiation. As the kids got a little older, they would sometimes sit under its branches at night, dragging worn Adirondack chairs from around the lawn and building a bonfire in an open fire pit, feeling downright grown up — especially when they figured out how to start a fire without the aid of adults.
These memories make up the core of my children’s social upbringing. But when we first moved into the neighborhood, with a toddler and another child on the way, my husband and I had no idea of what we’d lucked into. At the time, the housing market was climbing toward its height before the infamous crash of 2008, and we barely saw every room of the house before we bought it. I can’t remember even glancing at the backyard, let alone the open space just beyond it that proved to be absolutely priceless, before racing to place a bid on the house, worried we’d lose it to a bolder bidder. The house didn’t have a driveway or an eat-in kitchen, amenities I’d sworn were essential before we signed the contract. But it gave us so much more.
The Green provided our kids and others in the neighborhood a full-on “free-range” childhood before the term even came into vogue, and before anyone realized how fleeting a lifestyle it would become. Increasing numbers of full-time, dual-income earning couples mean more parents need to utilize after-school care and regimented summer camps. This, plus a greater emphasis on formal extracurricular activities starting at ever-younger ages, leaves little time for unstructured play.
As my oldest child packs her bags for her first year of college, I relish the fact that she and her brother got to experience the wonders of a relatively free-form childhood, where they had plenty of time to figure out how to make and be friends without their parents steering them in any one direction. I think it may come in handy as she navigates the nuances of living in a small apartment with at least four other young women in a foreign country.
I regret that this carefree childhood lifestyle seems to have come to a grinding halt in my community and, from what I can gather, others. Its demise seemed to happen as swiftly as the death of the once-big old sturdy oak tree. The Green looks too bare without that tree and the bunches of kids who once played under it. We can certainly plant another. But I’m doubtful a replacement will ever again be part of the backdrop to the sort of idyllic environment in which my kids were raised.
Elizabeth Heubeck (email@example.com) is a Towson-based writer.