Nina Rose Mitchell sat on the tailgate of the pickup truck, her legs dangling in her rubber boots, watching her tree house come to life.

“I hope my Dad’s watching over the tree house, and I hope he’s smiling right now and likes it,” she said.

Donna-Jo Mitchell and her daughter, Nina, stand below workers Ezra Berry, front, and Zachary Cyr, who were building a tree house in the Mitchells’ backyard in Waterville on Sunday, Aug. 19. Nina is holding a photograph of her father, Darrell, who planned the tree house with her before he passed away last year. Staff photo by David Leaming

The 8-year-old’s mother, Donna-Jo, smiled.

“I think Daddy is,” she said. “I think Daddy had a hand in this.”

Mother and daughter were watching as carpenter Ezra Berry measured timber and pounded nails 7 feet off the ground where he is building a tree house for Nina in the Mitchells’ backyard in Waterville.

It was a tree house Nina’s father, Darrell, had promised her, but he never got to build it before he died in September last year.

It had been a complete surprise, his being diagnosed with lung cancer eight months before in January 2017.

One minute he was OK and the next he was told he had only months to live.

The happy family life the Mitchells had known and loved was turned upside down. As he became sicker, they set up a hospital bed in the living room and that is where he spent his last weeks, hoarding precious time with his wife and children, this gregarious, well-loved man who was only 68.

To pass the time, Darrell and Nina, who was then a second-grader at Mount Merici School, talked about her future tree house and what it would look like.

“He sketched it out because he always doodled, and they would talk about the way it would look and what she wanted,” Donna-Jo said. “He had the foresight to keep her thinking about this tree house.”

He prepared his wife and children the best way he knew how, writing letters to them so they’d have something to hold on to when times got rough.

“Nina has two letters. He called her his ‘warrior princess’ and told her, ‘Mummy’s going to take care of you and you’re going to take care of Mummy,'” Donna-Jo said.

Nina, an inquisitive, red-haired girl who loves to read, did not get to share the love of a tree house with her father after he passed away quietly early one morning, but she never forgot his promise. After a time, she started asking her mother about it.

“I was trying to deal with a whole new world,” Donna-Jo recalled. “One day I said, ‘Let’s go to Hammond Lumber.’ We went to Hammond Lumber in Belgrade one Saturday morning in June and Mr. Pete — Pete Parlin — was behind the counter, and Nina sat down on one of their stools.”

Parlin and Nina began to discuss her desire for a tree house and, like the literal child she is, Nina was right up front.

“She said, ‘My Daddy was drawing a tree house and died,'” Donna-Jo recalled. “Mr. Pete was very kind and asked Nina what she wanted in a tree house.”

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to all, another person was listening to the conversation and politely interrupted.

It was Berry, owner of P&B Remodeling LLC, of White Rock, a part of the town of Gorham, who was buying supplies for a house he is building in Rome.

“He overheard Nina’s story and said, ‘I will be honored to build her a tree house,'” Donna-Jo recalled.

Fast-forward a few days, when Berry and Parlin drove to the Mitchell house, looked over the backyard trees and began to plan the tree house, for which Nina wanted bookshelves to hold her books and cubbies for her pencils and paper.

Donna-Jo asked what it would cost to build it.

“Mr. Pete looked at me and said, ‘Not to worry,'” she recalled. “Ezra said, ‘We want to build this for Nina.'”

And that’s how the tree house project came to be. Donna-Jo, wanting to do at least something to show her gratitude, provided three meals a day for Berry and his workers for seven days, while Nina played in the backyard with her new-found friend, Berry’s 6-year-old daughter, Camilla.

On a recent Saturday, as rain threatened to interfere with the work but never did, Berry worked away quietly in the 8-by-8-foot tree house with a porch, perched high between the black cherry, ash and white pine trees.

“When I was a kid, I did build a tree house,” he said, when asked why he decided to build one for Nina. “I just figured it would be something nice to do for a girl who lost her dad. I think she’s a sweetheart. She’s a very sweet little girl.”

The backyard activity has brought joy to the Mitchell home, which has felt its share of ups and downs in the past year. Donna-Jo and her older daughter, Nikki Libby, her rock, talked about their grief earlier, while sitting at the kitchen table.

With so much sadness, having Berry and his crew around has been a breath of fresh air, they agreed. Donna-Jo said words cannot describe her gratitude for the act of kindness to Nina.

“In a world that is filled with turmoil, it’s just so wonderful to see the kindness of others,” she said. “There’s so much divisiveness in the world. You don’t see this anymore. It gives you more faith in humanity.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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