I grew up in Lansing, Illinois, a southeastern suburb of Chicago. When I was two years old, we moved into a pre-World War II house with a double lot that had older, established trees and a park-quality steel and cement swing set.
The extra lot was lower than the primary and tended to retain water. Earlier owners had planted a weeping willow tree to absorb the overflow, and by the time we bought the property the willow was over fifty feet tall, towering over our two-story house on the adjoining lot.
The swing set must have originally been a good distance from the weeping willow but, as the tree grew, its lush, graceful branches brushed the ground less than six feet from the swing, making our swing set and willow the wonder and playground of the block. Neighborhood children enjoyed swinging on our tall swing set, over seven feet high, but even this aerial sensation could not compare to the moment when, at the apex of the swing's arc, we would launch ourselves onto the willow branches, grab hold, and swing down to the ground. Amazingly, no child or willow branch ever got damaged during our play.
The willow branches touched the ground and created an inner circle, a "secret grotto" that in our minds resembled an exotic Louisiana bayou and afforded much-needed privacy to imaginative children. Oh, the plays and made-up scenarios we reenacted there! We even installed an inner rope and tire swing.
If all that wasn't enough, there was the core of the tree itself, a trunk that branched out so low to the ground that even smaller children could climb up onto its branches. Many times I climbed to the top of the tree, nestled in the crook of a branch and read or contemplated my childish world and aspirations. In those branches I became acquainted with birds, insects, and other wildlife and developed a lifelong love and respect for nature.
But all living things come to an end. When I was a teenager, our old weeping willow became diseased and infested with insects. We hired a tree doctor to see if it could be saved but were told it was too far gone and would have to be removed since a diseased tree that large would present a danger to our house during storms.
The end of our weeping willow came on a bright, sunny, summer's day. One last time I swung up, up into the air and launched myself onto its branches as it lowered me gently to the ground. One last time I walked in the secret grotto and caressed the trunk that had been the gateway to imagination and wonder for most of my childhood. Surrounded by many neighbors who were respectfully silent, I wept, as branch by branch my beloved friend fell to the ground.
Much has been made of Robert Frost and his swingers of birches but as for me, I remember the wonderland created by my weeping willow and the joy it brought to the many swingers of willows.