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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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The maple in my front yard
Funny how a swing can change your life

Some people bond with a new home as soon as they walk in. Not me. I knew our current house was ours before I crossed the threshold. On the day we pulled up to check it out, I just sat in the van.

"Are you coming in or not?" my wife Peggy asked impatiently. It was a frigid January morning eight years ago. She had toured the house the day before, and now she stood there, shivering.

I studied the house through the picture frame of the wet windshield. The yard seemed familiar. Like I had played there in another life. A fat maple tree draped its lush limbs over the corner of the lawn.

I envisioned a rope swing dangling from the highest branch. A movie trailer of coming attractions came to life. Our children appeared in the yard, our daughter Maggie in the center of the fun, swinging high on that rope. Looking back, I realize this was the deal closer.

"Chop-chop!" shouted Peggy, snapping me back to the present.

"I'll go in if you want," I offered. "But I don't care if that place caves in and falls into the ground. This is where we belong."

We woke up the first morning surrounded by neighbors we felt like we'd known all our life. A couple of them helped me tie up the swing after I returned from Farm and Fleet with a 30-foot length of one-inch hemp.

At this width even an adult hand had a lot to grab. Fresh on the tree, the stiff spines of the hemp pricked my hands with tiny splinters. My first installation included a seat made from a thick piece of discarded hardwood I found in the back lot at Menard's. The heavy butt plank lasted only a few days - I realized it was potentially a deadly missile that swinging free could bonk a little kid in the head.

So we tied an elaborate loop at the end of the rope. At first even that unsettled me. It looked like a hangman's knot. Not the kind of thing you want around children's body parts. But I got over it when I saw it was large enough to swallow kids whole, and that even adults could ride in its cradle.

Which is exactly what I'd do, and do, on a warm summer night after taking out the trash, or on a brittle, clear winter evening after alternate-side-parking our car.

If you've driven past our house at these times, you've seen me, feet outstretched, head in tight, flying wide, soaring over the sidewalk nearly into the street. Keep the couch. Ditch the drugs. This is poor man's therapy.

We're on our third replacement rope. When I change it, I rub my fingers on the shiny, smooth indentation the rope has massaged into the limb. This is the work of children at play. Honest, willful, unscripted. The tree has things to say about this. It always has.

"Don't go in yet," I hear it call to the kids some nights. "It's only dusk."

I woke up this morning to discover that our block is a blight of "For Sale" signs. It makes me want to grip the rope as hard as I can. If those signs had popped up five years ago my reaction would have been "So long, suckers!"

Nowadays things seem too fragile to flip off.

Old neighbors have passed away. Divorce has emptied out homes or pared down the occupancy. Other families grow rather than dwindle and seek bigger homes. My friend Tony and I sat on his front porch last week and watched a young couple load their lives into a truck and take off for Eugene.

While I never knew them well, I fought the urge to sneak their stuff out of the van, run it down the driveway, and stack it inside their back door.

I want my neighborhood to sit still. Just like I wanted my toddlers who reached for the rope to never change. But now they're high-schoolers, and life moves on.

The city is finally ready to upgrade the uneven slabs of our sidewalk. It's time. Women with strollers vanish into the deeper pools of the walkway's standing rainwater.

There's just one thing. Nobody with the city can guarantee me that the construction won't damage the maple's roots and won't leave our rope tree unharmed. Construction starts in October, and it'll be me out there, standing in front of the contractor's truck like the brave dude in Tiananmen Square.

Meanwhile, I look out at the rope swing through the second-floor window at the head of our bed. Most nights I lay there and unwind, staring down, taking stock of the day. Sometimes my mind drifts, and I see my beautiful Maggie frozen in time at 8 years old. She's laughing, blond hair blowing, swooping high circles above the ground, goofy and dizzy, demanding that the wild ride come to an end but not really meaning it.

She wants to swing forever.

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