Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne Tobias: Every kid needs a secret hideaway

When lawns green and trees bud, when the north wind calms and wardrobes switch from parkas to hoodies, my children climb a ladder into their favorite spring perch, our backyard tree house.

I watch them climb — Hannah with her bag of art supplies slung over one shoulder, Jack empty-handed, ready for anything — and I remember a poem from a Shel Silverstein book we used to read at bedtime:

A tree house, a free house,

A secret you and me house,

A high up in the leafy branches

Cozy as can be house...

They love it up there, against the trunk of a grand old honey locust tree. There's a table and bench chairs, a pulley basket for hauling up supplies, a battery light and a handwritten sign on an overhead plank: "Tree House Club: Members Only!!"

When we were considering buying our house, we made the mistake of bringing the kids along to see it one day. Once they saw the tree house, strong and sturdy, painted to match that other house with the kitchen and bathrooms, they noticed nothing else. We've since joked that we bought the tree house and, fortunately, the other place came with it.

I'm a fan of hideaways, especially for children — secret places away from the adult world where they can retreat. "The best ones," says author Katrina Kenison in her meditation on motherhood, "are hollowed by the shapes of small bodies and furnished by wild nature and rampant imagination."

Sometimes it's a circle of flattened grass beneath a canopy of trees, sometimes an attic playroom or closet. Years ago I met a mother whose 7-year-old daughter would retreat into a dark recess behind one of her kitchen cabinets, bringing along dolls or coloring books. Often the mom would hear the girl singing in there, so she'd open the door and offer a snack.

Springtime at our house means dinner on paper plates, offered through a trap door to eager hands and rumbling stomachs. I climb up occasionally, when asked, usually to admire the kids' handiwork. It's Terabithia without the arsenal of pinecones, a sanctuary among birds and squirrels.

Recently Hannah, my 12-year-old, drew a sketchy blueprint of her dream home, a rambling ranch (for lack of a better term) with a pool table, foosball game, home theater and "hot tub room."

In the back yard, drawn carefully with brown marker, was a tiny little square high up in a tree, a not-so-secret space overlooking the mansion. That, my daughter said, is where she'd live most days.

Best view in town.

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