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PRIVATE LIVES

"It's not a kapok," I protested. "My friends here call it a "caroleeena' tree, with a long eee, like in Spanish."

"It's a kapok," my father insisted. "Later in the year it gets fuzzy all over. Only kapoks do that. Those children don't know what they're talking about."

So we called it The Kapok. Its majestic outline stood against the distant view of Havana, Cuba. The intense ultramarine sea colored its backdrop.

I loved that tree more than anything else. In my childhood, it was my best friend. Often, I disappeared from the house to climb The Kapok. I grabbed its lowest branch, swung my legs around it and pulled myself up to a sitting position, but that place was never high enough for me. Like a little monkey, I scrambled up to my favorite spot, where a branch crossed two others, making a "V" small enough for me to sit on without falling through. I was so used to climbing that I could have done it with my eyes closed.

This was a special place, high enough to receive the full breezes from the ocean. It was a secret place, where I could sing lullabies without being heard. Sitting there, my hands _ and my soul _ were free.

I was truly in paradise.

My mother stood on the verandah drying her hands. As usual, she cautioned me in French, her native tongue.

"Don't waste the day, Suzanne. You think you have all the time in the world?"

As usual, I answered: "Oui, Maman."

She went back inside and set me free to stay with my friend.

From the top of the hill, in front of the house where we lived in the early '30s, a concrete terrace jutted forward, part of an unfinished house below. The tree grew at the foot of that house, so that its lower branches were at the height of the terrace. Its roots grew out of the earth in a joint dance of cones and cobs, making a ladder just for me. The ladder helped me break my sliding as I went down the slope toward the base of the trunk.

Out of view, below the terrace and the hill, in the secrecy of my hideaway, I hugged the tree, but my arms reached only halfway around. I caressed its smooth, grayish bark, admired the solid body and the beautiful jutting of the branches into the air.

"I want to be just like you," I said softly. "Strong and beautiful."

I leaned my head against the trunk and listened, as I always did. That day I thought the tree answered me.

I thought I could feel its sap race upward, flowing with a heartbeat. Somehow I made the connection: If I grew, and reached for the stars, I could become strong and beautiful. What a revelation! I was just a little girl, but I knew I'd found an answer. I marveled at the wisdom of the tree and determined that I would be just like it _ strong and beautiful!

How long did I stay there? I don't remember exactly. Probably all afternoon. It takes at least that long to assimilate the great aha's of one's life. Mother would have thought that I was wasting the day, but after all, back then, I did have all the time in the world.

Now, 50 years later, I visit Cuba on an assignment. I go to our old homestead. The hurricane of '35 swept the house away. I greet my old friend. It seems smaller now. Parts of it are broken, but it still stands, without leaves or flowers, against the same magnificent view of Havana.

Is this the tree that held me in its arms, its branches my cradle? Is this the tree that heard my songs?

The breezes blow, and the leaves in the brambles murmur a sort of melody _ or do I hear my long-forgotten lullaby?

Susana Bouquet-Chester lives in Clearwater. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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