“Hi, Daddy!” Five-year-old Jana ran to her father and he scooped her up in a hug.
“Hi, Sweetheart. Did you have a good time at Grandpa and Grandma’s all week?”
“Yeah! We had lots of fun.”
“Good. I’ve been very busy while you’ve been gone. Want to see what I’ve been making?”
Curtis returned Jana to the floor and led her into the back yard. She saw it instantly.
“A tree house!” She ran over to the tree and clambered up the ladder.
“Tree ‘house’ is right,” Helen said quietly, joining her husband. The new structure faced the family’s home. Part of it was built into the tree, but two sturdy poles provided much of the support.
“There has to be enough room if she ever invites me to a tea party up there,” he explained.
“Oh. Well, that makes perfect sense.” She shook her head and smiled at him. “But given your influence on her, I doubt there will be many tea parties.”
* * *
A summer later, Curtis climbed into the tree house.
“So, are you having a tea party up here?” he asked.
“No, Daddy,” she sighed. “Starship captains don’t have tea parties. We’re busy exploring new worlds and protecting people from mean aliens.”
“That does sound important. Do you need a first officer?”
* * *
“So what were you doing in your tree house today?” Helen asked one day the next summer.
“Nothing.” Jana’s eyes filled with tears, and a few slipped down her face.
Helen made herself smile. “You weren’t on the bridge of your ship?”
Jana managed to shake her head before throwing herself face down on the couch. There was nothing Helen could do but sit and cry with her.
* * *
“This is a pretty nice place to do homework,” Curtis told his fourteen-year-old daughter.
Jana nodded. “It’s too nice to be inside, and there’s not enough breeze to scatter my papers.”
“World War II. Right now, the war in Europe.”
“Well, not to ruin it for you, but Hitler did it.”
Jana laughed. “Yeah, I’d heard that.
* * *
“You didn’t say much about your date when you got home last night,” her father said.
Jana, now 16, sat in her favorite spot in the tree house, up against the outside wall. “There’s not much to tell,” she said.
“Did you have a good time?”
“Oh, sure. It was fine.”
He waited and finally prompted, “But?”
She remained quiet. “I don’t know if you’ll want to hear this.”
“David … he … well, he’s not a very good kisser. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”
“Stick with David. The last thing I want is for you to be going out with a boy who does know what he’s doing.”
Jana rolled her eyes but smiled fondly at him.
* * *
Jana sat on the couch, next to her mother. Her fingers dug into a pillow.
“You’re … you’re selling our home?”
“Jana, you’re going off to college in a couple of months, and this place is too big for one person,” her mother said. “It’s time for another family to enjoy it.”
A tear ran down Jana’s face as she looked out the window. “But … my tree house,” she whispered.
“I know what that tree house means to you.” Helen hugged her daughter. “But you’re really too big for it now, anyway, honey.”
Jana went outside and climbed the old ladder, her heart denying her mother’s words with each step up. She sat in her customary spot and put her face in her hands. It had been eleven years since she had wept so fiercely.
Her tears gradually stopped, but her mind continued to rage. She looked up through watery eyes at her father, leaning against the opposite wall. He looked just like he did the day she first saw her tree house.
“You know,” he said, “your mom’s right. You really are a big girl now. It’s a pretty tight fit for us up here.”
“So you don’t care?” Jana yelled. “You don’t care that we won’t be able to come up here again?”
“No, not particularly,” he said quietly, shrugging. “This tree house has served you well all these years. But it’s time to move on.”
“But this is our place.”
“You can’t let yourself get trapped by a place, no matter how dear it is to you,” he said. “There are lots of other places, and they can each be just as special as this one.”
Jana began to cry again. “This is all I have left of you.”
“No, it isn’t. I’m with you wherever you are. You don’t need these old boards for that. This tree house isn’t like Aladdin’s lamp, where you keep the genie bottled up.” Curtis leaned closer to his daughter. “Yes, I died eleven years ago, but I am part of you beyond your ability to do anything about it, beginning with your DNA and culminating in your daily life – in ways you don’t even realize.” He paused. “It’s not easy for your mom to move on, either. We made you here. We snuggled together and watched TV in the living room. But she knows that this is the right time to start fresh, to see what the next thing in life will be.”
Jana sniffled. “So when I go –” Her voice caught. “When I go down those steps for the last time, you’ll come with me?”
He smiled at her. “I always have.”