“Why is there a tree on top of the house?”
It was winter 1932, and I was standing with my parents in the mud where a street was going to be. I pointed up at the wooden scaffolding around a three-story house. The house looked to me as if it were climbing up the side of the hill. Vineyards still grew behind it. The roof of the house was flat, and a small spruce tree seemed to be sprouting from its top. To the tree was tied a red rag that waved merrily in the cold wind, like a flag.
My brother Hans came bounding out from somewhere in back, bursting with excitement.
“There’s a perfect corner for an Indian tent back there, and I saw a great place for a tree house, and—”
Mama interrupted him. “Look at your boots, Hans. Didn’t I tell you to stay out of the mud?”
Hans looked guiltily down at his boots. Then he raised his curly red head and gave Mama one of those smiles of his. She never could resist them.
But my question hadn’t been answered yet.
“Papa? The tree?”
“Well, it’s just a custom, you see, Ollie,” he said. “No one really remembers why anymore. All I know is that whenever the last nail has been hammered into the framework of a new house, the builders celebrate by placing a tree on the roof. It probably goes back to very ancient times. Anyway, it’s done all over. Does that answer your question, Miss Nosyface?”
“Is it done all over the whole world?” I asked. Papa laughed.
“I don’t know about the whole world, Ollie. All I know is it’s done where we live, here in Stuttgart, Germany.” Papa pulled his shoulders back and stood straighter than that little tree high up on the roof.
“It’s going to be such a beautiful house,” said Mama. Her eyes were shining. “We’ve waited so long for this. I can see it now. White stucco. Big picture window downstairs in the drawing room. I’ll keep a rubber tree plant in it. It will grow and grow and climb clear across the ceiling, just like the one my aunt, Tante Julchen, had when I was a child. And we’ll have a balcony all across the second floor where the bedrooms will be, and—”
“I thought you liked our apartment,” teased Papa, with a perfectly straight face. I could tell how pleased he was, though, by his voice.
“Oh, I do,” Mama answered quickly. “But a house … ! Just think, children. You’ll each have your very own room!”
“And a playroom,” added Papa.
“And a garden with secret hiding places,” added Hans.
“And a roof that’s flat with a tree on it,” said I.
Everybody laughed. “Silly,” said Hans. “The tree doesn’t stay there.” My face must have shown my disappointment. “Never mind,” he tried to comfort me. “You’re only five years old. When you get to be thirteen, like me, you’ll know more stuff.”
“She already knows a lot of stuff,” said Papa. “And if you’re so smart, young man, how about scraping that mud off your boots before your mother has to speak to you about it again?”
“When will our house be finished, Daddy? Will we move into it soon?” He had called him Daddy, the way English children addressed their papas. I knew he was trying to impress him. But he did start scraping his muddy boots on one of the bricks lying around. Papa sighed deeply.
“I certainly hope so,” he said.