By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree  CHAPTER 12

Illustrations by Ruth McGraw

Chapter 12 – An Atmosphere of Enchantment

 Since it will become relevant later on, now might be a good time to tell you how many of the Swerling clan either grew up in the park or came here on weekends and over school vacations. Sometimes it seemed as if every tree had three, four, or more family members hanging from a limb, reading a book, or wooing and being wooed, and all at the same time.

I know “wooing” is an old fashioned term, but sedentary as we trees are, we watch. We listen. We notice. We see styles and attitudes change, and we realize that morality, custom, and etiquette are all very much subjected to the inexorable passage of time.

Less so, however, within the confines of the Samuel Swerling Park.

It’s almost as if in creating two acres of greenery in the middle of a big city, Sam also created an island that would be impervious to the depredations of the present – whenever that present might happen to be.

Oh, attempts are made and sometimes almost succeed in making us less an entity in and of ourselves and more accessible to contemporary society, but they always fail.

They always will fail.

It’s not that we are protected by a magic dome suspended over our highest branches. Nor do we disappear every night for a hundred years like the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon. And we are not exempt from the Rule of Law, which time after time has tried to breach our perimeter and obliterate our autonomy.

It’s more that the architecture and essence of the park are such that they prohibit certain types of behavior, and as a consequence, protect everything and everyone inside.

Children, for example. They yell and scream with joyful abandon here as they do everywhere else. But they do not ridicule inside the park. They do not bully. If they try, as Jarvis Larchmont tried, they are stopped. And more often than not, adults whom they call by their first names on the outside, they address respectfully as Mr. or Mrs. Smith or Aunt Ellen and Uncle Pete, within the confines of the Samuel Swerling Park.

Children also play long forgotten games here.

Games their parents remember the minute they walk through our gate, and immediately teach to their young. Blind Man’s Bluff and Red Rover. Tag and SPUD. Dodge ball, kick the can, and hide and seek. Sam and Alonso even created a blacktopped expanse south of the Children’s Garden, where boys and girls are encouraged to play marbles, hopscotch and jacks.

The main attractions, though, are and always will be the climbing trees. We stand steadfast and tall, with drum-rolls of love coursing through our every branch, twig, and leaf. We love the laughter of children. We love the irresistible touch of their small hands and scrambling feet.

It is the breath of life to us.

It is our sunshine.

It is our reason for being.

Oh, the Samuel Swerling Park is a pleasant place to be.

Of course, electronic devices – I have learned to call them that – do not work here. If writers want to write, they must bring pads and pens. If artists want to draw, they must use charcoal, pencils, or paint. Readers must read from books with paper pages. Conversations must be conducted face-to-face. Beepers do not beep; cell phones do not ring; and satellite signals do not penetrate beyond the topmost leaf of the highest tree.

But, as I said before, it is not magic.

It’s a signal-blocking device that Esther designed when she was quite young. Her idea (approved by the Board of Trustees, i.e., her grandfather) was to preserve the park’s tranquility so that children can run riot with joy while adults are protected from the nagging demands of relentless accessibility.

In other words, nobody can talk to anybody else in the park unless they are physically present to do so.

I once overheard a series of conversations that resulted in a relationship I would like to tell you about. The man is Franklin Swerling, one of Samuel’s nephews.

The woman is Genevieve.

Genevieve and Franklin met at work. Different departments. Same floor. She was a professional looking, buttoned up young lady in a tailored business suit and high-heeled shoes. She had sleek brown hair that was arranged in a tight up-do, finely arched eyebrows, and a pretty face.

But she had frantic eyes.

Franklin is also good-looking, with the kind of an angular face you might expect to see on an advertisement for Oxford shirts or English briar pipes. He has a square jaw, aquiline nose, and

honest eyes. Although Franklin often played here as a child, when he returned as an adult, he was wearing a three-piece suit, a diagonally striped tie, and shoes polished to a high shine.

And he was carrying a briefcase.

It was only after his fifth or sixth visit that he brought Genevieve. But by then, his wardrobe had changed considerably, and he was wearing a blazer with an open shirt collar, khaki pants, and loafers.

He left his briefcase at work.

Each time he came, though, with or without Genevieve, he was accompanied by a plump female of about thirty who was holding two cell phones, one in each hand. This person seemed to think it was her job to nag Franklin about meetings that he should be attending, reports that he should be writing, and telephone calls that he should be returning. Franklin inevitably responded that the meeting wasn’t important; the report wasn’t due for two weeks; and to please go back to the office and leave him alone.

The first time she followed him to the park, she tried to come inside. Instead, she jerked to a halt at the gate and practically shouted, “I lost my signal!”

Franklin also stopped. He grinned. “Roly,” he said, “it’ll do your soul good to be out of touch for a while.”

I don’t know if Roly was her real name, if it was short for Rosalind or Rosemary, or a nickname given to her because she was roly-poly.

She took another step into the park, shook her head, and muttered, “Still no signal.”

She stared at her cell phone in silence and retreated toward the street. A few seconds later, she shouted, “Got it! The signal’s back. You can talk here,” and she motioned for Franklin to join her on the sidewalk.

But he just laughed. Then he gave her a cheerful wave, said, “Bye bye, Kiddo,” and strode deeper into the park. When he was out of Roly’s sight, he slowed to a walk. By the time he had walked twice around the lily pond, he was moving at a loose-limbed amble.

On his second visit to the park, Franklin spent what I assumed was his entire lunch hour lounging on one of my upper branches.


My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree  CHAPTER 12

If I remember correctly, all he did that day was to think or not think and watch people.

He brought a novel with him on his third visit, and read for about an hour.

On his fourth, he perused a book of poetry.

On his fifth visit, or maybe it was his sixth, he brought Genevieve.

Each time he came, including that day with Genevieve, Roly followed him as far as the park entrance, and stopped.

Once when he came here, Franklin saw Roly dithering at the entrance, neither entering nor leaving, and asked, “Have you ever heard the expression ‘stop and smell the roses’?”

Roly harrumphed.

She was shaped something like an eggplant, and she was considerably overweight. I have noticed that fat people often exaggerate other features to draw attention away from their bulk. With Roly, it was her hair, dyed as red as a cayenne pepper, and her eyes, covered with huge green framed eyeglasses that gave her the look of a frog.

“Sure,” Roly called after her boss, who had not waited for her. “It means to stop running around like a maniac and enjoy life. So that’s what you think about me, Franklin? That I don’t know how to enjoy life? That I don’t stop to smell the roses?”

Franklin shook his head. “You’re the best secretary I’ve ever had, Roly. And you’re probably the best secretary anyone ever will have. Every day, I thank the merciful gods of commerce for assigning you to my sphere. But would it kill you to take off an hour for lunch every now and then, and just relax?”

Roly glared.

“Look at this beautiful park,” Franklin continued, making a sweeping gesture with his hand. “It has flowerbeds filled with every conceivable bloom. It has a garden filled with poetry. It has a koi pond filled with water lilies. And it’s only a block from our office. Just one block, Roly. But have you ever been here? Have you ever stepped inside?”

“No.” She snorted. “And I don’t want to. What I want is for you to take this call.” She held out one of the cell phones in his direction. “And for you to answer this text message.” She held out the other one.

He shook his head, a rueful smile on his face. Then he threw her a kiss, winked, and strode away from her, into the depths of the park.

The first time that Franklin brought Genevieve here, Roly followed them to the entrance, paused when her cell phone started ringing, and was about to call her boss back when he and his companion disappeared behind a cluster of purple blooming lilac bushes.

So she just shook her head in disgust and walked away.

I think that even before Franklin introduced Genevieve to our park, he had already worked out a detailed plan to rescue her from a life of relentless productivity. On her maiden voyage through our gate, the jacket of Genevieve’s business suit was buttoned as tightly as a sealed coffin. She clutched her briefcase in a white-knuckled fist, and her eyes darted back and forth as if she expected to see a Partner-From-The-Firm lurking behind every tree.

An hour later, after throwing pennies into the lily pond and making wishes, she had taken off her high-heels and was walking barefoot in the grass, with the toes of her shoes poking out the side pockets of her shoulder bag.

All that Franklin and Genevieve did on that first day was to explore the Children’s Garden and eat the sandwiches which, with great forethought, Franklin had brought for a picnic lunch.

During their second stroll through the park and before she had even stepped onto the brick path, Genevieve changed from her high-heeled shoes to ballet flats with pretty bows on the toes. And she wasn’t wearing a business suit. She was wearing a dress with a skirt wide enough for easy climbing onto the limbs of our many trees.

They picnicked on that day, too.

And they talked.

Genevieve told Franklin that she liked her job. Then she laughed and added, “But if we keep this up, I could learn to love it.”

Franklin grinned and said, “I have a theory that happy people are more efficient than miserable drudges.” He clicked his soda bottle against hers. “To happiness!”

She laughed, clicked back, and said, “To recovering drudges!”

The next time that they came, they climbed to the higher of my two lowest branches and ate their sandwiches in silence.

Then Franklin began to read aloud from his book of poetry.

That, I believe, is when the serious wooing began.

I won’t particularize every aspect of their romance, although it was a great joy for me to watch it blossom and grow. However I will convey an observation which I consider to be relevant and pertinent.

My observation is this: That if Franklin had not brought Genevieve to this specific park at that specific time, and if she had not walked barefoot along our paths, thrown pennies into our lily pond, and listened to a man who read poetry while she was nestled in the arms of the climbing tree nearest to the park’s entrance, meaning me, her eyes never would have lost their look of frantic urgency, and she never would have fallen in love.

As I said before, there is no magic in the Samuel Swerling Park.

But there is grace here.

There is warmth.

There is enchantment.

And we are capable of inspiring magical things.

However, enough of that, since I was going to tell you about Sam’s children.

And about Sam’s children’s children.

I don’t want to bore you with too many details, but I do want you to know who shares our history, and why, when we needed them, so many good people had a reason to come home.


Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her work, visit