The Broken Birch

“The Broken Birch,” Friend, Aug.–Sept. 1985, 34

The Broken Birch

I’ll bet I can jump that bush without touching one branch!” Rob shouted to Joey as the two boys raced home from school on Friday afternoon.

“Ha! I’ll bet you can’t!” cried Joey as he stopped to watch.

Rob’s jacket hood flapped in the breeze as he sailed high over a forsythia bush on the corner.

“Hey, not bad!” admitted Joey. “Now it’s my turn.” He tore off in another direction, searching for a bush to jump.

This jumping game had gone on before and after school since Rob had moved to Joey’s neighborhood the year before. Every shrub and small tree had come to know the boys’ skimming feet and laughing voices.

Joey Carter was tall for his eleven years and a little awkward when trying to manage his long legs, while Rob Foster, a year younger, was short and chunky with a tangle of red hair.

“Come on. Mom promised brownies and milk if we came right home!” exclaimed Rob. “Remember, you’re staying for supper.”

“Brownies!” Joey smacked his lips. “Boy, oh boy! I’ll even get there first.” He tore off with Rob right at his heels. They leaped bushes and hedges and reeled, out of breath, across the yard next to Rob’s toward the Foster driveway. Laughing and pushing, each trying to lead, the boys reached a big syringa bush at the same time. They jumped together, landing in scrambling confusion on the walk. Tumbling across the grass, they failed to see a young birch tree in their way. With a loud snap, the lovely tree bent and broke before their combined weight and fell to the ground. Both boys stopped short in dismay.

“Oh, man,” Rob groaned. “We’re in for it now! That’s Mrs. McGinnis’s favorite tree.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Joey whispered, glancing around. “Nobody saw it happen. If we just leave, no one will know.” He shoved Rob roughly, and they dashed for the Foster porch.

As they paused there to catch their breaths, Rob said uncertainly. “Maybe we’d better tell—”

“Are you nuts?” Joey gasped. “We’d have to pay for it. This way she can just call her insurance company. My dad says that damage like that is covered by most insurance policies.”

Rob hesitated. “Are you sure? I don’t want any trouble.”

“Hey,” Joey insisted, “isn’t my dad an insurance salesman? He knows. Let it go. I’m ready for those brownies.”

Rob opened the front door, and the two boys went into the house. Brownies and milk soon made them forget the broken tree, and they spent the rest of the afternoon reading some recent additions to Rob’s comic book collection. When the call for supper came, they found the brownies had not dented their appetites.

Pot roast and mashed potatoes helped stay the pangs of hunger, and the boys listened while Mr. Foster told of his day’s work. Mrs. Foster was so quiet that Rob’s father asked, “What’s the matter, dear?”

“I’m just thinking about Mrs. McGinnis, poor lady. While I was getting supper,” Rob’s mother explained, “I saw Mrs. McGinnis trying to tie up her birch tree. The wind must have broken it off.”

“What wind?” asked Mr. Foster. “It hasn’t been windy all day. That birch tree was OK when I left this morning.”

The boys glanced at each other and quickly back at their plates. Rob was red-faced, and Joey looked worried. Nothing more was said, and, when the table had been cleared and the dishwasher loaded, the boys went back to Rob’s room.

“Say, Joey,” began Rob, “I think we ought—”

“I know what you’re going to say, pal,” interrupted Joey, “and I say no way am I going to do anything about that tree. Anyhow, Mom and Dad’ll be home by now, and I have to be going.” His voice trailed off as he closed Rob’s door and headed downstairs.

At breakfast the next morning Rob was very quiet, and when his father came down, Rob looked at him and slowly said, “Dad … I’d like to talk to you and Mom for a minute.”

“What’s the problem, Son?” asked Mr. Foster, laying down his newspaper. “Tell us about it, and we’ll see if we can help.”

The story of Mrs. McGinnis’s tree poured out. Rob kept Joey’s part in the accident to himself and took all the blame for it. “I just didn’t look where I was going, and I fell on it. Then I got scared and ran home.”

Mr. and Mrs. Foster looked at their scarlet-faced son sympathetically.

“What do you think should be done, Rob?” his mother asked gently.

“Well, I’m going to have to go over and tell Mrs. McGinnis what happened, I guess,” said Rob unhappily. “And I suppose I’ll have to buy a new tree. Do they cost much, Dad?”

“I’m not sure how much one would cost, Son,” Mr. Foster said kindly, “but we’ll work something out. When do you want to go over?”

“Right now, Dad,” Rob said. “Will you come with me—just for moral support? I’ll do the talking.”

Mrs. McGinnis was smiling when she answered Rob’s knock, but they could see that she had been crying. Rob hoped it wasn’t about the tree.

“Mrs. McGinnis, I came to tell you that I’m the one who broke your tree. I’m really sorry, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you right away. Dad says we can replace it, and I’m going to pay for it out of my allowance.” As the words tumbled out, Rob saw that she had started to cry again. He was startled when he saw her smile through the tears.

“Thank you, Rob,” she said. “I appreciate your coming over to explain. Come on in a minute, both of you. I’ve just baked some sweet rolls.”

Rob had already noticed the spicy fragrance from the kitchen, and he and his father quickly accepted the invitation. In less than a minute they both were enjoying sweet rolls and milk in the cozy kitchen.

“Rob,” Mrs. McGinnis said unevenly, “I want to tell you why that tree was so special. This isn’t the first time it has been broken off. The very same thing happened four years ago, when my son Bill was still alive.”

Rob and his dad exchanged surprised looks. They hadn’t known that there were any McGinnis children.

“Bill and a friend broke it off, wrestling in the yard,” she continued. “They worked for weeks collecting newspapers so that they could replace it. That was a year before Bill was killed in an automobile accident. Rob, you remind me of Bill. You’re a lot like him.”

“Mrs. McGinnis,” Rob said, “I’m sorry to make you think of such a sad thing.”

“It’s all right, Rob,” she said. “I’ve learned to forget the bad things and remember the good ones. I’ve even been cleaning out Bill’s room, and I found some things I think you might like to have. Bill was mighty proud of his comic book collection. Would you like to look at it?”

It took Rob and Mr. Foster three trips to transfer Bill McGinnis’s comic books to the shelves in Rob’s room. Rob gazed thoughtfully at the piles.

“You know, Dad,” he said slowly, “I think maybe I’ll buy two birch trees. I’ll put one in our yard to help me remember a neat kid and a terrific lady.”

Illustrated by Michael Rogan