By Rick DiLiberto
I planted the cherry tree in our side yard 35 years ago, when our first of three daughters was born. Had I known how lushly and quickly it would grow (with proper pruning and fertilizing), I would have planted it farther away from our house. Now, it stood about 30 feet tall, with thick, strong limbs, and prolifically produced plump, sweet cherries every summer.
The limbs and branches gloriously sprawled out from the trunk symmetrically on all sides, and those closest to our house enveloped our master bedroom window. The branches and leaves would pleasantly brush against the window with morning breezes, gently waking us. Our children’s well-worn wooden swing, with now-rusty chains and chipped red paint, hung from one of the thick lower boughs, but no children ever sat on it anymore. It just creaked mournfully in the wind.
Our three daughters were now grown women: educated, working, married … and gone. My wife and I were experiencing what I think they call empty-nest syndrome. My wife had been encouraging me to take down the swing for a few years now, but I avoided the suggestion repeatedly.
When I look at that cherry tree, my mind rewinds to the days when the girls were small. We had a little family contest every March, to see which of us would be the first to spot a robin red breast. Usually, the first robin would appear in the cherry tree, happily chirping about spring’s arrival. If I saw the robin first, I would not admit it. Rather, I would stealthily lead the girls over to the tree, trying not to frighten the bird, until they would notice and point to it with stiff arms, happy hops and gleeful laughs. The contest usually ended in a three-way tie.
We looked forward to the tree’s glorious pink, aromatic cherry blossoms bursting to life every April. The blossoms clung to the branches for only about two weeks before gently floating to the lawn, and coating the grass in a pink hue. They seemed to illustrate life’s fragility, and its untimely, unfair transition from glory to grave.
Our young daughters would join us in the tree’s shade each summer, and we would all feast on the abundant fruit. We picked so many of the juicy orbs that we made cherry turnovers, cherry and cherry pies on the weekends. There were plenty of cherries left to eat while sitting on the porch under moonlit summer skies, listening to Phillies baseball on a transistor radio. Each year, as the girls grew taller, so did the tree.
Beneath the tree, I told them about George Washington and his father’s cherry tree. The legend related how our first president received a hatchet as a gift at age 6 and promptly chopped his father’s cherry tree. When his father asked him about the damage, he candidly admitted, “I cannot tell a lie.” His father warmly embraced him and forgave him. I hoped my daughters understood, through the fable, that I would do so, too, throughout their lives, for much more serious mistakes.
As soon as they were old enough to hold onto the chains, they took innumerable turns on that swing. “Dad, push me on the swing!” they would exhort, when I arrived home from the office. That simple device gave us so much time to talk, laugh and just enjoy life, with nothing except simple potential energy and kinetic energy to entertain them. I can still see the anticipation in their faces when I would pull them back on the swing, then the sheer joy as I let go and they propelled forward. They knew no matter how high they swung, when they retracted back toward me, I would be there to give another push, repeatedly. They did not need to look back to know their dad would always be there.
When they were toddlers, we sang silly songs as they swung, making up nonsense words to rhyme. When they were teens, we sang top-40 songs beneath the tree, usually off-key, but no one cared. We thought it sounded melodious. After softball games, there I mended skinned knees. After school dances, there I mended skinned hearts.
However, now, there were no more knees or hearts to mend; no more songs to sing; no more pushes to push.
Therefore, on that cold February Saturday, I relented and finally took down the swing. The wind blowing in my face, I think, caused my eyes to tear. We were expecting a rainstorm, so I did the unpleasant task early in the day.
The swing then rested in a twisted jumble, in an old cardboard box in my dark garage.
It was Presidents’ Day weekend.
When I was a child, we called the holiday Washington’s Birthday – the only day I could taste a cherry Coke at the corner drug-store luncheonette. Oh, not the stuff in a can, you get today…but ice-cold Coke mixed with real cherry syrup in a paper cone nested in a silver metal cup. The waitress even provided a fancy paper straw. Back then, to mark the holiday, the local baker made fresh cherry pies, and if you were very lucky, you might find a silver dollar in one (to commemorate Washington supposedly tossing a silver dollar across the Delaware River).
After I took down the swing, that Saturday, I drove to the market. It started raining heavily on my way back home. To avoid the main highway in the high winds and rain, I drove through a neighborhood. Through the rain, I saw a crooked red sign in front of a small unkempt house, with big black letters: GARAGE SALE. I typically do not stop at those things, because my wife usually is not too happy with what I bring home. However, this day, I felt a strange need to stop. The windshield wipers seemed to sing: “pull over … pull over … pull over!” I did, grabbed my umbrella from the back seat, and scurried up the driveway, trying, unsuccessfully, to stay dry. When I entered the garage, I immediately noticed this was no ordinary garage sale. A pleasant young man, wearing a Temple University basketball sweatshirt, greeted me and told me everything in the garage and in the house was for sale. His elderly, single and childless uncle, Mr. Sakura, had lived there alone, and, against the nephew’s advice, took a reverse mortgage. His uncle died recently, and the nephew, being sole beneficiary and executor of the estate, with no desire to inherit any of the shoddy personal effects, was selling everything. The reverse mortgage people wanted the house empty within 30 days.
He invited me into the house, and I immediately noticed a strong but pleasant aroma of years of embedded cherry pipe tobacco smoke. I saw what I surmised was the old man’s comfortable, cushioned brown leather smoking chair, by the streaked, grimy front window, and next to it an antique oak circular table holding an old pipe and a pouch of Captain Black cherry pipe tobacco. A handsome, polished cherry wood ashtray, with a large, magnificent oyster shell the size of my fist implanted right in the center of the wood, seemed to radiate in the living room light. I walked around the table. I ogled the shell from all angles of my 360-degree inspection. At some angles, it shimmered pink; at others, light blue; at others purple; and finally white as pearl. I knew I had to have it.
Not to seem too desirous of the ashtray, I milled about the kitchen and feigned interest in a few other items, some wooden spoons, a couple cookbooks and an old coffee percolator. Shrewdly, as I retrieved my umbrella from the corner and was pretending to leave, empty-handed, I nonchalantly asked the nephew, “How much for the ashtray?”
“Oh, I don’t know, give me $5?” he said, as he shrugged his shoulders and turned both palms upward. In a few seconds, the currency bearing Abe Lincoln’s portrait was out of my wallet and in his upturned palm.
Even though I do not smoke, never have, the ashtray found a place of honor on our bedroom nightstand. After I washed it well with warm soapy water, and polished the oyster shell and cherry wood with some WD-40, it looked like new. Surprisingly, my wife did not mind it being in our bedroom. I thought it would be a handy place to keep loose change and keys. She even laughed about the terrific bargain price.
That evening, avoiding travel in the worsening storm, we had a nice, quiet dinner at home; sipped some Chianti, and then I called the girls. I mentioned how melancholy I was to have taken down the swing. The girls each comforted me, and sincerely expressed how they treasured the memories of the cherry tree and the swing. The storm was getting violent, affecting the cell phone reception. Our oldest daughter told me she had some good news to share. However, the service was so bad that we could hardly hear each other. My wife finished the call while I poured the last of the wine.
We ventured upstairs to bed, and fell asleep. The next thing I knew, my wife was in a panic, shaking my shoulder. “Honey, do you smell smoke?” she queried. Confused and groggy, I sprung up, and inhaled through my nose. It was not her imagination. Smoke and the pungent odor of cherry pipe tobacco filled the bedroom. She started to cough uncontrollably. I turned on the light, and was shocked to see the ashtray glowing, quivering and smoking hauntingly on the nightstand. At that moment, our smoke alarms began to shriek, with piercing blasts. We jumped out of bed, and rushed downstairs, out of the house, into the front yard, in the drenching rain, thunder and lightning storm. Now, I do not wear pajamas to bed, just gym shorts and a T shirt. That saved me some embarrassment as the neighbors poured out of their homes, after hearing our smoke alarms, and the sirens. My wife, in her checkered flannel nightgown, was not so fortunate. At that moment, we heard a deafening thunderclap, and a few second later, a blinding bolt of lightning struck the cherry tree’s top. We heard a scream of splitting wood, and smelled the sickening odor of burnt cherry wood. The lightning sheared off the large, thick limb closest to our bedroom window, sending it twisting and smashing through the window like a javelin, sharp end first. The eight-foot projectile deeply impaled the mattress where I had been sleeping a moment earlier.
When the firefighters arrived, they disarmed the smoke detectors, and after dutifully inspecting the entire house, could find no fire or source of smoke. They escorted us in, and we told them about our experience in the bedroom. They listened politely, but no one (including us) could smell any smoke. The ashtray, previously phosphorescent, looked perfectly inert. The firefighters removed the tree limb from the mattress, screwed a large piece of plywood over the shattered bedroom window with a power tool, and bid us goodnight.
As the sun rose, my wife and I embraced. The storm had stopped. We dressed and walked out to the side yard, under the cherry tree. Other than the damage to the top branch, it looked just fine. “It’s going to be a busy Sunday, dear,” I said. “I have to buy a new mattress and repair a window!” My wife smiled wryly and looked at me with those beautiful, piercing deep blue eyes. “When you are finished with the mattress and the window, I need you to hang the swing back on the cherry tree,” she whispered. “Our daughter wanted to wait to tell you today over Sunday dinner … We’re going to be grandparents!”
Richard A. DiLiberto, Jr., Esq., a partner with the Wilmington, Delaware law firm Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, practices plaintiffs’ personal injury law. He is chairman of the Delaware Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture. This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of The Journal of the Delaware State Bar Association, a publication of the Dela-ware State Bar Association. Copyright © Delaware State Bar Association 2021. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.