By Danae Schilling
I have a big family. When I was younger, it wasn’t so big and all of the cousins were extremely close. Every time the eleven of us got together, we had a blast! When we were up at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, we did not leave a single inch of the place untrodden or unexplored; from the two bedroom attic with racks and racks of dress up clothes, to the garage on the hill where Grandpa taught all of us how to change a tire, we were all over the place and inseparable.
As we got old enough, we joined the tree; the tree is set on the right side of the lawn and about five feet up its 25 foot trunk, it splits and the one becomes two. The odd thing about the tree is that only one side of it is climbable and the amazing thing about it is that the one side holds all of us. We set the climbing age at six after my brother got stuck in it and my grandpa had to play superman and rescue him. So, every summer, if someone had turned six over the year, we all went out to the tree and sent the new six year old up.
I remember my first climb like it was yesterday. I woke up that morning with a huge head on my shoulders: I was going to become one of them today, one of the big kids, one of the cousins.I had waited so long for this moment, all six years of my life! I had watched as one by one, my cousins and older brother had taken their year to climb and now, at last, after everyone else had proven themselves, it was my turn.
It was a bright, warm, and sunny day until you stepped foot in the tiny kitchen in the tiny white house on the hill that my grandparents own. Seven of the eleven cousins, who are all sisters, were having a terrible time trying to get along; the oldest said one of the younger girls stole her hair brush while the two middle girls were fighting over what they believed to be the last Minnie Mouse pancake. Gliding in with more pancakes and the missing hair brush, my grandmother scolded my cousins for such behavior on the day of my first climb. After we finished fighting over butter, syrup, and pancakes, we all rushed off to wash our hands and faces, in accordance to the house rules. When I stepped out of the bathroom, drying off my hands on my pants, my grandfather pulled me aside and took me out to the tree with him. The tree had never looked so tall and daunting. My grandfather must have known I was scared because he sat me down on the brick garden wall and I believed he was about to say something that would change my life in its entirety, but that’s not what I got. “If you go up and get stuck, you will never come back down because I’m not going up after you. If you don’t go up, the cousins will never accept you. You are old enough to know what you can and cannot do and you can make your own choice. Just remember, you risk either getting stuck or losing your cousins’ respect.” And he walked away and left me on the brick wall.
At that moment, the cousins came bursting out of the house with a loud crash and the slamming of the screen door. They all gathered around me and were saying things like, “Are you ready?” and “Try not to die okay? I don’t want to clean up that mess.” As they all stared into my terrified six year old face, I made up my mind then and there: I was going to climb the tree, I was going to make it back down, and I was going to be one of the cousins.
I walked under the tree and my brother helped me into it, seeing as I was not quite tall enough to manage that task by myself. I stood there wobbling for a moment and then I took off, up the tree, branch after branch, never looking down. After a good ten minutes of snail-speed climbing, I finally reached the smaller snap-off branches which we aren’t allowed to climb past. I sat at the top of the tree trying to catch my breath and I looked out at the view from the top of the world and it is, to this day, my favorite view of all time; you can see the entirety of the Black Hills from atop that tree and to a six year old, that is particularly spectacular. I looked down and saw my cousins playing by the house and running around after each other. I sat up there for so long watching them, they almost sent one of the older cousins up after me.
Eventually, though, I gathered the courage to start my decent, and if going up took a while, coming back down took twice as long. When I made it to the bottom branch my grandfather lifted me off and initiated that six year old life-changing moment I’d been expecting: “I always knew you could do it, Sweetheart. You just need a push sometimes, a little nudge to start the race, but remember, once you start running, don’t ever stop or look back.”