Wednesday’s Word: Hideaways in the Other Reality

Me in the forest

Whenever there is a hole or other opening within an ancient tree trunk or stump, or when a huge crooked root beckons, I try to fit inside or under, compacting my smallish frame smaller so as not to get snared by  slivered wood or unknown bits. It’s best to avoid massive spider webs but unlikely that I’ll avoid their creators as I wedge myself in. After all, they thrive in Northwest forests, as well as scores of other bugs (very few mosquitoes, however) –and ubiquitous slimy slugs. I am on neutral terms with arachnids, though I’ve been bitten and at times not appreciated results. This happens least often when I am rambling about woodlands. I fit myself in with a peripheral awareness of other creatures and fill my nostrils with the powerful pungency of wood and loamy earth.

I crouch down, hands on thighs, and look about. It is semi-dark. Snug. The light above or beyond the tree and me is caramel-toned in fall and summer, a grey opalescent in winter, and green-yellow in spring. Birds seem livelier, brightly chirping and serenading as they flit above and around, or my ears hear better  from the center of a tree. At this size and from this angle, I feel less intrusive there. I may rest in the insects’ hollow and this gives me pause, that I am so much bigger than they. I rest on spongy earth where mushrooms dot the landscape, garter snakes slip by and bees swoop and squirrels freeze then skitter off with their chittering. My breath is still, heart is quiet. I can stay this way a long while: at rest though alert, awake to this world even while captivated by powers mysterious, immense even if not always working in my favor. A big shiny black beetle trundles past my feet. The forest air rests on my tongue–savory, sweet-sour. I feel moved by the abundant density of life. It is beautiful and warm here, in this tree, in this solitariness, under canopies of leaves and sky.

Until I can see two feet and a long knotty branch used as a walking stick. Marc, my spouse, has waited long enough. Am I going to get up and out of there? I rouse myself and half-crawl out, then unfold myself, brush off the crumbs of dirt and pieces of wood, the webby coating on a sleeve. He thinks I am slightly daft–this obsession I have for smaller spaces in the outdoors, or for climbing beneath or up onto a big root or branch. I even sometimes ask for photos. I can’t say just why–I just know it gives me pleasure to recall being in those lovely spots, to feel that much closer to nature’s ways.

But it all started when I was growing up, this interest in discovering a unique spot, making a nest of my own, holing up in smallish spaces.

In a house full of people–seven of us in a two story, three bedroom place with one bathroom plus a half-finished basement–being cramped for space was a way of life. I saw friends’ bigger houses (some of my friends even had their very own bedroom, not one they shared with one or two other sisters, swimming pools and so on) but ours was homier. In fact, it was cozy and attractive to me, filled with interesting objects as well as persons. (Not just family or an occasional neighbor but Dad’s music students or customers who needed him to appraise and sell or repair instruments and people from church and my parent’s bridge partners and good friends or visiting musicians or school teachers there for luncheons/dinners and siblings’ friends as well as mine–well, it got tight, alright.) The doorbell and phone were forever ringing. Music took up residence in the rooms and talk floated about heads and people moved around furniture or sat in it or pulled out a chair at the long dining table so it got crowded, too.

In winter, when I was indoors more, I escaped under our baby grand piano in the corner of the living room. There I could watch people come and go but also read a book, trace a picture, make lists of names for characters in my plays, hum a new tune I had learned, play with dolls, make tents and houses for them with scarves with the aid of books, listen to those who played piano and watch their feet work the pedals, the vibrations entering my bones as the piece reached a crescendo. I also listened in on more private conversations, a favorite activity. (Or took a nap until age six or seven.)

Less satisfactory was the area in front of a heating register; it was on the wall behind an armchair. This spot did meet dual needs–warming as well as half-hiding me. But it was easy to get in the way as it was by a door leading to stairs so there was foot traffic; I could also get squashed if someone moved the chair back.

The best resort was the outdoors. I’ve written before of the giant maple tree with our regular swing and a rudimentary trapeze; of its sturdy branches which acted as steps that carried me aloft, one sturdy stretch of leg at a time to the very top. Talk about a fine look-out. I could see way across the small tree nursery behind our bush-and-fir-lined back yard, past the Benfers’ huge vegetable and flower garden, over the rooftops of another two-story house, a small medical office and beyond to the pretty subdivision on Richard Court and Manor Drive. And that Michigan sky!–much greater than one might imagine and full on goings-on with chameleon clouds, moveable light and later, glints of a trillion tiny stars. The cars I spotted on Ashman Street swished by, oblivious.

There was a certain crook made of two branches that held my weight well so I wedged myself there. Despite a need to shift every few minutes, I was content. Undisturbed and nearly invisible. Surrounded by robins, a cardinal or blue jay, wrens and sparrows all came and went as they pleased. Freedom felt democratic there. I could just be, dream of anything, imagine myself anywhere–a tall ship was a favorite. My world was full to overflowing within the natural intimacy of a tree’s branches, as if I was made to fit. I just belonged there.

And also in the northeastern corner of the yard’s bushes and pines. I had a couple of weathered, handmade benches–one like a table, one a chair– made of 4×4 wood remnants from the garage. There were variously dolls, notebooks and novels, art supplies, a ukulele, tea sets, snack and lunch detritus, a weak magnifying glass, a miniature flashlight, thermos of tea or water, forbidden matches, a stained old toss pillow and a cast off sheet for a makeshift door or more “seating” for buddies. It could hold maybe three if they pressed into undergrowth. The hideaway was full of branches that had to be tied back to enlarge the space and to be kept from poking out eyes. With all the pine needles on the ground, the place was so heavy with their perfume that I could smell pine for days on my sweater and jacket. Damp pine and warm, layers of fresh or old pine. It would get shadowy and then darker long before the outside darkened. Quieter than anywhere else on the property. There was the advantage of also being able to slip out and hightail it right across Stark Nursery’s land if I didn’t want to stay put or was eluding siblings who came poking about. There I would pretend I rode horses or carried on epic battles or slipped into a netherworld. My hideout was my fort of safety when pursued by ghosts or intruders, those either imaginary or real.

I tried to make another private cubbyhole at the end of the front porch. Alas, it was too noisy with nearby streets, people who stomped up and down the steps with annoying regularity. Plus, there were red juniper berries there that my mother was worried I’d eat like a scavenging explorer. I did pick them; I never ate one, certain I’d die. I also would make a mess behind those ample bushes; that wasn’t going to happen in our front yard. But I still sometimes hid there to watch the world between branches, especially during winter when it became igloo-like with snows. (I’d also make snow caves alongside our street after the snowplow made towering drifts.)

Often I roamed the 24 acre wooded park, Barstow Woods, a couple of blocks from our house. The winding trails and creek offered plenty of nature to examine, a whole territory to explore or to play hide and seek in with my friends. I was as at home there as I was on my own city block; it was a safe place back then. And I learned much about trees and animals and plants each summer as a “day camper” with other kids and adult counselors.

The northern parts of Michigan were visited often, and there I was just as accustomed to running wild on dirt side roads and trails, playing in the light-dappled woods and finding my way back, moving according to sensory input. And dwelt in happiness all those places.

Since those days of fearless play I have lived in the country a few times though never long enough. But I have always been drawn to it, awed, enchanted and daunted by it. Sometimes as an adult, I can become afraid of sounds and shapes I can’t identify and unexpected events that occur no matter the time of day or weather, no matter if I am alone or not. (Like the unseen cougar I learned later was in the area but that I felt along the trails.) Generally, I am secure in my instincts and there are many spots that accommodate me. The open rolling fields of the Midwest and its northern woodlands; the dense, humid hothouse of the South; the tinder-dry, quirky vastness of the Southwest, the rainy wilderness, mountains and high desert of the Northwest: they have each called to me. And I have found my place even in the hardest life circumstances. There is always a hollow near a waterfall or a gaping hole in an aged, giant tree. A river bank that offers green bushes where I can kneel, watch the current carry leaves and twigs, ducks and stones.  And Pacific Ocean beaches with huge driftwood piles to sit on and within, and headlands with caves to settle into.

I live in the city but I am never far away from landscapes other than densely packed blocks. We have Forest Park. At over five thousand acres and stretching eight miles on hills above the Willamette River, it is one of our nation’s largest urban nature reserves. And other city parks and wildlife preserves are varied and well kept. A mere twenty-minute drive takes me to the Columbia River Gorge, a designated National Scenic Area where wildlife, waterfalls and rivers and rocky buttes flourish amid the Cascade Range, miraculous with beauty. When multiple wildfires ravaged that vast acreage last year I wept, sick at heart. This summer I will finally venture out into it once more.

Every one of us needs a place to find serenity, to be at ease apart from the world’s pressures, its craziness. And we are animal beings who need our comforts, spiritual beings who need deeper sustenance. For me, it is more often than not in the welcoming outdoors, within nature’s arms. But I am told that even in sleep I pull close the blanket and quilt, up over nose, to or even over shuttered eyes, making a little tent. Please don’t awaken me; I am a creature well nested and deeply at peace. Nurtured yet freed. I will emerge restored and bright eyed when good and ready.

Find your refuge

Crossing at Slaughter’s Runnel

 

Photo from Public Domain

“I cannot, I will not!”

She gapes at the churning water below then scurries back to her place by Dad.

I’m at the end of the family que but can feel Mom’s anxiety, even horror. Her toes are aligned with the edge of the one nearby bridge that connects our side of the river to the other. Slaughter’s Runnel is fast, deep, and it often swirls far below the banks. The reviews of this river are not uniformly great even though calling it a runnel (“just a word for stream of water, find that a bit odd”, dad interjects) makes it sound sweet, even tame. It’s not the best spot for fishing up here and you have to go a good mile to put in a canoe. But it’s beautiful, long, chilly and often clear. Dad says it must have been a pleasant trickle once. Now it’s good-sized, especially with snow run-off and rain.

But I feel prickles of impatience. When finally my parents bought the cabin, my first thought had been that we would hike daily, be outdoors all the time and just take off into the woods. And since we are by water, that meant that we could see it or hear it all the time. I want to hike alongside it, see where it takes me. I have a love of water; my dad says it’s an obsession. Dad and I have the outdoors in common. My mom, not so much.

If only she’d step out and walk behind Dad and be done with it. Our tribe of four–parents, little brother, myself– has attempted to cross three times so far. I came out by myself one early evening but Garret followed me so I had to convince him to go back to the cabin. He wouldn’t budge without me. He now operates under a delusion that the bridge is unsafe due to our mom’s carrying on. Dad has explained how and likely when it was built–he’s an engineer and such things come naturally to him–but no one believes him but me.

“Liz, I’ve got you–hang onto me. We’ll just take about six or eight steps and we’ll be there. This is a narrow spot. I’d never endanger you or the kids, you know that.”

“No.” Mom grabs the back of his belt but doesn’t step forward.

“I’ll even carry you, how’s that?”

“Of course not, not happening,” she mutters, releases his belt and turns back, stalking off to the our rustic but, she does admit, cozy place.

I don’t know why she’s afraid of heights or bridges or water. She won’t say exactly what it is. I don’t think it’s water, as she loves to go to the beach. She doesn’t act scared when we’re zipping up elevators or flying, like Christmas when we visit the grandparents. I’ve asked Dad about it but he refuses to say, tells me maybe she’ll explain it sometime, don’t worry about it.

Anyway, I’ve gone down to the bridge twice by myself. The first time I crossed over and went right back; the bridge seemed sound. This second time I manage to climb the rough trail a few minutes before I hear Garrett call me. I scramble back down and over the bridge. The last thing I need is for him to suddenly get brave and follow me or tell Mom I’ve gotten lost. His pinched face opens up in relief as I amble back over.

“Why you want to do that, Marly? Scare everybody! I wish I could go with you.”

His skinny arms are crossed over his chest. He can be a real pouter. Garret is seven; I’m fourteen. He’s way too young to understand the critical need for independence but old enough to want to have an adventure.

“Don’t tell or I’ll never take you anywhere again.”

He breaks the twig he’s twiddling and frowns. “You think you know everything. I can keep quiet.”

“You can’t keep anything to yourself, Rett Boy. One day you’ll figure out that the best stuff is often secret stuff.”

“Don’t call me Rett Boy. It sounds like Rat Boy!”

I laugh–that’s true, that’s why I say it–then shepherd him back to the cabin. Before we get there, Garrett turns and puts his palm up to stop me.

“I’ve been thinking. How come we got the cabin if Mom is afraid of things here?”

“She’s not afraid–well, the bridge or river, yeah–she’s just not used to so much nature.”

“Me, neither. Or you. We live in a city. But you like it a lot.”

He sees a dragonfly and tries to zigzag after it. I notice he didn’t include Dad but he grew up outdoors, helping his family farm, hunt and fish.

“I’m a nature nut, you know that, some people are and some fools aren’t. Mom is the second kind. Not a fool…of course.”

I hear the porch screen door squeak and know she was there. I make a side motion with my head at Garrett and we go in for dinner.

At nightfall I sit in a rickety Adirondack chair at the edge of our yard. Blackened silhouettes of trees stand in relief against a deep navy sky. The moon is beaming but I can see the Big and Little Dipper, locate the North star. The air is thick with damp earthy smells. The river chatters as usual, its music a complicated gurgle and rush of sounds. I try to imagine different rocks the water hits, the edges of its banks as water adds or subtracts bits of dirt and stone, the way it looks from each side different times of day and night. It has a whole complicated life. I think of the simple old bridge. Who built it? Dad has said it’s been there probably twenty years so maybe he should check it out more but we both know it’s a decent bridge. Six other families live on this stretch of road; we all use it from time to time.

It’s just Mom, just how it is, I guess.

Earlier in the day she was reading a magazine, the one with all the fancy houses and decor. She started to ask me something but as soon as I looked up she changed her mind.

“Never mind.”

“What, Mom?”

“Well… since you ask.” She closed the pages. “I just was wondering if there was anyone, you know, somebody you liked.”

I shook my head. “You mean, the boy thing, right?”

“You don’t talk about them much. Never, really.”

That’s true, I think, so why do you have to ask?

“Your girlfriends gossip away about different boys.”

“You listen in?” I wasn’t really angry because we’re careful what we say around our mothers; of course they listen, or try. “They do like a couple, true.” I shrug as this news changes weekly.

She looked at me intently, dark brown eyes often hard to interpret but the feeling is clear. She wanted to know something for certain. If I even think of boys. If I am always going to be disinterested in things she likes. Throwing parties. Shoe shopping. Trying on make up together. Even though it’s the twenty-first century she thinks I am not enough like a girl ought to be. It was hard for me to really like her because of this but I try to not judge her. I know she’s had a life that was laid out for her. “A good family”, as she called it. Meaning: a top-notch (sheltered) earlier education, then college that took her to Europe twice where she met my father. He was not so golden but he was brilliant and a great worker. So then: an excellent marriage. Mom was a high school global history teacher until she had me, then stayed home. She’s restless, I think. I would be.

Her palm flattened against the plaid sofa cushion beside her. I tensed up because next she likely would give it a little pat, try to bring me next to her for a chat about all I’d rather avoid.

I took a quick breath.”Maybe. I mean, I have good friends you haven’t met. It’s a big school.”

The lines around her mouth relaxed.

“Andy is pretty nice; we have general science together. We make a good team, figure things out well.”

But it’s not Andy; it’s his friend, Julian, that I think about after class ends.

“Oh? Do we know his parents?”

“No. Or his best friend’s parents. Julian.” I tried to not say his name aloud around here. It tendd to come out like it just did, with a little too much emphasis, quietly important.

“Julian.” Mom’s light eyebrows rose and fell. She got it. “He’s in sports or choir, too?”

“Julian? Track and field. Andy is in choir. He–Julian– likes to swim, too, so sometimes I see him at the pool.”

“Well, he’s athletic and smart, I gather?”

That’s all I’d tell her. Unless she told me something. She resumed reading her magazine, acting as if this is not the thrilling info she’d tell Dad as soon as she got him alone. I sat by her and she looked sideways, her sudden smile a sign of success.

“Mom. My turn. Why not the bridge crossing?”

She sucked in her lower lip, squashed it with her teeth then pursed them both. Her shoulders went up and back. I knew she was getting ready to argue before one was even in the making. That is how Mom can be sometimes.

Her voice was tight. “I don’t like bridges. Not on foot. And that one is not in the best shape, did you see the moss creeping in? Moss weakens things, I think. Slippery when wet, too. And the river runs fast there. I like it here, back from the water a little. It’s restful. The cabin was a good investment and a nice retreat for the family. But I’ll leave bridge crossings to you and Dad since you manage these things so well.”

The last sentence sounded like an accusation or complaint.

“You mean, we actually like the outdoors, getting dirty and taking that huge risk to cross the water?”

“Well, you take off with Dad a lot. Garrett and I can only play so many hands of Uno. Or his computer games. Which are dreary.”

“Okay, Mom, you can always drag him along and join in!”

I was more than irritated. She got something from me, something I wanted to stay private longer. But here we are in the woods at our wonderful new cabin. I’m happier and she lets down, too. So if I can take a chance and share, why not take her turn and reveal her secret? The one about the bridge? It seemed only fair.

“We do but it’d be nice to spend more time with you. You’re on the go all the time–always up and at ’em as if life is moving target. I’m trying to be understanding but I can’t keep up with you.”

I got up, the sofa releasing dust from years of use and also neglect. It faces the front cabin windows years of sunlight have faded the plaid.

“So the bridge is off-limits but you can interrogate me about boyfriends.” I started off then lookd back. “If you want to just hang out here, fade like the sofa, fine. Dad and I love nature and adventure, that’s all!”

“Marly, that’s not necessary!”

Dad entered the room with Garrett. He was holding up two trout, scales reflecting light. A sleek, smelly prize. I thoguth about trout dinner as I rushd out the cabin.

“Oh boy, Marly’s in trouble!” Garret called after me.

******

The next morning I take a run and end up at the bridge. I sit against a big white oak; its rich red leaves captivate me. Everywhere I look are prismatic colors of trees changing from summer to fall to winter. I want to cross over the bridge, make a beeline through the woods. Take a couple hours’ hike. But do not.

I just can’t worry anyone. I don’t want this gorgeous fall day to be influenced by yesterday’s fuss about boys and Mom’s middle age and the friction we try to avoid. But I can’t be the kind of daughter she wants most. I’m athletic and she has a delicate grace. I’m quiet where she is chatty. What matters to me is being out in the air, moving and observing, listening. I want to be a national park ranger or a botanist. She has suggested I’d make a great lawyer because she feels I have “equanimity, even as a youth, which is something.”

In, out: lungs fill with the brisk, pungent air, then compress. It’s mid-afternoon and it’s already cooling. Falling leaves twist and float in the barest breeze. I’m just about happy again and stand, shake my long hair out of its loose bun and stretch, then run in place. I feel like beating my chest like Tarzan’s Jane. My own Jane, that is.

“Marly, I want to tell you, but it’s not that easy.”

I turn to find Mom standing with her chic–to her–teal cape on and a hand held out to me.

“Okay.”

I take her hand–its dry and strong–and we walk to this modest but seemingly powerful bridge. Stop to survey its narrow length. She releases me and stares into the tumbling green musical depths of the river.

“I was seventeen. We’d gone camping, my boyfriend at that time and his family. It was this time of year but the end of October–I never forget that it was almost Halloween–and I’d brought my dog, Eddie, a little terrier, a gift from my parents at thirteen.” She inhales as if only now finding the air sweet as I do. “Randy and I were on a long walk. The others had started a fire and dinner preparations. It was on the verge of getting dusky, everything softer and quieter. It had rained hard the night before and all still looked and smelled rich, fresh. Our boots were getting muddy and Eddie needed a hosing down but we were having a lovely time. We came to the edge of camp and almost turned around when we saw a rickety swinging bridge.”

I turn toward her but she doesn’t see me. She’s peering into the woods.

“We wondered where the bridge led to. It was held up by rope, thick prickly rope that looked strong. Randy took my hand and we started across but I said, “‘No, wait! Eddie is coming!’ ‘It’s okay’, he said, ‘he has better balance than we do; he won’t come if he doesn’t think he should.’ But I scooped him up in my right arm and the three of us gingerly started across. I remember the bridge swaying a little but it was only about eleven or twelve feet across a deep ravine. The water was swifter than I’d realized. But it was a bright fall day, I was with Randy. I was so confident and happy. Then we paused in the middle, suddenly uncertain as a sudden shift was felt beneath our feet. Eddie started to bark like crazy and squirm. We backed up. I held onto Randy with my left hand, Eddie with my right. Randy was pulling, I lost balance then fell against the rope. And it started to give more as we saw the other side loosening its anchorage in the softened earth. It was coming apart. We swung as it started to fall.”

She faces me, dark wide eyes illuminated by flashing whites.

“Mom, it’s okay, stop.”

“And I was hanging on to Randy with one hand, Eddie in the other when Randy grabbed the slack rope and me. But Eddie was slipping. ‘Let go of him’ Randy called ‘I can’t hold you both!’ But it didn’t matter because Eddie was falling already. It was that deluge of rainwater, the  muddy river banks caving. They took Eddie, covering him. And I fall right behind him. Or did I let go of Randy? I wanted Eddie safe but he was not to be seen. There was all that cascading wetness, little waves of it and the muck and bundles of splintered wood from the bridge. A weird sucking sound as I was pulled into more mud…”

“Oh no, Mom!” I hold onto her shoulders. My face must be mirroring her fear because she smooths my bangs away from my forehead as if she has to calm me.

“The thing is, I was only waist deep in the mess, pushed about but not drowning. But Eddie was a very small dog!” She closes her eyes. “He was just a lovely little dog and could not swim through strong swirling waters, not that day, anyway. I should never have taken him.”

We lower ourselves to the ground. I feel half-sick, dizzy. What an awful thing it was. But she isn’t sniffling. Her eyes are rimmed with wetness but tears don’t flow. I put my arm around her and we lean against each other.

“I truly hate foot bridges in the woods.” She shakes her head.

“I get it, Mom. A terrible thing happened to you–all of you, really.”

“It was, dear. Randy and I never went forward. I blamed me, him, me in the end. I never got another dog. And I developed a phobia of footbridges.” She pulled her cape close. “But today after you asked me about it, I thought: how absurd is this? How can this be seen as such a trauma in my life? It’s embarrassing! I’m forty-four years old. I adored Eddie and was heartbroken. But I have not ever tried to walk over even one ordinary bridge. So daughter, let’s get it done.”

“What–now?”

She stands and I follow suit. We ready ourselves at the bridge where she indicates I start first. She does not hold on to me. Every step I take, I look back until she tells me to keep my eyes forward and don’t stop. I do not dawdle. As soon as we arrive she starts back, this time faster, with more sure steps. The light skims her ebony and greying hair. It brightens her teal fringed cape and when she lets go of the wooden railing and walks with hands held aloft, her gold bracelets gleaming, her knee-high chestnut leather boots glowing–well, she looks like some exotic bird-woman who has found her way home. And I see her –just for an instant, a brief glimpse into a private place that holds my heartfelt, dazzling, brave mother as a person separate from me. Then she is once more just my mom.

When we find the earth beneath us we whoop like a couple of wild women, our voices carrying all the way down the road. That’s what Rhett Boy and Dad say when they find us laughing and tossing leaves at each other along Slaughter’s Runnel.

 

We’re All Tourists

Photo from http://www.oddities.com
Photo from Patricia McNair via http://www.oddities.com

I knew him before all the furor started, when no one thought much of him and never guessed who he’d become. I’m talking about other people. There were things on my mind, like my cousin Arnie in jail and my mom tiptoeing around like she was a mouse. Dad had taken off my junior year and then we lost our bungalow. And then there was Ginny Marston’s smile which looked like it belonged to a movie star, which was good and not good.

But since we lived above the three car garage on Mrs. Tilby’s property, I knew Michael. Mrs. Tilby, his mother and a widow, tended to not talk to us except to ask if we’d please pick up the mail for her at the gate or would we mind getting cough drops when we were going to the store. Little things that she didn’t feel like dealing with or didn’t bother to ask Michael to do. It irked my mom. But she was alright. She rented to us when few others would have.

So I thought of Michael as belonging to the property and maybe his mother. Some called him a mama’s boy, an only child still at home. Kept to himself. He worked three days a week in the family’s law business, fraud investigation. At twenty-nine, he seemed old to me.

I got to know him by accident. I was roaming the field behind their yard, trying to flush out rabbits. Crouching low, inching along. Then I saw pant legs which would have shaken me except I had just trained my eye on one plump, four-legged creature.

“John, right?” he said.

“Shhh!” Then thought to look up.

I saw it was our landlord. A backpack was dropped at his feet. He had the sort of boots I admired, sturdy leather, lace-up ankle boots.

I stood up. “Joel,” I answered, half-offering a hand which he ignored. “I’m just scouting rabbits.” I pointed to a clump of bushes where I had last seen them, now surely gone. “Is that all good with you?”

He shrugged, then stuck out his broad, dry hand.”I’m Michael. I’m sure mother wouldn’t miss a few. Not fond of rabbit stew.”

“I don’t hunt and kill them!” The idea gave me a shiver. “Deer, okay, but not rabbit. I just like being outdoors, watching things.”

“I see. You ever get a deer?”

“Not yet. I only hunt with Arnie, my cousin, and he’s…gone awhile. You?”

“Once. With my dad. Years ago.”

We just stood there, me in my jeans and dirty tennis shoes and stained hoodie. Michael shorter than I thought, bulky in a kind of bush jacket. Those great boots. He looked like he was going on a picnic or birdwatching. I saw he had a camera in hand. Maybe I had interrupted his fancy, urban wildlife picture-taking. But it was his place.

“Should I leave?”

“It’s okay. You live with your mom in the apartment. How’s that working out?”

My turn to shrug but it was more like a shoulder stretch as I stifled a sudden yawn. I wanted to get back to the rabbits, then get home. “Not bad for a two bedroom. Bigger living room than we had before. But weird living above cars. And a Cadillac…truck.” I turned my head at a sound. “Look.”

Two greyish-tan rabbits scattered, hightailing it to better cover.

Michael hoisted his backpack. “Well, we used to rent it to tourists who came for the fishing and all. It’s better having just a family there. But we’re all tourists however we live as I see it.”

He shot me a wry grin. I thought about that a second. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or being deep.

“Yeah, maybe so…”

He gazed toward the horizon. “Well, the light isn’t as good as it was, so I’m headed back. Enjoy the property, don’t make a mess anywhere.”

I watched Michael lumber along, zigzagging through grasses and weeds. He paused and looked up, pointed his camera toward a branch. Maybe it was a certain bird he was after. He snapped a photo and left.

We got used to each other. I’d see him pass in the distance when I roamed the woods. Sometimes we waved at each other as he was coming in from work or elsewhere. I sat on the balcony off the living room if it didn’t rain, watched the road and a pretty birch wood. Finished homework. His silver BMW gleamed in the fading sunlight, then disappeared into its bunker beneath us. I could hear him walk up the winding stone pathway to their gigantic back porch. A faint thud as the back door closed. I liked that he went in back.

Mom often noted Micheal was going to be one rich bachelor when Mrs. Tilby passed. I half-wondered if she wished she’d had a daughter so she could somehow marry her off to him.

“I just think he’d be a nice husband–quiet and smart–and anyone can see they would be secure.”

“Not like us, you mean. Kinda poor. Well, he’s a little young for you, mom.” I was anxious to get over to see Ginny. “And you havent; signed the divorce papers.”

“Joel, you know better…! Anyway. Just wondering what he’s about. I see him with his mother or running errands, strolling the streets. He’s always snapping pictures of this and that.”

“He’s not that happy.”

I don’t know why I said it. But I knew it was true. I’d seen it on his face alot.

“And you know this because…? Special observations from your balcony perch? Some people say–”

“Mom, I’m going to Ginny’s. Call Caroline if you want to gossip.”

I wasn’t interested. But I thought he was probably really bored. How could anyone so obviously enjoy the outdoors and stand being stuck in an office? I was going to be a forest ranger, I hoped.

Their gigantic, sprawling house was at the edge of town. Michael’s grandfather had bought a lot of land to protect and enjoy. I got mad when Ginny said she was sorry we had to live over a garage. I loved the quietness. I felt lucky to have all that land I could walk. I felt even less sure of Ginny when I heard her telling a friend how we had to live above expensive cars and I had not once driven one of them. Yet, she added. There was a breathless edge to her voice that reminded me of Arnie’s. He’d gotten locked up because he liked other people’s cars way too much.

Michael and I sometimes crossed paths on the Tilby acreage. I had gotten to taking a book or my cheap binoculars. I liked to spy on the animals, look into undergrowth or close up to a nurse log. I saw Michael doing the same with high-powered ones–he let me look once–and he always had that camera in hand, too. We might talk or not and usually only a few words. He seemed to crave solitude like I did. I noticed he always wore those boots and jacket with lots of pockets, a uniform, I imagined, for his real life. I pondered his statement about being tourists on earth. It struck me as smart.

One Saturday we both ended up at Skinny Creek that wound through trees. I kept hoping it would run wider and deeper, flush with fish, but no luck.

“You like your job? I don’t think I could do that all day.”

He chuckled. It altered his wide, jowlly face, made it friendlier.”I like having work to do but not so much that kind.” He pointed at a yellow winged bird high above as it flapped away. “You like school?”

“No. But I can get through it. I have to be a forest ranger, definitely.”

“Ah. My grandfather lobbied for preservation of forests all over the state. My dad, less so. He liked three-piece suits a great deal and fine booze, and the rest.”

“Money.” I leaned over the creek bank with a finger and watched a turtle creep down a thick wet branch.

“Yes, indeed.” He squatted. I looked at him. His eyes were deep-set. They flicked to mine, held steady. “Money matters. But not so much as people think. Take me. I have some. But I love photography more than anything. And nature. But I’m expected to stay in the family business. She’s alone now. There are many expectations. So I take photographs as much as I can. And wait.”

“I have those, …expectations, I mean. But wait for what?”

I picked up the turtle and set it down on my knee. I figured he might mean until his mother died or until he got the nerve to leave. It felt a little too personal but at the same time, we were just tossing out thoughts. It seemed natural out there.

Michael sighed. As if he didn’t want to have to explain anything but would if he had to, because I had nicely asked.

I shifted and got steadier in the muck. “It’s okay. I have to wait to leave this fishbowl town and go find mountains. But could be worse.” I replaced the turtle on the stick and got up.

“You’re right, Joel. I meant wait until something bigger happens.”

Michel took some shots of the creek and turtle, leaves falling and another bird. We walked together a little, then he split off. On the way back I thought how if I had gotten an older brother, someone like Michael would have been okay.

Days, then a couple of weeks went by. I got more busy with school, football, spent time with Ginny less, then sometimes Val, a new girl in town who liked to hike.

Then it happened.

I was wasting time until meeting friends and wandered further than usual. There was an abandoned Ford truck in the middle of a field. I could see the cab. It was maybe nineteen seventy-something. It had been blue; now the paint was chipped and faded. The body was more rust and blemish than good clean metal. Tires were long gone. Windows windows rolled down or gone. Weeds grew high like a protective fence around it. A little lopsided, the bed of the truck had branches in it, leaves, dead wildflowers. I wondered how many others had been there. Some crushed beer cans lay on the torn plastic bench seat. They were from way before my time.

I climbed into the bed and jumped on it a few times, then piled up the branches in a corner. Grabbed an oil-stained rag, the lid of a can and a torn up t-shirt stiff as a board. Set them in the corner, too. I climbed atop the dented cab and threw out my arms to the sky. I felt good lately. My mom was perking up, getting her sense of humor back. My cousin was out of jail. Maybe we’d go hunting with his dad. And Val was getting interesting.

“Yes!” I shouted, my fists pumping into the open sky.

I jumped down again. Did a little dance on the metal bed, making a racket. Ordinarily I was very quiet out there but what the heck. I saw a few tiny flakes of snow. I felt a surge of adrenalin and danced a little more. Animals would figure it out or hide. After that I sat on the hood and dangled my feet. Greyness seeped into the sunlit sky and the blanket of clouds thickened. I’d smelled snow coming all day.

It fell. On my cheeks, on my eyelids, jacket. I climbed up to the cab and held out my hands, smelled deeply of the icy-silvery-wild-apple air. Soft white flakes fell faster, sailed and whipped around, a snow dance. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind until cold tunnelled its way into my jacket.

I slid off  and down as dusk fell, ran out of the field. Through the clumps of trees. I glimpsed Michael heading to his house in the distance but kept on, then burst into the warm apartment. My mom was pleased I fell onto the steaming chili with a mean appetite.

Two days later she tossed the slim newspaper in front of me. My phone was ringing but I didn’t answer.

“What?”

She pointed at the picture on the front page with a look of confusion and surprise. It said: “Joel’s Place”.

It was me, kicking up my heels in the back of a beat-up truck. I’m jumping about a foot off the bed, knees up and feet splayed, arms stretched up, head thrown back. Face half-covered by the hoodie I wore under my jacket. But you can tell it’s me. It’s my smile, my mug, alright. The November woods, the light snow and field looked beautiful. I had been there, after all. So, apparently, had Michael.

“Did you know he took this? Michael Tilby! It’s good, Joel, you look really good. His mother showed me and seemed baffled. Not upset, she thinks her son is talented. But still–”

“Wow. My gosh! I’ll explain later–have to call Val back.”

“Famous already, huh?”

That’s what Val said, and we laughed. We didn’t know what was coming.

Some kids thought it was weird. Arnie found it amazing I personally knew Michael. I thought it funny so much fuss was made of it. Still, the picture was special. It looked old-fashioned, black and white and sorta raw. The way he caught the angle of light, the different shadows. Almost like you could walk right into it, too. It was surprising Michael had gone unnoticed. But I knew he’d had lots of practice getting his best shots. He was likely there first. And waited.

I had felt happy, confident; there it was for everyone to see. Mom said I was going places. She said it was the best thing to happen in our family in a long time. It made me feel proud.

Michael, it turned out, had taken quite a few pictures of me screwing around on that broken down truck. So I gave him permission to publish more in a couple of magazines. Then he sold several. Eventually he got a fancy photography award for the series. And then another one for a shot of me standing on the cab, eyes shut in the snow, winter’s magic moodiness right there.

So he moved on. Success gave him the freedom he wanted. His mother is okay; we watch out for her. “I’m still just a tourist, Joel, you, too,” he says when he calls. He’s thanked me too much, offered to help me with college, which is scary–means I have to work harder. And I felt good when they were published, sure. But it was more than that. Michael welcomed me onto his grandfather’s land. Then he made it official with a picture, a title, my little nutty moment. His kindness, man–that’s what no one seems to get. That was more than enough for one year in my life.

 

My Childhood of Gardens

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia

What do we care to remember? Hold up like a canvass awash with color and movement, a moment memorialized in exquisite or grievous feeling, an encounter hidden for all time or shared like a feast with many? It might be the truth or it might not; time rewinds recollection and sometimes erodes it. What is the truth for any of us? We curate our own stories.

I am taken away by memories despite not being one who seeks nostalgia or carries the past like a back-breaking burden. I let my mind wander where it will. What I recall is what I choose to harbor, to examine and keep close to heart. Memories are intrinsic to the development of identity. They are the path we have walked and assist in laying out the one before us. We can move backwards to see where it all began.

Gardens. I have a gallery of gardens in my memory.

My life has always had something to do with the outdoors, all things that grow. My first childhood home on Trenton and Lamb was large, rambling and its yard held an abundance of fruit trees. My memories include breezeway gusts, songs sung to me as I was held close by a soft, one-handed woman who ironed our clothes. The wind in trees lulled; apple blossoms fluttered. The grand old trees dropped pears and apples into my mother’s apron. Off she went to peel and cook them, can and store their fruit in the pantry for our large family. I can smell the applesauce simmering., the strawberries poured into jam jars.

And I grew up with vegetable gardens nearby. In Missouri, my paternal grandparents’ tended a kitchen garden. To me it was a barely tamed jungle of hues and forms, the vegetables set within a deep, rolling yard. A worn white picket fence encircled the garden; a little gate not too big for me had to be unlatched to enter. I’d slowly make my way down rows of tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, strawberries and watermelon, between marigolds and pansies and a couple of hearty rose bushes. I tried to keep my dress clean but didn’t notice if it got soiled. Everything smelled good, happy, even better when I knelt down on hands and knees, put my face close to the vegetables and dirt. I dug my hands into the earth, found beetles and worms creeping across my palm. My grandmother would stick her head out the back screened door, paring knife in hand, and call me to shuck corn on the enclosed back porch with sisters and mother for dinner. I was reluctant to leave the soft, wriggling worms, the nodding flowers and bright, mouth-watering berries. It felt better than anything; contentment was captured in the very moment.

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The other garden was Mr. Benfer’s. He owned an entire plot of land on the north side of our house; he and his wife lived on the south side. I often wondered what my life would have been like if there had been another big house there. Instead, it was open land tended as though in the country. He and his wife grew things I didn’t even recognize, but there were rhubarb and corn and tomatoes among many other vegetables. They grew flowers that I longed to hold and bury my nose in but we were told often to not invade his garden. In fact, to avoid it at all costs. The Benfers were not fond of children. There were five of us. We often crossed their boundaries, whether playing basketball or Red Rover, using the archery sets, enjoying badminton or croquet.

There was a low wire barrier between his land and our yard. Since it was not more than a couple of feet high with no barbs on it, it was easy to get over and under. Which we managed fine if we didn’t want to simply step into the back of the plot which opened onto a tree nursery that was behind both the properties. But as the youngest and often on my own (since the others were five to thirteen years older), I watched these antics. I longed for sumptuous raspberries and tomatoes, yes, but for some time I was brave enough to only wander at the edges. I often was installed as a guard for my daring siblings.

Mr. Benfer was not a very generous, easy-going gentleman. Tall tall and balding, he had wire-rimmed glasses that bracketed squinting, watchful eyes. He emitted a quiet grunt when spoken to. I knew the story about Peter Rabbit very well. It seemed to me that Mr. McGregor and our neighbor had a few characteristics in common: they did not like others nosing about and they could threatening with a look. I knew better than to misbehave but eventually I also heard the call of adventure. I determined to be as clever as he was, even more so, as I had no intention of being discovered. It was mostly at dusk that I ventured inside the wire barricade. By then Mr. Benfer had gathered what he wanted and gone home. I was quick and small and could get in and out with a strawberry or two in under fifteen seconds. But many times I simply stood there and breathed deeply, or watched the twilight settle and gather about the neat rows of greenery.

I had also admired his burgeoning flowers from our side of the fencing. His irises were taller than any I had seen; his daffodils more lemony. Sunflowers towered in the back of the garden, making it a haven for birds. The roses were like an exotic species. Bursting with fragrance, their colors shone in the streaming light of day. Though delicate of petal, all those blooms seemed strong, proud. I talked to them sometimes, shy questions, such as how they liked the warm sunshine on their faces or if they felt sad when storms ripped them apart.

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How, I often, wondered, could someone who so cared about growing things be withholding, in such poor humor? I know he could see me lurking in the background, his hat pulled low and eyes searching. I greeted him in a friendly way when we passed on the sidewalk to let him know I meant no harm. He knew, I think, after all. He seemed more at ease as the years passed and occasionally his wife would ring our doorbell and offer a small gift from the garden, a pumpkin or stems of peonies. I so wanted to be part of it all, the planting and growing, the reaping. I would arrange their hearty flowers in a white ceramic vase, mix them with our humble bouquets picked from a side yard.

There was a third garden that inspired me, that of my mother’s best friend. But that is a different tale, to be shared in a Mother’s Day post.

I suppose every child is intimate with enchantment or wants to be. I watched butterflies skip into our yard and wondered after their travels. Saw the bees (which stung my bare feet and created admiration from a distance) carry riches from those forbidden flowers to ours. The turning of Michigan seasons was an ancient ritual carried out in detail in our yard and Mr. B’s. Life unfolded, grew and altered, died away easily. I lingered these places as often as possible. I learned by paying attention– about creation, patience and mystery, of the allurement that swept me up in a secret, gentle ecstasy. Such gifts shared by the earth seemed a virtuous thing, proof of God’s hand. And they welcomed me into sanctuary, helped heart and soul stay safe in the rockiest times.

How I miss those childhood gardens. None of my own yards have been so transformed. I imagine my eyes checking the flowers, my hands reaching for vegetables and fruits. Spreading the bounty on my table for one and all. But I can hold these gardens in my mind and call them up. What a difference they have made in my being and living. For a garden is synonymous with hope, a perfect place for faith to flourish.

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