“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.” ― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
City kids, at least those now collecting Social Security, will remember this kind of tree. It was a fixture on city lots, and, like Jack’s bean stalk, it grew heavenward despite rooting in ground so barren that its death knell should have sounded. For reasons that defy logic or taxonomy, the tree, whose odor is much like that of cat urine, was dubbed, the Tree-of-Heaven.
I came across a leafless specimen on my walk this morning and my time machine, easily equal to that of Dr. Who, nudged memories that took me back to the south side of Chicago. Back in the day, boys and girls ran in packs, and bikes and skates and baseball were unisex endeavors, at least till puberty set in. So, too, were feudal war games, involving swords and whips, that endeared the Tree-of-Heaven to the lords and ladies guarding the streets and alleys around their castles. Whips were made by stripping leaves from the branches of the tree and combat dictated that the enemy be chased, whip in hand, with a vengeance that Tarzan and Wonder Woman would envy. It was all in good fun and truly child’s play for a generation who would retire with bits of gravel still embedded in their knees.
We skated without helmets or shin guards, and scabby knees and elbows were as much a part of our childhood as school shoes. The occasional welt from an errant “whip” was disguised whenever possible, because moms, even in those days of laissez-faire parenting, frowned on certain of our activities. We were generally left to our own devices once school clothes were neatly put away and homework was done.
While most of us had school clothes, play clothes and church clothes, laundry was a two day ordeal for mothers, so we learned early on not to confuse their uses. Playing in school or church clothes was a “go directly to hell” infraction. I remembered Mrs. Quinn, who had eight sons, met them at the door as they came in from school with hangers for their starched shirts. She wasn’t a A-type controller. It was a survival technique. A wringer washer, starch stove and hours at the ironing board would make anyone a tad overbearing. Once homework was done we ran free until dark or dinner, whichever came first.
Dinner back then was considerably different than it is today. FDA guidelines specified three vegetables be served for optimum health, and, God bless those moms of yesteryear, that is what we got. Of course, the vegetables came from cans and our repetitious meals made those that are served today look like food for the gods. I could tell you what day of the week it was by what appeared on my mother’s dinner table. While there was dessert for those who cleaned their plates, it was usually a pudding or jello. I mention all of this because it was necessary to exercise caution at the dinner table. Those tell tale welts had to hidden and the odor of the Tree-of-Heaven, called the stinking sumac for good reason, had to be disguised, especially if you were a girl whose parents chose not to think of her as an Alpha male.
All things end. Around the age of twelve the happy camaraderie ended and our play became more gender specific. I had to put down my whip, but I recollect with fondness the afternoons we roamed the streets, weapons in hand, ready to defend our territory and end the siege of the castle. I also remember how strange it felt to become the princess rather than the knight in shining armor. I also remember those spindly trees grew to be towering giants. All things change.