I’m not sure how we found it or why we went there. It was tucked away deep in the woods on the last acre or so of our grandparents’ farm, where stinging nettles reached out for bare ankles and still-white blackberries grew. It was far past Brody’s grave beside the willow tree and still farther than the little pond filled with blue gill.
The coffee pot tree.
That’s what we called it anyway. It wasn’t so much a tree as it was a stump, really. It was a hulking giant who had been beheaded and whose belly had rotted through. But the giant was still flirtatious, a bit of its roots pulled up on one side like some Edwardian minx showing ankle from beneath a skirt of moss. It tilted at an angle that made it just climbable enough for a child and not worth it for an adult. And, toward the top, there had been placed a coffee pot.
The pot itself was an old tin thing, bent and rusted in places. It looked like something cowpokes in a Western would have put over an open flame. Something Coleman might have made once – part of a now antique camping line. Strangely enough, it didn’t belong to any of us, not even our grandmother who walked us through the woods that very first time. I think we found it. It came to us from the ground, asking for a place to rest safely, and we obliged.
I don’t know which one of us did it or why, but once it had been placed at the top of that tree, it was as if it had always been there. It was as if it grew right out of the trunk like that, like something out of Alice in Wonderland. And it was a magical, mysterious thing there just for us.
We would return to it, the three of us, with or without or grandparents, when we played together at their house. You had to find your way through a maze to get there. So many twists and turns that made a little thrill of terror rise up in your chest when you lost sight of the person ahead of you. A bear might find you. Or Bigfoot. Or you might just be lost in the woods. You might have to live there with the coyotes and wolves like some kind of Northwestern Mowgli. You might never be found.
Inevitably though, we’d find the place. Our special spot. We’d climb and play and rest around the coffee pot tree – a secret monolith to our childhood.
When I was in college, my little hometown got a Dairy Queen. There were locations on either side before that in the towns that book-ended us. It was always something we went to when leaving or coming into town. Having one in our city limits was new and everyone was thrilled about it.
On a visit home one weekend, my family stopped into the “DQ” and I ordered a butterscotch dilly bar, one of my childhood favorites. I hadn’t had one in so many years, and on a hot, sunny weekend, it sounded fantastic. We sat down in a booth near the window, and when they called our number, I volunteered to get up and grab the food. At the counter, I took a quick inventory of it all. I noticed that on the tray, in my mind, was no dilly bar. What they had given me was the size of a large lollipop. I took it and turned it over by the stick handle through its wrapping a few times. I held it up to the cashier.
“Have they always been like this?” I asked. The teenager with a baby bump that caused her polo uniform to be taut around the middle just shrugged.
I brought the tray of food back to our table and held up the dilly bar again, this time for my family. “Have they always been like this? I mean, so small?” I asked. “I remember them being a lot bigger. Like…huge.”
“Well,” my grandma said, picking up an onion ring, “they probably just looked big to you because you were so small at the time.”
The thing nearly melted down my wrist as I marveled at how tiny it looked, when once it had been a massive treat surely the size of my head.
As we got older, we visited the woods less and less. We visited our grandparents less and less. School and work and boyfriends and girlfriends, break-ups and long flights and all those other things kept us away. The back acreage of the farm eventually grew over, and without a set of shears, it would have been impossible to get in. There were no entrances or paths. Even the little duck pond became obscured by brambles and clouded over with muck.
Grandpa still liked to drive his truck down into the pasture a ways and watch the birds and deer while drinking a coffee – one of his last vestiges of independence, as walking was no longer an option. My dad would sometimes enter the pasture, too, to burn old garbage piles and dry brush or to get something stored away in the garage. Other than that, it was largely unused.
Then Grandpa passed away, and no one had reason to go down there. There were no young children left to adventure to secret sacred places. The huge metal gate at the top of the hill, the opening to the pasture and the woods beyond, stayed shut.
And now I live far away from my grandparents’ house. I sit here on a hot summer day when a dilly bar sounds wonderful. Looking out over the balcony at the sagging palm trees so different than the upright, hard-wearing pines back home, I think – could I find my way to the coffee pot tree now? Through the stinging nettles and down the winding paths? And if I did, would it be the huge thing it once was or would it shrink before me?
And this is when I realize – some things, those magic things, are best left in the forest of my mind.