Akey and Letta ~ my maternal grandparents.

Akey and Letta ~ my maternal grandparents.







Metal toy wagon, left in tree branches, approx. 1924. (Picture by Marylin Warner)

Metal toy wagon, left in tree branches, circa 1924. (Picture by Marylin Warner)

This happened many decades before I was born, but since I have the tangible proof now, it’s my story to tell. My grandfather called it “a child’s mistake,” but I have trouble thinking of it as any kind of mistake. After all, a mistake is an error, a blunder or oversight, a slip-up or inaccuracy, and I see it as an astounding legacy…a true memory maker.

Supposedly, six-year-old Mary Elizabeth (my mother, who is 96 now) and her siblings were playing by the barn when their mother, my grandmother, came out to pick corn from the family garden. She called for the children to come and help. They had been playing with toys—little metal wagons, carved wooden animals, bent forks and spoons—and Mary E. was scooting one of the metal wagons in the grass. When her mother called them to help, Mary E. looked around for a place to put her wagon, maybe so she could play with it again later. She chose one of the trees nearby.

Standing on tiptoe, she tucked the wagon in a “v” of two branches, pushing it in tight so it wouldn’t fall. Then she ran to help with shucking ears of corn. One thing led to another, and maybe she forgot about her hidden wagon. No one knows for sure.

Years later, my grandfather was cutting down overgrown trees. To his surprise, he found branches grown around the little metal wagon, locking it in place and making it a permanent part of the tree. He carefully cut above and below the wagon, sanded the edges of the wood, and painted the entire piece with leftover paint in the barn.

This wagon-in-the-tree-branch is one of my favorite keepsakes. To me it is not a mistake but a gift, a child’s creative attempt to store a toy, and nature’s way of making it a piece of art. My mother doesn’t recognize it, and telling her the story might make her smile, but she wouldn’t realize it is her story. But as I hold the little wagon, I can close my eyes and imagine my mother as a little girl standing on tiptoe and reaching for the branch.

Rudyard Kipling wrote, “I never made a mistake in my life; at least, never one that I couldn’t explain away afterwards.”   If Mom could remember this story, I think she would definitely cherish it as something other than a mistake. Look at the treasure we have now, ninety years after siblings played in the Missouri sunshine.

Maybe her brothers Sam and Ira saw what she did that day. If so, they maybe nudged each other and did what Napoleon once advised, “Never interrupt your enemy (or your sister) when he (or she) is making a mistake.”   Or maybe, without realizing it, they proved author Brandon Mull’s statement: “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” As far as we can tell, neither of the boys imitated their sister and tried doing the same thing with other toys.

I choose to agree more with author Rita Mae Brown: “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” I hold the little wagon-in-the-wood and say it was Mary Elizabeth using good judgment—without realizing it at the time—and leaving a charming keepsake for her daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandchildren. This was not a mistake, but a gift she didn’t realize she was creating.

It’s a good lesson to consider: what we do today may outlive us and affect others in ways we cannot even imagine.  Thanks, Mom.


With llamas--as with kisses--spit happens, but that doesn't make it a mistake.  Not a gift, necessarily, but not a mistake.  (Sorry, but I couldn't resist.)

With llamas–as with kisses–spit happens, but that doesn’t make it a mistake. Not a gift, necessarily, but also not a mistake. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I love this picture.)



Filed under art, Dementia/Alzheimer's, experiments, lessons about life, special quotations

78 responses to “A MISTAKE?

  1. Nancy Saltzman

    I got totally engrossed and involved reading your blog today. What a sweet story. I love the way you ended your tale. “It’s a good lesson to consider: what we do today may outlive us and affect others in ways we cannot even imagine. Thanks, Mom.” I can relate and I am grateful for the ways my mother affected me.

    • And when we’re grateful for the ways they affected us, Nancy, we find all kinds of little “memory makers” they created and left behind. So many of my mom’s memories have been lost to dementia, but this little wagon set in the tree branch reminds me of her playful, spontaneous actions as a child, and that triggers grateful memories of her as my mom before the dementia.

  2. what a great story! i’m so glad that she tucked the wagon away and forgot about it, as it will be forever cherished, and wow, what a wonderful legacy to pass along to keep the family memories alive!

  3. Why am I not surprised that you also see this as a wonderful legacy? Your art is colorful, original, vibrant, but I knew you would appreciate the beauty of this child’s toy evolving into a treasured piece of art!

  4. Toddat, thanks to your Mom, hundreds of parents will be choosing one of their children’s toys to stick in the cleft of a tree for future generations to enjoy. She’s a trendsetter.
    That Llama looks very knowing, a very sly look in the sideways glance.
    xxx Ginormous Hugs Marylin xxx

    • Only you, David, would call my mom’s childhood antics trendsetting, but the more I think about it, the more I really like that! Based on the rest of her life and the many “new” things she came up with to help others–and keep me pointed in the right direction–you might be right. Trendsetter. Yes!
      Ginormous hugs right back to you!

  5. I love this story. I have a lot of keepsakes from my mother but nothing as unusual and historical as the toy wagon in a tree. I hope it is passed on as an heirloom, from generation to generation. What a shame it no longer registers with your mom. Maybe it will come back, fleetingly, if you leave a photo of it with her.

    • That’s the beauty of writing the stories about her, Andrew. After I post a story, I get another idea. When I drive to Kansas for my August visit, I’ve decided to take it with me and try again to see if she recognizes it.
      Maybe holding it, running her fingers over the edges and touching the little wagon wheels, will trigger something.
      It’s worth a try.

  6. Carol

    I love this story

  7. What a lovely, endearing legacy. I wonder if the children tried to remove it but it was already stuck fast? And I hope someone puts your llama photo and funny words in a legacy box. 😀

    • I think there were a lot of trees between the house and the barn, Gallivanta, so maybe it was hidden in the branches of one. I’ve often wondered how long before the little wagon became locked in place. I’m glad my grandfather found it. It would have been a shame if it had just been tossed out and burned with old branches.
      I love the llama photo! I took the picture when we were up at the North Pole (near Pikes Peak in Colorado). This llama was almost grinning and winking…and then he(she) spit!

  8. Jane Thorne

    I love that your Grandfather saw the significance in this, yet little realising the comfort it would bring you all later. Like you, the word mistake makes me cringe…how can anything be a mistake when it’s all part of a rich tapestry. I like to say that ‘cul de sacs’ and ‘u turns’ are all part of gaining wisdom…and sometimes we need to go back and do them again just to wring every last drop of wisdom out of them! Much ❤ to you, your lovely Mum, your loved ones and your wise Grandfather, Marylin. xX

    • I love the conclusions you draw, Jane. We do need to sometimes go back and do the “cul de sacs” and “u turns” in life to wring every last drop of wisdom out of them! You word that perfectly!
      I send much love to you, too, on behalf of my mom and my grandfather.

  9. Jane Thorne

    I love the Llama pic and analogy ❤

  10. Don

    Such a wonderful story Marilyn. That little wagon in the trunk is just incredible. What an amazing keepsake.

    • Thanks, Don. I’m not crazy about the silver paint he used, but I don’t have the heart to repaint it a better color. This was the leftover paint he had, and this was the wise grandfather who carefully cut the branch to preserve the little truck. I’ll leave it silver.

  11. I love this story and your unique souvenir of your mother’s childhood. How fortunate that the family stayed in the same place for so long- If they had moved away, it may still have been found but there would have been no story behind it. And i am always amazed at how trees “incorporate” foreign bodies. 🙂

    • Actually, Catterel, my grandmother’s farm where the trees were cut down is still in the family, and farmed by one of my uncle’s children and grandchildren. But you’re right, to buy a piece of land and find this little wagon held tight in a tree would be interesting, but it wouldn’t mean much if you didn’t know the story.
      We’re always amazed when we hike in the woods and see how huge trees have grown around each other, twisting and turning for sun, their branches intertwined.

  12. This story will stay with me, giving me much to ponder all week, about the “mistakes,” about art (that keepsake you treasure looks like a museum piece to me!), and about how our stories interact with each other to inspire and mold us.

    I’m needing to pull back the amount of time I spend blogging and commenting. Because I’m deeply involved in writing new books (3 at once! and more on the way!), my health demands that I pace myself. So, if you get only short comments from me, or a “like” to let you know I’ve been here, I hope you’ll understand that I’m reading, and treasuring, your words.

    • I will definitely understand, Tracy. Three books at once? Wow. I can hardly read three books at once.
      Your first book was excellent. Take good care of yourself during these projects!

  13. Hi Marylin, What a GREAT story! Not only did your mom find an amazing spot for her wagon but your grandfather had the wisdom to preserve it! What a lovely keepsake for you to cherish.
    (And, I love your llama picture at the end!)
    xo Joanne

    • Thanks, Joanne. It really is a legacy and a keepsake from BOTH of them to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren they didn’t even imagine at the time.
      (I love the llama picture, too. It makes me smile every time I look at it.)

  14. Hudson Howl

    I am reminded in a way, how similar this is to cryogenics. The limbs full life and liquid, surround and encase. Holding onto to the very moment, your mother placed the wagon in the notch of the tree -always alive in a kind of suspended time and place – I hesitate to use suspended animation, that would different I think.

    I will have to start looking up into the trees around my parents place. Could be that is where all of those lost hammers and vise-grips of my father’s ended up.

    • Hudson Howl

      P.S. Who could resist the words and image of the Dolly Lama.

    • It had the same effect on me, Hudson. I’ve found only one other object “grown into” a tree, a small hand spade that maybe a gardner had put aside and planned to use later…but then forgot. It is in the yard of an old house I pass on my walks, and I create all kinds of answers about who left it there and then never returned.
      There are are several areas in Colorado Springs where knitters have chosen trees and made colorful knitted pieces and branch “socks” and fringes. Those make me smile, but the little wagon in the wood captured my heart.

  15. Pingback: A Gift | A Simple, Village Undertaker

  16. A keepsake frozen in time – what a great artifact and true tale! And cheers to your grandfather for recognizing what a treasure it was/is. Thanks for sharing this with your readers today and for pulling out just the perfect quotes to illustrate your point. No, not a mistake but a gift.

    The llama is endearing. I know what you mean about including strange but appropriate photos in blog posts. In my July Purple Passages post I included a camel, just because it is cartoony and clever and drawn by my husband. Thank you, Marylin.

    • Thank you, Marian. Your camel, my llama…how can we resist? There’s so much more to life than the obvious.
      The comments have reminded me that this is actually as much my grandfather’s tale as my mother’s. What she did as a young child would have been lost if it hadn’t been for his careful preservation. It would have been so easy to trim and cut down the trees and burn them or have them taken away. The keepsake would have been lost.
      I wonder how many things in our lives are disposed of and forgotten without us realizing how important they were.

  17. In art there are no mistakes just opportunities.
    This is a lovely story and priceless keepsake.

  18. What a beautiful story and keepsake. Even though your grandfather called it a mistake he knew the value and didn’t destroy it. Bless his heart.

    • You know, Gerlinde, I’ve thought about that. Maybe his definition of a mistake was more of a nice accident, something unplanned but ultimately useful? He spoke precisely in a rich, strong but calm voice, and when he called the little wagon-in-wood a mistake, I don’t remember thinking he was disparaging it.
      I very grateful he saved it. Yes, bless his heart.

  19. beautiful story friend

  20. This is the best story I read today! I love her ingenuity along with feeling bad for your Mom’s apparently busy life! She certainly got side tracked and didn’t come back for that wagon!! I also think the gift is well worth the reason why it got there, becoming a legacy, a story to be passed down and a family heirloom artistic ‘sculpture.’ Wonderful and so great you included the photo, it makes it so ‘real!’ Smiles, Robin

    • When I hold this wagon-in-wood, Robin, I picture my mom as a child, busily going from one activity to another, arms wide open to embrace whatever came next. Children have such short attention spans; I’m so very glad my grandfather saw the uniqueness of the “art” that formed and saved it!

  21. How wonderful! Such an amazing keepsake that conjures up all kinds of pictures of the girl your mother was.

    • You know, Andrea, it’s one of the few remaining objects from her childhood. The clothes were handed down or given away or made into quilts; the toys, especially dolls and buggies, were well loved but passed on to other children long before I was born, etc. This little wagon evokes so many images of my mother as a child, so it’s a treasure. I just wish she could remember it.

  22. What a wonderful story, Marylin. I can’t wait to hear if your mother recognizes the wagon, when you see her in August.

  23. I’ll let you know, Jill. Fingers crossed!

  24. I’m with you, Marylin – NOT a mistake. A gift from God and a legacy from your mom. Blessed, indeed.

    • It really is, Shel. And it’s one of those things I won’t paint a better color or get tired of. Each time I touch the little wagon, I get all kind of images of my mother as a child! It’s a gift that helps to put in perspective what the dementia has taken away.

  25. Nancy Parker Brummett

    What a precious keepsake, Marylin. Definitely one of a kind!

  26. Thanks, Nancy. One of a kind is right, though I’m tempted to put special little toys in the “v” of tree branches and see what happens!

  27. What a totally endearing story this is Marylin! I just love how you weave together your family memories with quotes to bring in humour and then leave us with your own poignant and thought-provoking legacy. I have this image of your mom as a young girl playing outside with her siblings and then finding this special, secret place in which to store her wagon, of your grandfather who must have seen it as a piece of art to be treasured when he found it and painted it and then..I go from that to the hilarious photo of the lama with your caption which had me laughing out loud! Dear Marylin, I do enjoy coming over here and reading your delightful posts and I’m so glad to catch you before I sign off from blogging today. I hope that you have a good couple of weeks ahead and I’ll see you soon my friend 🙂

    • You’re going to have a wonderful time, Sherri. And I have a feeling you’ll be filling notebooks with your writing. New thoughts and ideas appear when we get away from the keyboard, you know!
      Can’t wait to read your tales when you return!

  28. Terry Tyler

    It’s lovely! What a great thing to have 🙂

  29. Love the story of the wagon in the tree. I also loved Brandon Mull’s response to mistakes. (I enjoy his books.)

  30. juliabarrett

    Yikes! Major comments! I love this story. Yes, trees have a way of absorbing our mistakes- making them memories. I see it all the time in the ancient California oaks.
    What a gift your mother left!

    • I’ll be taking the wagon with me to Kansas this visit, Julia. Several have suggested I try again, let her hold it and trace the wagon wheels with her fingers, and see if she remembers it. I’ll tell her the story and hope some of it clicks. I’m tempted to try this myself, putting one of my grand-children’s toys in the “v” of a tree branch and waiting a few years. 😉

  31. What a beautiful story and legacy for generations to come, Marilyn.

    When we visited Central New York, my husband I hiked in a park – Beaver Lake Nature Center. We stopped at a tree that has some of its roots raised high above the ground. At one time, someone put a nativity scene in that gap under the tree. I often wonder who did this and who took it away.

    I love that you filled in the gaps of your Mom’s story and hope that she remembers this incident as well. 😉

  32. Marylin, I may have to write that tree wagon into one of my stories. I can imagine a character finding it after a hard and pain-filled day and its discovery teaching him/her of endurance, steadfastness, or protection. Your mother’s life never ceases to inspire me.

    • That would make a great story, Darla, especially with your gift for characterization.
      The wagon in the tree reminds me of the delightful elements of my mother’s life that I wouldn’t have searched for if it hadn’t been for her dementia. It’s a good reminder that when one source of memories fades, another is there for the searching…or something like that. You could say it much better, but I’m sure you get the idea. 😉

  33. Gwen Stephens

    What a great story, and not a mistake at all. It’s as if you’ve captured a moment in time.

  34. I agree with you Marylin. Mary Elizabeth was leaving a charming keepsake for her daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandchildren. The toy wagon left in the “v” of tree branches was a gift that Mary didn’t realize she was creating. I really hope that your mother recognizes the wagon, when you see her in August.

  35. I’m hoping there will be a response of some kind, Theresa.
    It also makes me wonder what things I’m leaving for my grandchildren without realizing it. I want it to be something unusual, special, that will make them smile when they find it.
    Any suggestions?

  36. How utterly lovely. So much life in that little wagon, and how wonderful that it was preserved by your grandfather. There are treasures everywhere, if only we look.

    • For me, that is the moral of the story, Diana! Now I look closely at things I might have overlooked before…and I also wonder what memories I’m leaving for others, whether I realize it or not.

  37. What a wonderful keepsake to have! I’m so glad that your grandfather recognized that fact when he found the toy in the tree. I can think of so many people who would have just cut the toy out and thrown it away. There are so few remaining items in the family from my grandparents’ time, and I would love to have something like this as a connection with them.

  38. While my grandmother left many treasures in the quilts and handwork she created, this is my first keepsake that my mother–as a child–created without realizing what it would become or how it would be treasured. There’s something so touching and spontaneous about the things children create, and this is one of my favorite keepsakes.

  39. Ah, that’s a lovely story, Marylin – and that keepsake is worth more than a gallery full of masterpieces. How truly wonderful.

    • I feel that way, Jenny. We have several very nice paintings and small sculptures, but this is much more important to me. It’s part of my mom’s childhood story, and now it’s mine to pass on to my daughter and grand-children so they’ll know her better.

  40. Beautiful story Marylin , That`s why many people learn from their mistake I`m one of them 🙂

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