When we first moved into our house, there were a number of pre-teen boys who had been using what had just become our backyard as their personal playground. Having a new family inhabiting the house didn't slow them down much. They felt that the grass and the fruit on the trees were pretty much theirs since it had been for as long as they could remember. Which wasn't very long. This meant that I had to spend a certain amount of time each week discouraging young men out of our apple tree. Not their apple tree. My apple tree. The apple tree that was going to bear enough fruit to make a pie and maybe some apple sauce, and when we were done with that, we might just share with the kids in the neighborhood. First, we had to get some of those apples past the nasty sour green stage which our neighbor boys seemed to favor. Or maybe they were simply trying to get to them first. That's why one night, I hid in the darkness next to our garage and waited for three of them to come skittering over the fence, whispering and poking one another. I waited for them to start to climb into the tree before I stepped out of the shadows.
"Hey," I blurted, forgetting the "get out of my yard" part of my authoritative exclamation.
The boys scattered. Two of them hopped the fence on the opposite side of the yard, being fleet of foot. The slowest of the three was still making his way out of the tree when I caught up to him. "What do you think you're doing?" I asked in the most rhetorical fashion possible.
He was there to grab some apples, just like he had been doing for however many summers prior, only now there was some goof grabbing him by the arm and asking him stupid questions.
I recognized him and marched him out the front gate and around to the apartment where he and his father lived just next door. I was mumbling something about disapproval and how he should know better and what would his father say when the door opened and his father said, "Yes?"
I explained that his son had been sneaking into our yard with his friends under cover of darkness and had been prepared to make off with as many of those not so mature apples as they could carry.
"Well," said the father, "What shall we do about this?" He was asking me as much as he was asking his son. I had been a parent only about as long as I had been his neighbor, so I didn't have any startlingly good ideas.
"Maybe next time, if you want apples from our tree, you could ask." And in that moment, the situation diffused and I was no longer on the edge of a confrontation. I was coming to an understanding. We were all in this together. There would be more seasons, and more apples, and we needed a way to understand one another. Eventually, we made a deal where the neighborhood kids could have their fill of the yellow plums from the front yard, but we kept the apples, apricots and red plums from the back yard to ourselves. That deal served us well for quite a while, until the neighborhood kids grew up and moved away. Now we have to give our surplus to community organizations who don't throw nearly as many at each other as the kids used to.
This past weekend, I awoke to the sight of our apple tree flopped back on top of itself. It had become top heavy with the new crop, and years of haphazard pruning had left it susceptible to snapping under the strain. That's just what happened. In the end, it wasn't the neighborhood kids who destroyed our tree, it was us. We had stopped paying attention to it, just like the kids did once we moved in. My wife tried to salvage as much as she could from the splintered wreck, but the center of our yard is now home to a snag, not a tree. I'll miss it. And the apples. And those late night raids.